08.12.16 to 12.02.17

If life can be expressed in a series of Venn diagrams, we’re particularly fond of the space where art house and art gallery overlap. It’s a space occupied by Serpentine Gallery’s first ever UK solo show by New York artist Lucy Raven. They’ve even gone to great pains to transform the gallery into a place more suited to moving images. But like the 2014 sci-fi film of the exhibition’s title, high-end production doesn’t always result in high-end returns. So what have we got?

CASTERS (2016), mixed media

Stepping into darkness, two roaming searchlights welcome you into the school hall – sorry, art gallery – rather like rented gobos on prom night. Programme notes make reference to Hollywood, but the overly familiar technology offers only fleeting distraction as we adjust to the dark – and this is a very dark exhibition (we don’t mean in the manner of the modern superhero – you really do need to watch where you put your feet).

SHAPE NOTES (2016), photographic animation, 4min

Sharing the atrium with CASTERS is Raven’s most recent work on show: a team of percussionists play Earle Brown’s CHEF D’ORCHESTRE conducted by – and occasionally striking – an Alexander Calder mobile. Described as a “photographic animation”, SHAPE NOTES is made up of thousands of separately rather than continuously exposed images, edited together in rhythm to the music. Circling around the screen, it’s an intriguing archival document that evokes Brown and Calder’s significant elemental charm.

On the other side of the atrium hangs a collection of artworks – a tea towel (?), photographs, a ceramic face – from artists chosen by Raven to accompany the exhibition. Their meaning is rather lost here. We weren’t the only ones not to linger…

RP31 (2012), 35mm film installation, 4.48min, looped

Moving further into the gloom, LUCY RAVEN: EDGE OF TOMORROW really comes alive. RP31 starts as an assault on the senses – a perpetual film loop of rapidly edited test cards is beamed onto a wall accompanied by the incessant clatter of the unshielded projector. Assault quickly turns to seduction as pattern becomes clear, each intricate test card given a wondrous moment to shine, as if paused, before the images rush back over each other again. Both a beautiful sound and light show and a fascinating elevation of rarely-seen screen technology, RP31 is like watching cinematic lace being milled: industrial might casting endless etherial beauty.

RP31 (2012), Lucy Raven, Serpentine Gallery, London.

Onwards, we enter Serpentine’s temporary cinema. Galleries frequently get this wrong. More than merely raked seating and moving pictures, cinemas have soul and social convention that, together, create communion. Whilst better cushions would have helped (!), the problems of this (as Serpentine has it) “most complex intervention into the gallery space” adversely affect Raven’s films. Torchlight strobes the screen as gallery assistants help the audience navigate the dark. The majority settle briefly to assess what’s going on before leaving, prompting more torchlight, navigation and noisy distraction. The middle classes enjoying art at their leisure create more havoc than at the average multiplex.

CHINA TOWN (2009), photographic animation, 51.30min

First up is CHINA TOWN, another film made from thousands of still photographs stitched together to create an aggressive time-lapse. Following the movement of copper ore from the roar of the mine to the alchemy of the inferno, Raven’s film travels continents and cultures, bringing globalisation into view. Some of the images are startling, from the super-sized mining machinery (seemingly designed for another, larger operating species) to the industrial mega-complexes of China. There’s much to admire. As artwork, the march of disjointed images forces you to see anew. As documentary, the migration of materials is shown to be reshaping the modern world. Fascinating.

CURTAINS (2014), anaglyph video installation, 50min, looped

Next on is CURTAINS, the reason for the boxes of old-school 3D specs. Looping every 50 minutes, CURTAINS shows a series of 3D photographs of visual effects technicians labouring in outsourced production houses across the globe. The 3D images have been split into blue and red anaglyph elements, each of which slides glacially into view from opposite sides of the screen, finally/fleetingly overlapping to create the anticipated sense of depth. It looks us a while to work out what was happening – repeatedly taking the 3D specs off as if to ask “are these things working?”- until the rewards became clear and addictive. We had to see each image – and its resultant depth charge – through, no matter how uncomfortable the seating.

I FELT AS IF I HAD ACTUALLY BEEN TO CHINA (2007), video, 2.29min

We didn’t get a chance to see this one having sat too long enthralled by RP31.

THE DECCAN TRAP (2015), video, 4.19min

In the last room is video of collaged still images contrasting outsourced special effect work – technicians translating 2D to 3D images – and ancient archaeology. It’s another piece that explores Raven’s twin themes of image production/manipulation and globalisation but feels – somewhat peculiarly – like the local orientation slideshows on a cruise ship might.

We ended by going back to RP31 and CURTAINS for more of what Raven does incredibly well: play with how moving images are made to absorb and abstract our sense of time. Tumbling out into a night as dark as the gallery, we wondered where that time had gone.

LUCY RAVEN: EDGE OF TOMORROW (Serpentine Galleries & Koenig Books, 2016)
We left clutching a copy of the exhibition catalogue. We’ll review it here soon.

Featured image: CURTAINS (2014), Lucy Raven.