Heather Phillipson’s TRUE TO SIZE is one of the Arts Council Collection’s 70th anniversary commissions. It is the mid-point of a busy year for the award-winning poet and artist who has had solo exhibitions this year at the Schirn in Frankfurt, Whitechapel Gallery, Frieze Projects in New York and the 32nd Sao Paolo Biennale.
Phillipson’s work is hard to categorise: she uses a range of mediums including video, sculpture and sound, creating a multi-layered sensory experience – there is no one meaning to her work, but several simultaneously. Entering TRUE TO SIZE, you are bombarded with colour, sound and visual effects. The exhibition is dotted around Plymouth Arts Centre, in seven installations. Each installation can be read as self-contained, but when experienced one after the other, it becomes clear that they plug into an overarching narrative.
Each installation in TRUE TO SIZE is dominated by an oversized, human scale, teddy bear, in a scenario composed of cardboard cut-out images and vibrant rainbow motifs, with video monitors attached to the teddy bears’ faces. Each short video combines a monologue with surreal and colourful collages of emoji imagery, subverting our notions of playfulness and innocence. Phillipson’s monologues explore aspects of contemporary life: ecology and climate change; self-mutilation and fitness / dieting – the body beautiful. Each aspect represents a crisis for the human body. The impact is then explored by layering sound, image and sculpture – with each installation bleeding into its neighbour. You catch fragments of a sentence, an image on a screen, but it is all fleeting. This is deliberate – nothing is allowed to settle, but instead meanings pile into each other. It is initially confusing and disorientating, but as the images and sounds begin to merge, they create a space where all possibilities are equally valid.
TRUE TO SIZE starts with ambiguity – the title refers to a retail term, where an item of clothing purports to be a ‘true fit’ – an actual size 10, for example. But an item of clothing described as running ‘true to size’ is only ever an approximation, as anyone who’s ever shopped online will testify.
The installations are equally ambiguous, inverting the childlike innocence of teddy bears and fairytale castles to discuss crises of contemporary life. The imagery is unexpected, with the mingling of sound and visual media making it hard to distinguish much beyond individual words. Phillipson’s narration utilises her skills as a poet. In her poetry, Phillipson favours long, meandering titles such as ‘German Phrenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London’ – the non-sequiturs in her poetry seep through her artwork as well. TRUE TO SIZE works at its best when viewed as a whole – standing among the installations, sound and visuals to coalescing, allows you to see (and hear) that bigger picture.
Phillipson’s work also ruminates on the augmentation of the body – the impact of our daily use of technologies such as phones, tablets and computers. As they’re being used so prolifically, she sees them almost an extension of the human form. Speaking to Broadly Vice earlier this year, Phillipson sees the addition of technology as similar to “prostheses…that’s how I feel about having a computer at the end of my arm – that it’s another limb, another brain, eyes, fingers…and it changes how my body behaves – swiping, tapping , clicking.”
The augmentation of the body may seem like a modern concern, but the work of Hieronymus Bosch (another artist having a good year), deals exclusively in dream-like, surrealist imagery not dissimilar in its approach. Phillipson then takes the debate into the 21st century by employing technology in order to convey a nervous system on the verge of collapse – the chattering voices, the frenetic visuals – they come together to create an overwhelming sensation. It also explores how technology – and the human body – digests and leaks information. Some data becomes firmly embedded; other information gets jettisoned. The body is in a constant state of transition – developing, shrinking, and decaying – and ultimately, despite these augmentations, we can’t outrun our biology.
Consumption – in all its connotations – is one of Phillipson’s recurring themes. Consumption as appetite – for food, desire, power – is particularly present in the ‘Afterlife’ installation which is the exhibition’s introduction and conclusion. Complete with fairy tale castles and turrets, this installation (my personal favourite) has a floating skull on top of a chessboard. The skull, stretched and pulled out of focus, is a direct reference to Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. Painted in 1533, the skull is not just an allusion to the fleeting nature of youth (with its two ambassadors taking centre stage, at the height of their physical and mental powers). It also refers to the power struggle between Henry VIII’s court and the European powers. Staying on top was very much a game of chess for the Tudors, not least for Henry himself: the power we have — over others, over ourselves — is transient. It’s a simple idea, but Phillipson juxtaposes this theme with her bold emoji imagery that in itself creates further meanings, a multiplicity. Along with Holbein and Bosch, she understands that it is contradictions, not certainties, which enable us to understand the world around us.
TRUE TO SIZE won’t be to everyone’s taste (and to be fair, it’s not intended to be), but is a brilliant summary of what’s happening in contemporary art, and why British artists are at the heart of that movement. The best art has always challenged and provoked its audience, and TRUE TO SIZE continues that tradition. The exhibition coincides with two very different articulations of what it means to live and work in the UK, opening the week after Tate Modern’s new building and on the eve of the EU referendum. In times of uncertainty, it is appropriate to return to themes familiar, but what also seems to be happening instead is that audiences are choosing art that reaches out, rather than looking inward, in an attempt to explain not only our environment, but our place in it. It’s art that makes us a little uncomfortable, but let’s face it, psychically, we’re there already. While Holbein’s portraits of political struggle and Bosch’s nightmarish visions will always have something to say to us, our trajectory at the moment is so skewed, only a living artist can really get to grips with how to articulate it. TRUE TO SIZE doesn’t offer an easy answer, but in the process of deliberation, the artist strikes at an empathy that pierces the chaos. A successful life is only ever an approximation – the messiness, the awkwardness – that’s what connects us all.
Helen Tope @Scholar1977
Images: TRUE TO SIZE, Heather Phillipson, 2016. Arts Council Collection. Photos: Steve Tanner.