The text was published in Mousse magazine in Summer 2017. It was written in response to Stuart Middleton’s exhibition 'Beat' at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.
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I’m beat. To beat. If the former phrase suggests exhaustion, the later articulates something more aggressive. Defeat and defiance. Depending on the context, one can expect a punch in the face or a medal. Beat is a common homonym, and the word can mean different things in multiple contexts. Stuart Middleton’s solo exhibition at ICA, Beat, encompasses a stop motion animation in the upper gallery, a short text written by the artist and an empty lower gallery. More specifically, Middleton has removed all the accumulated architectural detail. Stud walls, lighting tracks, bannisters; they’re all gone. Left unpainted, some visitors might be excused for thinking that the galleries were mid-install.
The grand Regency exterior of Carlton House Terrace is countered by the starkness of the newly opened gallery space. The bare wooden floor recalls the building’s original function as stables for the royal horses (Buckingham Palace is just up the road). The effect is more Hackney warehouse than the glitziness of neighbouring commercial galleries such as Marian Goodman and Hauser & Wirth et al. Of course, the bare walls of commandeered industrial buildings are not a completely anomalous sight in London. Boho-chic has become the default aesthetic of expensive bars and upmarket clothes shops. Most cities are now populated with artisanal cafes where punters can drink £3 lattes alongside faux-brick walls and peeling paint. We can see Middleton’s empty gallery as a visual homonym: its meaning depends entirely on the context you bring to it.
Many artists have physically intervened in, closed and emptied gallery spaces and the legibility of Middleton’s gesture pivots on visitor’s previous knowledge of the ICA building (disclaimer: I used to work there, leaving in 2012). Alongside the architectural deconstruction, Middleton has knocked down the partition wall that separated the corridor and gallery, placing an elevated timber floor that covers the entire space. The listed building has often been an obstinate host for the institution and the effect of the newly opened gallery is startling. Rather than descending into the lower exhibition space, visitors are now greeted with an elevated floor that makes the whole place feel more stage-like.
The gesture recalls Michael Asher who famously removed the walls between the exhibition space and offices of Claire Copley Gallery in 1974. Without objects in the space, the institution becomes both sculpture and subject, and Asher reveals the previously hidden mechanisms of gallery life to its public. If Asher’s move foregrounded transparency, Middleton suggests something more nebulous. Exposed brick walls, Mumford & Sons, tattoos, beards and jam jar cocktails have all become ubiquitous signifiers of authenticity in an era of austerity. Middleton’s quotation of Asher’s asceticism suggests that something historically antagonistic can become, in time, scenery for over-priced cafes. Authenticity is consumed alongside expensive lattes while the rhetoric of transparency is spouted by tax-avoiding corporations.
The stop-motion animation 2, 2017, projected in the upper gallery, presents a skinny dog writhing around in the corner of an empty room. Agitated and bored, the undernourished canine paces around, sniffing and barking intermittently. The shrill sound echoes around the empty gallery. A bark without a bite, the dog is in looped purgatory. We may try and socialise dogs, yet they continue to misbehave, shitting where they shouldn’t and barking at the postman. The dog seems like a cypher for the artist’s broader interests, oscillating between a performed exhaustion and aggression. The animation is laboriously crafted, and, as throughout Middleton’s practice, mechanised and repetitious labour manifests itself in truncated form.
A short text, provided as a handout on entering the gallery takes the form of a resignation letter written by a young motor way service station attendant. We’re not quite sure whether the story is partially biographical or purely fictional, but the letter’s indignant tone pinpoints the micro-hierarchies of dead-end jobs so acutely that one feels Middleton is writing from some experience. I’m reminded of a summer job I had as a student, working in a dairy factory. My sole responsibility was to take the milk off a conveyer belt and wheel it into the refrigerated room next door ready to be collected. It was a loud and cold environment, and you couldn’t go home until all the milk had been processed. During our 12 hour shifts colleagues would often sneak off to the toilet for half-hour fag breaks. I often thought of these crafty disappearance acts as a kind of low-level strike action. Hardly placards and protests, yet an incredibly efficient form of non-production that was tacitly ignored by senior management. Like an irritable dog, human bodies have a habit of misbehaving. My knackered co-workers were expressing, in their own small way, defiance against a system that aggressively mechanised their bodies. I wonder how many of them daydreamed about handing in their own resignation letter.
Alongside Asher, Middleton’s exhibition recalls the work of Maria Eichhorn. In projects such as Money at the Kunsthalle Bern, 2000, Eichhorn commandeered her exhibition budget at the Kunsthalle to renovate the dated building, presenting her exhibition as an empty, yet newly restored, gallery. For 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours, 2016, the artist closed Chisenhale for the duration of her solo exhibition and gave the salaried staff paid holiday. Both Eichhorn and Middleton offer differing responses to the notion of fatigue that is manifested via the infrastructural and physical material of the institution. While Eichhorn’s projects are often immaterial and dispersed, Middleton amplifies their labour, turning his focus inwards towards objects, architecture, and images.
Beat marks the last project by outgoing curator Matt Williams and coincides with the new directorship of Stefan Kalmár. For an institution with such an important history, the ICA has often felt like an incredibly contested space. In London, everybody seems to have an opinion on how the institution should work and what public it should serve. Beat is a literal and metaphorical clearing of the decks. The institution often feels submerged under the weight of its own history, caught in a double bind between the need to move forward and look back. Middleton’s exhibition offers a form of erasure, an architectural palimpsest, and it will be intriguing to see how the new regime start to build into the space and onto the gallery’s history.