Exhibition Review #1 | Soil Culture: Deep Roots at Plymouth University Peninsula Arts | Worth going to?: Yes

Until 19th March, the Peninsula Arts Gallery (bottom floor of Roland Levinsky Building) is host to the exhibition Soil Culture: Deep Roots. Obviously, I’m not going to talk about it too much because I recommend you should go “see” it for yourself- especially if you are a student as it’s free (more details on the event here). Usually I wouldn’t comment on art or things like this- I am not an artist, nor have I ever studied the arts- but this exhibition had a few pieces I felt inspired by and I felt compelled to comment on why those that did not, did not.

Firstly, I am not a fan of those pieces which seem to try and blur the line between art and science. Not that I think that all these pieces are wastes of time and I certainly believe that both of these things can inspire each other. For example, there was a piece I saw at a recent exhibition opening (which was the first curation of a friend of mine) of a 3D printed metal sculpture, which was scanned and reproduced by the same 3D scanner and printer so that the latest production was blemished and deformed by all of the shines and reflections of the last scan from which it was made. This spoke to me of the Kantian doubt about our sense organs. How can we be sure that our mental representations of reality (the final copy of the sculpture) are not being distorted by our imperfect sense organs (3D scanner); can we rationally determine what these imperfections are and thus decrypt what the original reality (original sculpture) is; is it enough to have us all take lots of copies and engage in dialogue to determine what that reality was; is there any original copy at all?

I like art when it gives me a platform off which I can leap into deep thought and draw upon everything I’ve experienced before, sometimes even connecting dots which I may not completely believe are there, but may be an analogous teaching of something else. The kinds of art I am not so fond of are somewhat exemplified by the first piece I noticed as you enter the new exhibit Soil Culture: Deep Roots. A map of Britain water coloured with a key indicating how the various colour shadings represented something about the soil there according to some historical science. I found the image striking I suppose, but no more than one would find any splash of brilliant bright colours on a canvas, in such a familiar shape and so much larger than one is used to it appearing. I thought it was a pretty impressive paint-by-numbers.

David Nash’s “sod swap” was a fairly interesting piece that I didn’t think much of because it was so close to something with revolutionary intent, but lacked it. It consisted mainly, as I saw it, of two drawings made using the materials of 2 gardens from different times and places (I cannot recall but they didn’t seem significant for the piece). I would have liked to see this piece re-done using and comparing soils according to some sort of class indicator, like median income for the area. I’m not sure what kind of results this kind of experiment would show and they would obviously be limited to being anecdotal evidence of something.

The exhibition of Paulo Barrile’s work was much more inspiring to me. At this exhibit there were photos from Barrile’s “Message Earth [Messagio Terra]” project. This was a project of resistance and refusal, against the dominance of industrial capitalism and the destruction of nature that came with it. In the limited time which I have spent looking at Barrile’s work (learning about the “club of people who defecate in the open” was quite amusing) I find it difficult to discern his political motivations concerning revolution or reform, but he clearly wanted to contribute to some revolution of the visual arts and how we think about the planet.

Much less exciting yet framed in some sort of radical critique of society, was the series “soil-erg” by Clair Pentecost. While her work, even the supplemental writing I found online, is on the surface a harsh polemic against the destruction of nature due to its lack of marketable value, its own admission and usage of the language of capitalism makes it ultimately counter-revolutionary to its own stated cause. Her works form an alternative currency of sorts, the main pieces being the massive, ugly ingots of dirt, that have a double-meaning: they point out how nature is not given the value it should under capitalism, moreover, money and the things it can buy are ephemeral- doomed to entropic annihilation. We cannot begin to break with capitalism and ideas about “free markets” unless we begin to show ways in which we can overcome them. By imagining an alternative currency, yet still a currency that works in paper money and money ingots, Pentecost uses the market’s own logic and image in order to critique the status quo in a way that could only lead to “green” reforms rather than a complete system overhaul- but this might simply be her aim and she may still be deluded into thinking that we can have a “[more environmentally friendly] capitalism” ([insert any positive sounding improvement]).

Pentecost’s work, like others in the gallery, cannot be fully emancipatory, which means revolutionary, unless finding radical breaks with current status quo in all its forms, including the language we use and even the way we put our art into the world. I am not a fan of modern art, with abstractions taking away, what might be meaningless but is nevertheless interesting, finer qualities and reduced to homogenous discourses with little blips, extremities and even “extraneous” errors appearing as exceptions to the rule, thus proving it. The ordering and organising, methodical and almost obsessive placement and categorising of all the exhibition pieces, especially ones that are literally squares with even numbers of rows and columns containing mostly similar circles that represent something, are manifestations of the totalitarian tendencies of modernity and the illiberality of liberalism.

I thought the exhibition was worth going to.

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