An expansive show of print works in its broadest sense, encompassing photography, sculpture and installation, :Xenotopia is a nod to a phrase coined by British travel writer Robert Mcfarlane to describe the uncanny within the landscape. :Xenotopia seems apt given the significance of the gallery, which is in the civic centre at the heart of ‘Phase 1 new town’, the master plan drawn up by architect Sir Frederick Gibberd, after whom the gallery is named. I like the idea that new towns are made with an idealised image in mind which they never quite live up to. There was, of course, a functional requirement for connected micro-cities like Harlow to be designed with an overall plan, but there is, perhaps, always an element of fantasy involved in such schemes.
Curated by artist Louise Clarke, :Xenotopia consists of 14 internationally prominent artists, and has breathed new life into the space at the Gibberd Gallery, opening up what feels like quite an institutional setting to create a fun and informative dialogue between past and present ideas, collections and interests. Partition walls have been moved, and the exhibition takes up most of the gallery space, with the permanent collection running around the sides. A thoughtfully configured research area connects the permanent collection and the exhibition, consisting of related texts and artists’ books.
The first work that got my attention was by Amba Sayal-Bennett; she has two pieces in the show, Thane Calvino in Ramsgate Blue, a floor-based sculpture consisting of pieces of foam that look like they have come from a packing crate, a giant strip of folded copper in a roll of linoleum and some folded-up digital plans, all connected with another piece of floor lino, cut out and placed to resemble a quasi-architectural prototype. There is a pleasing relationship with both the domestic and the grandiose ideas of art history and architectural planning, and while Sayal-Bennett is obviously an excellent configurer of modern matter, I feel like I have seen this kind of work before. Her second, and more successful, piece consists of an overhead projection, utilising a drawing completed in her studio that has then been projected on the wall in two parts, both marked with a frame of gaffer tape. This is equally pleasing and much more engaging; there is a good relationship between the proposed space and the real space, the domestic and the industrial.
Noemie Goudal’s [above] work is the next I see, and is worth a proper look. She has one large print called In Search of the First Line II. On the surface, it is the most photographic work in the show; there is an apparent manipulation but at first it isn’t obvious if it is digitally enhanced or if it’s ‘real’. It is ‘real’, which makes it feel better, for some reason. Goudal goes to great lengths to create her images, traveling to remote places and creating huge but achingly subtle and precise interventions. What looks like a Gothic palace or church is printed on a large backdrop made up of a grid of smaller printouts, installed in an underground car park. Questioning the cultural significance of the spaces that we take for granted, she has created a feeling of cohesion in the image, historically and visually. There are other pieces I enjoyed in the exhibition that need less description, namely, Rachel Clewlow’s analytical map, meticulously documenting her walks; Jenny Wiener’s forensic investigative spreadsheet of The Emerald City, from The Wizard of Oz, and the collage work of Katherine Jones.
The most successful component of the exhibition was the decision to curate the subject matter around print-based works, as printmaking has always been engaged in the narrative of making worlds. Its younger brother photography is still otherwise engaged in the act of representing objects (think Google Street View). :Xenotopia is a thoughtful collection of fascinating and sometimes disturbing proposals, and like the exhibition, breaths new life into historical subjects. I am reminded, however, of the harsh reality that proposals can sometimes offer when made real. Leaving the gallery and disappearing into the strangely bleak urban world of Sir Frederick Gibberd, I realise I can’t remember where I left my car in his multi-storey car park. I can picture where it is, but I just can’t see it…
Editor: Relief Press