Challenging visual perception is clearly a recurrent theme in Runa Islam's new exhibition at White Cube Hoxton Square. Known for her refined use of film, Islam uses old-fashioned projection machinery and cinematic illusions in order to abstract the idea of 'viewing' within the exhibitionary space.
On entering the first gallery, the drone from a huge and seemingly ancient projector fills the room. Almost sculptural in quality, its abrasive sound and overbearing presence is juxtaposed against the serene and mute 16mm film Meroë which it is projecting. The film utilises early cinematographic double exposures to produce an eerie and unfocused image of light passing through glass. This exposure, coupled with the intangible layers of light refraction, invites the viewer to physically squint and labour in an attempt to produce one true and definite image.
The second piece, entitled Pièce Unique, features a smaller scale projection of an ancient Greek bust, cutting from a number of different angles and positions to create a fractured and incomplete image of this archaic form of artistry. Once again our own vision is questioned, as our eye jumps from one erratic image to another, subverting the usual static or slow-moving rotation expected from presenting such a traditional object.
A surprising addition to these two pieces is the artist's intervention in the White Cube space itself. Bastard Amber is comprised of an installed shutter, in which it seems that part of the gallery wall has been removed in place of an industrial exit. As the shutter remains half closed, it is possible to see the disembodied lower legs of passers by and the gutters of a damp Shoreditch street. Such an exposure not only supplies a dazzling light source to the otherwise low-lit gallery, but works as a brilliant contrast to Islam's illusionary cinema. Within the films our perception and physical sight is questioned, as images slip in and out of an unfocused narrative. By contrast, our gaze then becomes transfixed by the sharp and vivid images of the local every-day environment outside.
It is hard to say what Islam's direct intention is here, but it is clear that she is challenging the architectural space of the gallery through this inside/outside interaction. By utilising such overtly mechanised forms to display her films, it is also evident that a notion of exposure is important within her practice. It is as if she is fighting against the sanitised and glossy format of many contemporary art films, in which the beauty of a work is translated only through the quality of the HD screen. By presenting the tools she uses to show her work in such a profound and obvious fashion we cannot ignore her choice of analogue medium, and the machinery becomes an instrinsic part of the work itself.
On entering the smaller upper level, Islam uses a more subtle and delicate sculptural film format. Cabinet of Prototypes features a beautifully-crafted vitrine, in which the projector itself is encased as an art object. The film features a bizarre layered effect, as one plane of glass produces a double, therefore leading to an interior and exterior projection. This piece was developed whilst Islam conducted research at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer and Arthur M. Sackler Galleries and features the documenting of hundreds of disused hooks, stands and labels used to present the collection's artefacts.
Once again Islam is subverting and abstracting the idea of an 'artwork' here, and absence of art is twinned with an elevation of the status of the projector - it has become the precious object by being encased. The usage of projected layers gives a sense of process and dissemination, similar to that of the previous two works.
Throughout this exhibition Islam has created thought-provoking and subversive ideas of vision. The pieces demand a certain tentative consideration, asking viewers to question what is deemed an artistic 'work' and questioning their own process of seeing, whilst also promoting an appreciation of the machinery, processes and objects that often remain hidden in other gallery contexts. It could have easily have slipped into the realm of fetishising outmoded objects, and yet by creating such a clear rupture and connection with the modern through Bastard Amber Islam presents a relevant and fresh context.
This is an extremely compelling exhibition, featuring works of real presence. It is wonderful to see an artist that so successfully balances notions of the old and new, whilst also producing cinematic experiences that demand such close attention and consideration - thoroughly recommended.