Josiah McElheny's The Crystal Land at Bermondsey's White Cube is visually charming but the story it purports to tell isn't one I can claim to have got my head round. McElheny contends that 'aesthetics are always political' and that his art is an attempt to 'visualise alternative histories of Modernism'.
So far, so much word salad. But what's for main course? Lots of crystal it would seem. These 'paintings' aren't made of paint but glass, steel, wood, and electricity. They're charming to look at but what do they mean, maan? Apparently they're inspired by a Robert Smithson essay 'The Crystal Land' which was published in Harper's Bazaar in 1966 and see McElheny proposing 'that an imaginary world can be something physical after all'. That's quite a concept but the works aren't imaginary, they're real. I'm even more confused now.
Crystal Landscape Painting (City) (2017)
Crystal Landscape Painting (Quartz) (2017)
Crystal Landscape Painting (Towers) (2017)
Crystal Landscape Painting (Sentinels) (2017)
Crystal Landscape Painting (Mountains) (2017)
Crystal Landscape Painting (Rock) (2017)
The second section of the show doesn't do much to clear up my bewilderment. The movie posters below and stills from the 'movie' (at the bottom of this piece) reflect McElheny's interest in the German author Paul Scheerbart, a man who loved glass so much he wrote poems about it, and his short story The Light Club of Batavia about a group of socialites who meet in a hotel in Batavia (present day Jakarta) and decide to build a spa at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft so they can bathe in light.
The film is half an hour long and I watched it so you don't have to (you didn't have to anyway). There's music by Schoenberg, some nice architectural shorts, and a dull monotonous voice over by Zoe Leonard who is apparently an artist herself, though not one I'm familiar with. She grandly recounts tales of pretentious parties in a patronising manner that suggested to me that the best thing to do in the screening room would be to have a nap. I didn't seem to be the only one who had that idea. One thing about over earnest art, it gives you a chance to catch up on some sleep.
Movie Poster (The Light Club of Vizcaya:A Women's Picture) I (2012-13)
Movie Poser (The Light Club of Vizcaya:A Women's Picture) VI (2012-13)
The most visually arresting, and therefore best, room was saved until last. Island Universe consists of five spherical mirror balls covered in protruding reflective arms. Inspired, it turns out, by the crystal chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (a long way from McElheny's younger days as a producer of Boston hardcore punk bands). McElheny is claiming them as a kind of Pop Art take on the Big Bang which works for me - and certainly makes more sense than a lot of the rest of this installation.
Though some of it was a joy to look at I ended up coming away from the exhibition less clear about what McElheny was trying to say and do than I'd been before I went in. For an artist who works with glass and light I'd kinda hoped for clarity and illumination.
Island Universe (2008)
stills from The Light Club of Vizcaya:A Women's Picture (2012)