Insa: Bodywork

Oakland Contemporary, New Brighton, until 5th September, free

This exhibition is centred around a car. Though it’s actually the last thing you’ll see it’s the talking point, the focus of everyone’s photos of the show. The reason is simple: the car is cool. It’s a great big vintage Lincoln Continental which Insa has customised immaculately. Under the spotlights, against the black walls of the room, it’s the bright, shiny, loud and fabulous star of the show.

a customised lincoln continental in yellow, pink and arabesque lines

I admire its boldness. It’s decidedly uncomplicated – here’s a beautiful thing, looking fabulous. This is indeed the vibe of Insa’s whole exhibition here at Oakland Gallery, a space on Victoria Road to which this is actually my first visit. All the pieces are adorned with what we’re told is Insa’s signature motif – which you might have already spotted in the murals adorning the buildings along the street – an arabesque design he calls “graffiti fetish”. It complements the aesthetic of the objects here perfectly. For as well as the car the standout pieces are a motorbike and surfboard, objects associated with a lifestyle of seeking thrills and freedom. These things aspire to an unsubtle sexiness, against which it’s perhaps more surprising that it only veers into tacky objectification in one particular piece.

Thrills on the road, diving off into the sunset for the pursuit of pleasure; it’s a beguiling idea, right? An old one now, too – in fact there’s almost something a little out-of-time about it which makes me feel conflicted. It’s not just that the car is vintage, but what place is there right now for what it stands for? The freedom and opportunity which cars like the Lincoln Continental stood for when they first emerged are still valid, but as part of a more tempered story. We now know what cars have been doing all these years to our planet; how this kind of personal freedom has come at the price of threatening our very survival. Beautiful custom items are still beautiful, but also connected into a kind of conspicuous consumption which feels more out of place than ever. There’s a certain kind of selfishness wrapped up in the pleasure of these things. His pieces are cool, and shiny, and stunningly created – detailed to a fault – but to celebrate what they stand for can feel kind of incongruous.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m trying to be morally superior when I say that. Rather I’m trying to reflect something which, for me, is a major paradox of modern life. I’m a person who is gets weirdly sentimental about my own car, and who is very aware of my personal hypocrisy on this. I regularly struggles with eco-anxiety and looks for the most conscious options possible; and yet loves the feeling of driving on a sunny day with the top down and the music up. It’s a simple of pleasure, but one about which I do feel conflicted. And echoes of this creep in when I’m enjoying Insa’s work.

a wooden surfboard with black designs painted on

I don’t know the answer to this, and Bodywork isn’t the place to find one. Questioning the status quo and the stories we’ve been sold is important. Looking for new paradigms of cool which aren’t going to destroy the world is essential. But enjoying something that has been created just because it’s beautiful – I might even say frivolous – there’s room for that too. Art can say important things, and it can also just be fun. Sometimes I forget that. Bodywork, to me, is art as escapism. It’s a world where I can choose to briefly put aside these conflicts and just enjoy things very well done. To enjoy nice things being nice, without buying into their baggage. The car is cool because it’s bold and beautiful – and for a moment, that’s allowed to be enough.

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