Shezad Dawood: Leviathan/ Grace Ndiritu: The Ark, Bluecoat, until 13th October, free
God, but it’s been a bleak week hasn’t it? The Amazon is burning and our unelected PM has decided he doesn’t give a toss about Parliamentary sovereignty after all. On my first art trip in a few weeks I could really have done with something to make me feel like there’s some hope in all of this. Alas, I went instead to the Bluecoat to see Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan.
Leviathan is about BIG TOPICS – namely the end of the stable world. It’s set over five films, of which the strongest is the first, being shown by itself in Gallery 1. It sets the scene by taking us into the Natural History Museum, where we see people managing a long history of the oceans; studying and seeking to understand. This is what Dawood wants us to do. To see a connection between the marine world and humanity’s own preservation. Later in the film there’s some nice jumps between the peaceful curiosity of scuba diving and scenes of death. The narrative, though at times grating, is for the most part a decent poetic introduction to the events which have led to the post-apocalyptic world which sets the scene for the the other four films.
Those are shown in the same room. The sea now comes into focus as the site of displacement, as a few individuals roam around on a ship. Weirdly the narrative of one is being played through the PA system, while the other three have headphones – genuinely couldn’t work out why this was.
For me, this fundamental flaw with Leviathan is this format. The first film has its moments, but five films is an unnecessary number of films, especially as Dawood doesn’t seem to have five different things to say. The notes say that each story is told from a different perspective, but it’s really hard to tell this when watching. They’re all on a boat, they’re all wandering, we occasionally see sea creatures but without too much understanding of why. Ideas of migration are clearly meant to be a theme, without actually saying much. It may well be that the overall sense of directionless is intended as befitting the subject, but it just makes for a really frustrating viewing experience that definitely feels like the triumph of concept over the viewer.
I wish that Leviathan existed in any other format. A single painting could capture the same hopelessness; a photography series could be interesting and imaginative. A single full-blown feature film would give the whole thing the focus it really needs. I feel even more sure of this when I get into the third gallery of the show and see the Disposable Mementoes paintings. Bright and tantalising on first impression, you soon notice that they’re all somehow flawed. Nature as interpreted by humanity becomes skewed and broken. It’s more fun and more interesting to draw your own connections and conclusions from these than following the films.
I had to go back the next day to try the VR experience of Leviathan Legacy and…well, OK. I was definitely keen to try VR as art because experiential art is almost certainly going to become more of a Thing and an undersea land seems a good place to start. It’s certainly a beautiful setting to explore and I’d have liked to have more time to take it all in, rather than focusing on completing my mission. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, I’m maybe being too judgemental because it’s only about the second of these I’ve tried and I don’t really know what I’m looking for? The spectacle of the experience has become the main focus and if it’s meant to be then that’s fine, it’s just knowing to focus on getting that out of it.
There’s that word again: focus. When there’s so many circumstances having so many major effects on the world, it can be hard to know where exactly our attention should be directed. Leviathan‘s faults come from trying to spread itself too thinly, which results in not taking action on anything in particular.
Action has been taken by Grace Ndiritu, with Gallery 3’s The Ark the result. I’ve read about The Ark project and it sounds like it was a worthwhile project trying to think about how arts can have an interdisciplinary impact. The evidence in this exhibition gives a sense of the directions of travel – a kind of quasi-ritualistic take on resistance. There’s often a sense with these “aftermath-of-live-project” installations that you’re missing something, but in general this isn’t a legacy to leave behind.