You’re likely to leave Manfred Pernice feeling distinctly queasy. His latest piece, ‘baldt1’, comes to Oxford with confusing intentions, and will leave you questioning much of what you know and love. It’s full of rubbish. Literally.
The first thing you see in Pernice’s piece is a large cylinder-like structure which opens out before you, divided into three ‘rooms’. The artist is exploring public and private spaces, and so as you wander around the scene changes from a sterile, ambiguous lobby space into domestic scenes. It’s bizarre. The lobby is split by a spiral staircase, which divides the walls provocatively, yet leads nowhere. It separates a mix of bright, turn-of-the century grand hôtel scenes (and modern equivalents), which above all invite you, and on the other the incessant grey of modern architecture. These last views are cut down the middle; one side in black and white, the other in colour. The effect is brilliant and disparaging; there’s little difference to the eye, colour or not. Pernice’s message seems to be about the dullness of the present when it comes to public spaces, which chimes with the dullness of the next ‘rooms’. These are punctuated only by the colour of branded goods and children’s games, highlighted by building block-like furniture, another child-like hint. Suffice it to say, there’s more than a little guilt involved – why is the children’s world the only one of colour?
Now for the rubbish. Pernice draws you through eerie collections of discarded cans, packets and cartons draped from light fittings, a Spartan scene whose purpose is unclear. Litter is a favourite tool of artists nowadays but exactly what the idea is here is unclear. Whether intentional or not, there isn’t much signposting this confusing exhibition, and other than the feeling of distaste and uneasiness it produces, it remains difficult to know exactly what the intentions are. Nonetheless, the thought-provoking effect of being presented up front with the familiar remains of consumerism is one thing that is clear; don’t be surprised if you find yourself tempted to flick the switch and move swiftly on.
From the sublime to the surreal, we emerge into a light, open space at the end of ‘baldt1’ that tempts you as a false haven. A 1950s domestic corner mixes with models of bridges, architectural designs, monument guides and, again, a little rubbish – this time scattered around a model highway, toy cars included. All the time, a soft, siren-like opera soundtrack plays from an old radio in the 50s corner… Surreal is the only word. Pernice is playing again with our notions of civilisation. Photos of past glories – the Forth Bridge, the Brandenburg Gate – jar alongside the highway resting on old cans and an airline coffee cup. The monument guides provide a hint; have we lost something in the modern age? Looking around the room, a plastic soap dispenser, a flimsy graffitied sideboard and industrial prints can provide little comfort. And all the time the opera goes on in the background… it could all be a bad dream – at times, the things that surround you feel tenuous and shaky enough.
Pernice undoubtedly prompts some searching questions at Modern Art Oxford. Where have we been heading over the last hundred years? It’s definitely a searching exhibition, and if this style of art has a crowning virtue, then for all its aesthetic criticisms Pernice’s piece fulfils it: it really makes you think. Don’t miss it – at the very least, your fill of arty late night dinner talk will be sorted for months. Just don’t expect to come out the other side full of glowing memories of brushstroke beauty – that’s definitely not what this is about. Take the plunge and it’s well worth the effort.