Review: Test Run at Modern Art Oxford

On Friday night Modern Art Oxford (MAO) launched Test Run, which will be the first in an annual five week long programme of live events aimed at letting you see what goes on behind the scenes in an artist’s studio. Over 35 days the gallery will host 34 artists in 18 performances, 15 workshops, 6 talks and 1 symposium, all of which can be accessed for free. The opening night saw these events start as they mean to go on, welcoming visitors with live performances and asking them to participate.

Throughout the course of the year, we’ve noticed that, whenever MAO comes up in conversation, people groan about the place. It’s unfortunate but easy to understand why. Too many times we’ve gone in and felt that the meaning of the art there was either beyond us (or perhaps not there at all). It’s regrettable that this free, excellent centre for modern art often feels too hoity-toity for the student population that it could serve.

The good news: this is 100% not the case with Test Run. Walking in, we were greeted with boisterous singing by a motley choir. Upstairs we found hand-printers inking type alongside fountains of paint. It was like a carnival. The atmosphere is simply fun, much like running out of the classroom door at break time at school. Here you can do anything, see anything; few things feel off limits or intellectually opaque. Rather than struggling to eke out the meaning of some bizarre piece, the show invited us to enjoy ourselves and soak it all in. So we did.

Particular highlights included Natasha Kidd’s painting machine. A series of copper tubes pumped white paint around the Piper gallery and through holes in canvases constantly creating new works. In stark contrast to watching paint dry, watching Kidd’s carefully calibrated machine at work was oddly fascinating and rather therapeutic. The simple white on white composition deceptively masked the amount of engineering involved in the process, which involved, I discovered after speaking to Kidd, sealing canvases, paint viscosity experiments and even tests of what size and shape of hole produced the best effects.

Although John Reardon’s ‘Performing Matter’ didn’t feature the contortionists that are the focus of his live work, it was one of the most transfixing elements of the night. Rolling text described in the second person the movements the performers were to take, which encouraged you to imagine a bizarre scene in which “you”, as an adequately flexible human being, could perform the almost impossible feats described. I’m looking forward to the 17th of May to see whether the performers can live up to the high standards that my imagination has set.

If MAO’s shows have felt inaccessible in the past, this is fully hands-on. The Bodleian Hand-Printing Workshop and the Oxford Printing Cooperative have contributed antique type presses and a small army of printers to bring the art of typesetting to the gallery. At the workshops they’re hosting over the course of the exhibition, everyone’s able to come in, set some type, make some prints and get their hands dirty. (Check out the schedule at MAO’s basement, which previously has been used as a bit of a shoebox under the bed for all manner of odds, ends and potpourri that didn’t fit upstairs, has been converted into a live music space. When we went, it was as though we’d left the gallery for a concert instead. Good music, an intimate setting and a cute guy playing the guitar. What more can one ask for from modern art?