DaDaFest is certainly making its presence known, says Jade French reviewing the ambitious visual arts exhibition taking place in and around the Bluecoat, Liverpool.
I'm walking down the bustling Church Street in Liverpool's city centre, and peering through the gap, in between the giant buildings are two eyes. These Illuminati-esque banners hanging above the entrance to the Bluecoat set the scene for The Art of the Lived Experiment, DaDaFest's main exhibition for this years festival.
With the exhibition theme exploring notions of alchemy, transformation and experimentation, I'm intrigued to find out how this was interpreted by the artists, and its curious relation to disability.
The starting point for this exhibition came from curator Aaron Williamson, who invited artists to respond to the concept of the 'lived experiment' in relation to 'alchemy'. I found this a fairly complex and challenging theme, but I admire DaDaFest's bold attitude in challenging its audience and their expectations.
I also believe this choice in theme marks a shift; from artwork simply by disabled artists, to artwork more broadly about experiences of disability or impairment, which is further reflected in that not all artists exhibiting identify with having a disability.
This controversial debate was publicly highlighted by exhibiting artist Mike Parr, who blacked out his work in protest at the exhibition preview. Parr does not consider himself as being a disabled person, commenting: “the artist is not disabled”, ultimately questioning his place in the show. To me, this act demonstrates how current and ongoing these debates really are, and I commend DaDaFest for leaving the blacked out work up, allowing it to be viewed, and enabling the debate to continue.
Setting the scene for the exhibition, I enter The Ignition Room which displays some fascinating artefacts including a 19th Century acoustic chair, Isaac Newton’s hand written notes and Johnny Ray's hearing aid. The text on the wall describes The Ignition Room as a catalyst, and I would agree. It provides a context to the rest of the exhibition and an interesting glimpse of disability in history which acts as a starting point for the 'experiment'.
Moving through the rooms, Tony Heaton's Gold Lamé is a striking installation hanging in the Vide space. An Invacar is suspended, now sprayed gold, with flashing head lights and personalised reg plate. Heaton has transformed this symbol of disability with skill and wit into something spectacular. The Invacar has been “transformed from prosthetic to sculpture, transmuted from spazz blue to gold, from Lame to Lamé” he describes. This work beautifully mirrors Heaton's personal life adjustments: “I transmuted from biker to invalid” he describes, and skilfully expresses the wider curatorial context.
Heading upstairs, I was fascinated by the fantastical wooden objects by Brian Catling titled Antix 2. If the room wasn't eerie enough, evoking feelings of a haunted forest, suddenly the objects sprang to life. Noise reverberates around the room from the vibrating, shaking and humming of the moving wood. The room didn't seem haunted anymore, it felt enchanted. This spontaneous animation seemed to occur when I approached the objects, or was this in my head? I then worked out the trick behind the illusion, not that I'd tell of course...
The use of text in this exhibition is also worth mentioning. All of the artworks stand alone with very little information, just the title, artist, date and materials used. The audience is left to join the dots, relying on the wider context of the exhibition theme. On the whole this works, as many of the pieces are quite conceptual, it leaves the audience 'room' to imagine the process and purpose behind them without the curator being overly prescriptive.
This is particularly useful when considering the experimental and magical qualities which much of the work evokes, nobody really wants to know the trick behind the magic, do they? That said, I wonder what other provisions DaDaFest have in order to support people who may struggle with unpicking the curatorial concept, like people with a learning difficulty for instance.
The Art of the Lived Experiment is a well thought out exhibition with a fascinating theme. It is one of the few disability-related art displays where I felt the art is truly at the forefront and has the potential to attract a wide and varied audience.
As innovative as it is, my only concern is the interpretation of the curatorial theme. Without understanding the context, I am unsure how well the majority of the artworks would translate on their own merit.
Though this exhibition has proved to be controversial, I believe this is imperative in order to push debates and thinking forward within this field. With the added conference to this years bill, DaDaFest seem set on sparking debates. Prepare for some interesting conversations.
Jade French is a Ph.D researcher at The University of Leeds