In the 1993 film, Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays an engineer who suffers a psychotic breakdown while stuck in traffic trying to get to his daughter’s birthday party. He abandons his car on the freeway and proceeds to stalk through Los Angeles on foot, trying desperately to “go home,” while steadily encountering the flotsam and jetsam of the early 90’s recession years on the American West Coast. Among other things, the film is a meditation on crisis, the postulation of a society in decline. Elements of the film now feel dated and uncomfortable (some of the dialogue and the portrayal of Asian and Hispanic minority characters in particular is decidedly problematic), but other elements ring familiar even now, over twenty years later. One scene in particular has always remained with me. As Douglas’ character purchases a snow globe for his daughter from a road side vendor, a man loudly protests outside the bank where he has been a customer for 7 years. Denied a loan, he wields a sign with ‘Not Economically Viable’ written in large letters. He’s quickly arrested, silenced by two blue-clothed policemen while a moody saxophone soundtrack plays out the seemingly inevitable conclusion of his lone protest. As the police car drives away, the character quietly admonishes Douglas’s character through the open car window, “Don’t forget me.”
Encountering the work of Kate Mackeson and Henrik Potter together in landlords are not currently collecting rent in self-love, I’m reminded of this scene. Beautifully curated by Francesca von Zedtwitz-Arnim, the sense of underlying exhaustion and apparently insurmountable odds feels unavoidable, and even the title of the show pithily encapsulates the twin predicaments of our times; economic precarity (particularly due to the obscene costs of housing) and a narcissism which is perhaps best exemplified in the antics of the recently elected Donald Trump. While vanity and self-love are enough for someone to win their way into the most powerful political office in the world, on a micro level, and even with all the technological advances made since Douglas’ detached rampage in Falling Down, the situation for most seems to have only gotten worse.
Parsing the accompanying exhibition text the reader encounters an unnerving plethora of contemporary concerns, and seeing some of them (‘precariousness,’ ‘self-preservation,’ ‘uncertain co-existence’) without the customary #hashtag formatting is almost novel. The disclaimer that the “exhibition brings together the work of two artists who may or may not share common ground” feels like a perfect caveat in a world where the word ‘millennial’ is casually used like it could possibly account for the incredible diversity of the people it supposedly refers to. Likewise “a general sense of fluid inter-connectedness of public, domestic and digital environments stands in contrast to a feeling of muteness and uncertainty that underlies everything,” acts as a succinct summation of the overwhelming anxiety permeating our day to day lives.
Across one wall of the gallery sit seven panels of closed cell polyethylene foam, created by Henrik Potter. Embedded within them is the ubiquitous physical detritus that can be found scattered across the desks and floors of a thousand tiny bedrooms or cold artists’ studios. Rizla papers, cigarette butts, a zippo lighter, bottle caps, part of a debit card, medication and jewellery to name but a few are sprinkled across the surfaces, semi submerged or obscured by other features. Potter’s works also contain elements of paintings and drawings, installed into the foam as if they share equal significance with the other ephemera. On the opposite side of the gallery are two additional panels, one featuring a selection of anti-fascist and anarchist stickers. Even a decade ago these may have seemed like nothing more than aesthetic signifiers, rather something which seriously needed to be reiterated with any urgency. (In 1990, three years before Falling Down, American lawyer and writer Mike Godwin coined ‘Godwin’s Law,’ which argued that ‘as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.’ Fifteen years later, even Godwin himself seems to have acknowledged the terrifying zeitgeist.)
Offsetting Potter’s panels are Kate Mackeson’s three sculptural works titled Armour, Bullet proof and Bullet proof (blue). Comprised of fabric, wadding, webbing and safety pins the three pieces simultaneously connote Kevlar body armour used by tactical police and the walls of a padded cell in an asylum; the titles themselves clearly suggest the former, the world in which they exist conjuring notions of the latter. These objects exude the conflicted spirit of an age where videos posted online show armoured police in combat with everyone from Black Lives Matters protestors and Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrators, to migrants desperately trying to enter Europe and those fighting absurdly a-symmetrical trade deals in the Pacific.
Mackeson’s other two pieces, both smaller sculptural constructions, are similarly imbued with the same tension. Named after a dissociative disorder, Fugue State is a slightly bemusing assemblage of silicon, electronics, hair straighteners and aluminium pieces. Two slightly detached female cut-outs stand either side of a chaotic no-man’s-land, created using two layered trays that look like they would more commonly be used for eating in bed; something feels disconnected here, the materials and the figures’ expression all hint at something traumatic. On the floor near the doorway, Occupational Hygiene II is a wine glass, spoon and uncooked egg, all covered in green candle wax; an almost sardonic nod to the hospitality industry and Douglas Copeland’s famous McJob phenomena. Every element of the exhibition feels like a trigger, a familiar placeholder that the audience can’t help but relate with.
The exhibition feels almost unsettling in its reflection of our current status quo, with little of the hand wringing or barnstorming political rhetoric that one might come to expect from work exploring these ideas. In an era where everything feels somehow irreversibly fractured and fragmented, Potter and Mackeson’s work is like looking at a collection of recognisable pieces scattered like an abandoned jigsaw puzzle on a table. As for the question of what comes next, one can only speculate. As we begin the New Year, let’s hope it’s not more of the same.
By Will Gresson