The small but perfectly formed Arnolfini in Bristol has been taken over by a series of silk prints, photographs and aging faux holiday posters that look like they derive from the 1970s. Welcome to the work of German artist Matti Braun in this solo show of his works spanning the past fifteen years. Enter into Braun’s world, step inside and feel like you’re looking at a flawed and western idealistic version of the future, as imagined fifty years ago.
The diminutive ground floor gallery space, as introduction to the show, on first glance seems to indicate an eclectic practise. In the dimness a series of lovely fluid images adorn the walls. Splodges of sooty liquid seeped into silk are reminiscent of an oil spill, or of the multi-coloured sheen of grease across the surface of a puddle in an industrial waste-ground, the type of polluted water which you know you shouldn’t touch. Wells of cracked paint sit on the surface, there are thick swirls of glossy varnish and translucent wax, and bubbles of thick ink just asking to be popped. Hung alongside these plays on surface are two sets of photographs, which look like an adventurer’s collection from the 1970s. Each image has an indistinct quality of age, a washed out look that, whilst not quite sepia, indicates the old fashioned process of photographic print production. All the clichés of ‘foreign lands’ are here, a sandy slope in the dessert, a feather, a tribal mask, a footprint in the earth. When viewed alongside this imagery, the raw silk works can be newly interpreted as an exploration of craft, but the overall affect is slightly jarring.
Upstairs the seemingly confused themes begin to pull together more cohesively. The first room contains more of the oil spills and bursts of colour in the form of psychedelic vibrant screen prints on silk. The text accompanying the show speaks of Braun challenging ”conventional interpretations of Modernity” in his work, but for children of the nineties like me this already seems such an irrelevant and prehistoric concept. What does Modernity even represent anymore but a utopian idealistic realm of the past where change was in the air and people could suddenly have anything or do anything, without regard to the consequences? The period is seen as a time of the freeing up of people’s roles and expectations, where the God of consumerism brought about a new desire for all things shiny. This is a time which younger generations now look back on with a slight contempt (if we look back at all).
The next three rooms get to the crux of this discussion, with the first showing a selection 70s-esque holiday posters, playing on our idea of how things were in the past. This was back when the world was full of exotic, exciting destinations, and the sense of ‘the other’ was most intoxicating. Other cultures were consumer products and guaranteed experiences waiting to be discovered, this was well before the notions of responsible travel and sustainable tourism had appeared. The pseudo travel shop leads into the most pleasurable room in the show, a body of black murky water broken up by stepping stones hewn from tree stumps. The visitor is invited to step across these stumps, to create their own path (although in reality there is only one possible) through to the last room of the exhibition. The innately enjoyable act of striding from island to island is replaced, on further reflection, with guilt at the death of the trees and the unavoidable connotations of pollution, destruction and commodification.
The last arena is filled with supposed artefacts of a newly discovered ‘tribal’ culture. Replicas of tapestries hang on the walls, there are more of the seemingly random selections of ‘holiday’ photographs, and prints with words written in languages unknown. On the far wall there are seven photographs which look like futuristic film sets from the middle half of last century, oddly and colourfully dressed actors exist inside a striped monochrome room. It looks like a cross between living inside a Bridget Riley painting and Star Trek circa Captain Kirk, when the remit was still to “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before”. The room feels very of its time and creates an uncomfortable atmosphere, increased by the fact that even as we recognise these objects and images as stemming from a dated mindset, we know that they were created this century.
As mentioned, there is now a guilt attached to these notions of the other and the commodification of other cultures as represented by Braun’s work. The idealised notion of the future which was dreamed up back then now looks politically incorrect, overly naive and oversimplified, a bit sci-fi. The work on display here challenges our relationship to a past where none of the implications of consumerist activity were fully understood, the tension derives from our new position of knowing. Of course, as Braun subtly suggests, our concept of the period suggested by the works, the baby boomer 1960s and 70s, is a constructed narrative which suits the position we find ourselves in now. It’s easy to look back with jaded eyes at the past, jealously coveting a time where you could act guiltlessly and make hay while the sun shone. A time where we imagine you could go anywhere and buy anything and not have to worry about recycling, or pollution, or global warming, the banking crisis, debt, famine, corruption, racial tensions, religious extremism or war. How truly this idealistic realm of the past matches the original is insignificant, more telling is that we now look back in the same vein as they looked forwards.
On display until 6th January 2013.