THE UNSPEAKABLE FREEDOM DEVICE
Also Reviewed in Art Review (October ’15) and featured in
Frieze article on Censorship in the UK arts (September issue ’15)
SCHOOL OF CHANGE
Jennet Thomas: All Suffering SOON TO END!
Issue 43, Summer 2010.
Matt’s Gallery, London
14 April – 6 June
Link to online article:
Art Review Magazine Summer 2010 Review of ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’ by Rebecca Geldard
The purple doorstep evangelist of Jennet Thomas’ film installation All Suffering SOON TO END! (2010) puts heat under the old saying ‘never trust a man with a beard’, for this preacher proves a caution in every sense. This new work may be based on a pamphlet, albeit one printed by Jehovah’s Witnesses (whence the statement of the exhibition’s title), but the referential map Thomas creates out of fundamentalism is vast and frighteningly relevant to the everyday. And like much of the London-based artist’s film output to date, it’s peculiarly British. Thomas’s cartoon-styled religious antihero situates one in the midst of many test-card era and contemporary references, for he appears the unlikely humanoid amalgam of familiar beardy types (from Matthew Corbett to Simon Pegg via Robin Cook and Derren Brown), topped with Mrs Slocombe’s violaceous barnet.
Thomas’s solo project follows several other important film installations at Matt’s, by artists she has very likely influenced, such as Nathaniel Mellors, Lindsay Seers and Paul Rooney. Its timing, though, couldn’t be more perfect, arriving in London just as the general election becomes a budget hybrid of the US-style presidential campaign and a phone-in gameshow. Thomas uses performers and borrowed visuals to reframe facets of British society and popular culture, her absurdist approach and precise modes of sampling serving to release stereotypes or ‘harmless’ data from the contexts one associates with them; here the contrasting ideals of Middle England and organised religious groups are brought into hideous alignment via the music video, the evangelist workshop, kids-TV symbolism and the suburban soap opera.
The exhibition space has been divided in two: one side a spartan cinema playing Thomas’s 30-minute film, the other a disco-style diorama of related props and motifs. The Purple (more Teletubby Tinky Winky than papal) Preacher attempts the religious conversion of an elderly suburban couple (with the help of a Wicked Witch of the West taxi driver-cum-nun). They knock him off with a spade after his repressive and gruelling marketing routine (so that they can get back to the telly), only for him to return again (and again) to spread the word of humankind’s undoing and salvation, at the generous behest of “GAA” – an implied Wizard of Oz presence encapsulated within business presentation graphics and spiel. The couple’s ordeal includes the rebirth of a lifesize Adam and Eve in their bathroom and a hallucinatory trip to a model village during which the tiny scenes of pastoral England-past appear fractured by images of war and destruction.
Thomas steers in and out of good and bad taste with the charm and ease that comes of a thorough understanding of the content and contexts she purloins. However fake or throwaway the inferences, Thomas’s purposely handheld camerawork, outlandish plot and dialogue appear as tightly sewn as the OCD interiors she films in. Moments of tension, humour and even seduction arise from the incongruous union of acutely observed details: how the ‘tree of knowledge’, for example — a pendulous talisman worn around the green nun’s neck, a logo on the front of kids’ workshop T-shirts and a sculptural centrepiece within the ritual circle of the gallery — might convey the absurdity of extremes; the political distance between Pat Butcher’s earrings and modernist designs for a better life.
Jennet Thomas: All Suffering Soon to End
Click on the link above- or read below:
14th April 2010 — 6th June 2010
‘Who has the right to rule – and whose rule is right?
Who has the right to rule – and whose rule is right?
Who has the right to rule – and whose rule is right?’
Jennet Thomas’s video builds to a cacophonous, nauseous climax of sound and movement, showing a purple-faced man chanting and gesticulating vague but emphatic slogans, to a soundtrack of abrasive electronic music. The piece, consisting of a half-hour video loop within a large installation, is very detailed, and operates within obtuse codes it sets up for itself, be these narrative, visual or otherwise.
John Wagland as the Purple Preacher in Jennet Thomas ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’ 2010 (film still) Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London
The action in the video takes place in a suburban house, with insects and birdsong on the soundtrack to sunny exterior shots, bringing to mind (in a modest, suburban way) the harmonious, multi-species paradise of Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets. A freakishly purple man invades the quiet home, introducing himself as a ‘Son of Gaa’ and talks about the needless suffering of mankind, aided by an animated video presentation projected onto a domestic slide-show screen. Mankind’s problems are simplified, using coloured lumps of stuff to illustrate each one. Colour coding is a recurrent motif – flashes of colour appear at the start of the half hour loop; news photos of real tragedies are re-coloured to relate the coloured shapes in the preacher’s presentation. Colour and noise intrude in the magnolia rooms – the neutrally dressed couple are cajoled by the purple man and later a bright green Nun. The video loops and switches between alternate versions of roughly the same narrative situation, the tricksy construction of the video itself belying the untrustworthy fabrications promulgated on screen by the preacher. The inattentive viewer has traps laid for them, perhaps leaving halfway through by mistake – Thomas’s work demands (and rewards) concentration.
Helena Goldwater as The Green Nun in Jennet Thomas ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’ 2010 (film still) Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London
As the world of the preachers bleeds into the quiet living room in the video, so it leaks into the gallery. A large totemic object surrounded by a shiny curtain matches a smaller one that appears in the video (which then becomes a mere maquette for the version physically present in the gallery). From it emanates sound recordings similar phrases and maxims via discrete speakers installed within it; also present is a version of the purple man’s ‘presentation’. One day a week the installation is inhabited by performers dressed as either the Purple Preacher or Green Nun characters, I had the odd additional confusion of seeing some of the cast viewing the work – which did make sense, in a way.
The artist herself does not appear in the video, yet is oddly physically present, through the performances of her parents as the elderly couple. There is a perversity to casting your own parents in a warped story of creation, becoming mankind’s progenitors, as well as the artist’s – the whole of humanity shrinking to one household. This reductive way of viewing the world, which Thomas seems to be critiquing as well as joyfully employing, is emphasised, and made literal, in her use of a model village, Bekonscot. There is a weird claustrophobia invoked here (in what we could presume was the house the artist grew up in), of events too big and loud to exist in a living room. Thomas’ DIY-style production, where all props are handmade and all locations ‘local’ (a school, the garage, the inside of a car), adds to this closeness.
John Wagland as the Purple Preacher and Helena Goldwater as The Green Nun in Jennet Thomas ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’ 2010 (film still) Courtesy the artist and Matt’s Gallery, London
This work is extremely rich in its references, from children’s television to David Lynch via artists such as Nathaniel Mellors. Everything in this exhibition is seemingly both allowed to run out of control and kept on a very tight leash; the shear amount of material crammed into it is dizzying, yet totally meant; the construction of the video seems to fall apart and remake itself immediately. The work is caustic in its comment on religious evangelism, its most obvious subject matter, yet this ostensible satire is but one reading. What is being said and shown appears as a foil; merely a surface –the work decries the simplistic and overly sensical, and, in its own construction, extols the virtues of complexity and strangeness.Richard Whitby
Frieze Magazine review of ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’ by
Matt’s Gallery, London
So this might be a recent, familiar scene to those readers in the UK from the past few weeks of the election: a man turns up at your door, speaking about how bad everything’s been and how it could soon all get better. But then he probably wasn’t purple from head to toe; his promises most likely didn’t include, ‘after he removes sickness, people will live in perfect health and happiness; he will wipe out every tear and death will be no more.’ The antagonist of Jennet Thomas’s film and installation, titled ‘All Suffering SOON TO END!’, is a pertinently creepy conflation of characters: the Purple Man was a hack villain in 1960s Marvel comics, who in his battles with Daredevil had the power to convince people to do whatever he wanted. Here, he’s been given the shared gesturing – the hand punctuations and stretched lips at key points – of news presenters and politicians, and the rhetoric of their cousin profession, the evangelical preacher, as he extols the virtues of the ‘Song of Gaa’.
John Gray’s diatribe 2007 Black Mass might read like the script for an exasperating TV documentary, but he makes the interesting point that contemporary politics takes its main drive and ideology from esoteric, millenarian Christian sects. Apocalyptic thinking (here, the ‘apocalypse’ being closer to the original Greek meaning of an unveiling) and the promise of a complete change under a particular regime of thought is par for the course these days, no matter how unrealistic (‘we will create tens of thousands of skilled jobs’, anyone?) In ‘All Suffering…’, Thomas lampoons this rationale by combining the mundane with the ridiculous and the disturbing. In the first ‘Dark Chamber’ of the exhibition, a half-hour film depicts the purple preacher’s three attempts to convert an elderly suburban couple. Rousing them from watching a television test screen, he enters their home. His talk of salvation is not unfamiliar, but his methods of demonstration are: a slide show illustrating the world’s evils presents only simple geometric shapes—a red triangle (which apparently stands for ‘poverty’), a yellow cube (sickness), and a blue cylinder (injustice). To make the point that ‘we are nearing the end of man’s tragic experiment in independence from Him,’ he drives the couple to Bekonscot model village. The English idyll the village represents is corrupted as images of homelessness interject, and one model cricketer merges into Nick Út’s infamous 1972 photo of people fleeing the napalm bombing of the Trang Bang village in Vietnam.
Thomas reiterates the hyperbolic religious rhetoric with correspondingly over-the-top costumes (the purple man is assisted by a stern, green nun) and editing style, but it feels like enlarging the bulls-eye of an already easy target. Where the show insinuates itself is in its progressively expanded visual language, its surreal abstraction mutating in its suburban environment, and we identify and grapple with those changes. The back space of the gallery is a form of chapel; within a pious circle of purple tinsel, the tree logo seen in the film has sprouted and grown larger, while a version of the TV test screen presides over the space. The second time I visited, a rustling announced another visitor to the chapel, though when I turned a living version of the green nun stood still, staring directly at me. Highly unsettling. You leave with puzzles, among them the question how much you’ve been subject to such brazen indoctrination, and at what point you might turn away. In the film, it’s whenever the preacher starts singing the couple seem to come to their sense and clock him with a shovel – only to go back to their TV to watch the bouncing balls of the test screen, and wait for the doorbell to ring again.Chris Fite-Wassilak
Rebecca Geldard’s top ten for Saatchi online magazine
Jennet Thomas All Suffering SOON TO END!
42–44 Copperfield Road, London E3 4RR
April 14th – June 6th 2010
Wednesday – Sunday 12 – 6 pm
Screenings begin on the hour and at 30 minutes past
Jennet Thomas’s All Suffering SOON TO END! is a two-part installation based around the end-of-world predictions disseminated in an evangelical Christian pamphlet delivered to the artist. Extrapolating from the Revelations-esque Last Days prophecies, Thomas has created a menacing character in the form of The Purple Preacher – a combination of an imagined embodiment of the writer of the pamphlet and the Marvel Comics villain, The Purple Man, a character who possesses the ability to control enemies through incredible powers of persuasion.
The 30 minute video features The Preacher paying a visit to an elderly couple and detailing the evidence that our increasingly secular world has lead to an enormous increase in the amount of suffering experienced by humankind, that we have angered God by ignoring Him and that he is punishing us for this. But do not worry – for all this suffering is to end very soon, thanks to His salvation. Following this, a car journey and a rather unnerving trip to a model village with a stern Green Nun character, and a few poorly performed musical numbers act as features of The Preacher’s evangelical repertoire, before life-sized living dolls of Adam and Eve wreak havoc in the pensioners’ home and attempt to recruit school children to the cause.