Hannah Sawtell’s Osculator sublimely communicates, with more than a little uneasiness, one of the amazing and frustrating things about the internet: its inconceivable infinity, and its mixture of the useful and trivial.
The title – Osculator – has a deliciously futuristic ring to it. It sounds like a mythical device, derived from some 1960s science fiction vision of how the 21st Century would be, characterised by a high-tech apparatus that allows every human being to see everything all the time. And that is exactly Sawtell’s conception of the internet – a seeing machine that gives way to all and nothing at the same time.
The exhibition at the ICA is one half of a project spanning two sites. The other half, Vendor, is to be found at Bloomberg SPACE, where Sawtell is currently artist in residence. The shows are interlinked by their being inspired – perhaps quite directly – by Sawtell’s experience of the Bloomberg office. It is her first major UK solo show.
Sawtell is capturing, exploring, dissecting and reconfiguring a brave new world, which turns out to be infuriating and bland even though it seems glossy and rich on the surface. She explores a culture of proliferation, over-consumption and a bizarre obsession with archiving, by capturing sound and images, as well as real time news footage from the screens at Bloomberg.
Hannah Sawtell, Vendosculant, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and ICA.
Although the internet, mass media, advertising and such are by now ordinary parts of our daily life, in this exhibition they feel fresh, as if seen for the first time – their context, within the ICA Theatre, allow us to suddenly step outside of our usual quotidian consumption. Through the film, as clips whizz by relentlessly, you begin to realise, for example, that the glorious thing about print media is that it has an end – there are a finite number of pages – but the internet simply goes on for ever… clicking link after link after link, seeing and reading more and more. The limit is only hours you can stay awake. Standing in front of the vast screen, Sawtell gives you this sense of exhaustion with the sheer endlessness of her work.
But the work also performs a seduction. The images on the screen are complemented by the soundtrack, enhanced by a multi panel acoustic receptor which faces the screen. This elevates the work from video work to a full-scale installation piece, where the video becomes but a component in a multi-sensory experience, like that of Runa Islam. And here, there is a bit of a trick: by creating a multi-sensory experience, Sawtell mirrors the vivacity of contemporary life with its barrage of colour, sound and information, which seduces the viewer into a false sense of security. It is only when you have been absorbing all this for a while that you start to recall that this information, colour, light, gloss and magic is art – not real life – which gives way to a stark consideration of your own over-consumption.
Osculator is a provocative and stirring installation, that moves the viewer to engage critically with contemporary life. It merits at least two visits, just to relish in the way the banal and ordinary are transformed to seductive immersion.
(Image on top: Hannah Sawtell, Osculator, 2012; Courtesy of the artist and Vilma Gold Gallery.)