The Verse’s Jake Francis lets us know what he thought of the Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire event at the Saatchi Gallery in London.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? That familiar scene where a conversation with a semi-familiar group of people and perhaps, too many drinks, suddenly morphs into a domestic minstrel show; Toby wrapping a tea towel around his head and donning a middle-eastern accent that would even make the writers of The Only Fools and Horses blush. Alas, the now peer-scolded Toby and his self-professed claims that it’s all ‘a bit of fun’ and merely a stance within ‘social satire’ falls hollow; as does his remarks of our sanctimonious political correctness.
For social satire is much more than casual racism in wittier clothes, it is an integral part of interpretative critique – one that transgresses borders regardless of culture and zeitgeist. Yes, despite my own personal resentments for political correctness and it’s associated rigidity – it’s hard to argue that a lot of what is classed as social satire, is not so. True social satire, to quote its official definition, depicts the ‘foolishness or vice in humans, organisations, or even governments – it uses sarcasm, ridicule, or irony.’ It has been paramount in our rationalisation of the context and events that occur within our times – and has, fairly or unfairly, commonly been pigeonholed into a realm of excuse, diversion, and ulterior motive.
Thankfully, this tainted imperative of human expression has been granted a new platform to recover its former glory. Guised under the title ‘Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire’, this group exhibition has taken residence at London’s Saatchi Gallery – perhaps the most fitting venue for it, when one considers its proprietor’s tastes in contemporary art collecting. Consisting of 26 artists, the exhibition follows its institution’s grandiose traditions – boasting an impressive concoction of paintings, installations, interactive works, sculptures, and more to boot. Spread across over 10 self-contained galleries, the exhibition treats its visitors to an ever-shifting, rarely boring, a barrage of wit and visual review; a gift that was evidently capitalised on for the vast majority alongside my visit who were yet to diarise their day via Instagram stories.
With such a bulk of styles, themes, and aesthetic choices, it should go without saying that a detailed account is far beyond what a Verse article would allow (and my writing skills could facilitate). With that said, I will try my best to present you an even keel review; a motivation that is perversely denied in ironic brilliance by a gargantuan amount of the artists throughout the exhibition.
On entry to Gallery 1, the highlights are domineering and undeniable. Sat amongst the strangely alluring, yet mute paintings of Michael Cline, are the sculptures/installations ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ (2006) and ‘Cash Cow’ (2012). Conceived by Bedwyr Williams and Jade Townsend, respectively, the works offer a striking interruption within lingual ambivalence and art world transgression. Williams’ installation brings an autobiographical account to a communal idiom, with multiple pairs of size 13 shoes tagged and nestled in a shelving unit that commonly represents a trip to the bowling alley.
Humorously offering his (often) over sized-footwear to visitors for an individual try, the artist wears his heart on his sleeves (shins) – questioning the potentially damaging assumptions associated with that other idiom of social awareness, ‘if the shoe fits…’. Townsend’s sculpture arguably sets its sights on a more ‘exclusive’ target – the art market, institution, and the ‘sub-world’ each of them operates within. The work depicts a sort-of convincing set of male legs holding a red painting with faded/semi-comprehensible statements about sex and smutty acts; a slow-burning critique of gender imbalance and contemporary worth, if one is to put in the time looking. With a title like ‘Cash Cow’, it’s hard to deny that some rather large bones are being picked, here; Townsend, however, proves that to go for the jugular is not nearly as satisfying in retaliation.
As the show progresses, the talent for irony protrudes with great force; a potency that is matched only by astonishing feats in fabrication and ambitious scaling. ‘Niagara Falls’ (2007) by Valerie Hegarty is one such example of this; a self-titled painting of the US landmark gnarled and twisted into uncanny recognition. This symbol of the heroic, yet blood-soaked, manifest of American patronage is effectively paralleled in it fall to a great slight – resembling that of a ship-wreck treasure.
The artist has proven, perhaps in the most juvenile way, that destruction and decay imposed can say more than an object itself ever could, especially when confronting its conflicted histories. In a similar vein, Steve Bishop offers a bizarre, yet tantalising amalgamation of both natural and cold manufactured forms. Splicing taxidermy with concrete ‘busts’, Bishop’s works quite literally define the very term of ‘embodiment’ – refining the notion of ‘still life’ in plain sight; with his titles and figures referring to designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, the perceived critiques are almost endless in their abstract bastardisation.
The unequivocal highlights of the upper galleries are those from artists John Stezaker and Marianne Vitale. Although vastly different from one another in practice, the pair vividly shares a kinship in visual playfulness, and within the liberal usage of that age-old favourite, the ‘pun’. Stezaker employs his seemingly effortless interceptions through the ‘cut’, forming new images through a hybrid of two seemingly disparate forms. This has famously been executed through the use of postcards, Hollywood headshots, and publicity portraits – with the prominent collection on offer being from his ‘Marriage’ series. The oddly grotesque, yet satisfying ‘collages’ of the male and female face creates an uncanny experience; each carefully laid concoction offering a conjoined matrimony of oddness that somehow also compliments.
Regularly perceived as totems of ‘the glamour age’, Stezaker’s inclusion in a show such as this proves their ongoing relevance in a contemporary analysis; whether that be within self-portrayal, Hollywood romanticism, or the multi-faceted role of the image in its various guises. Whereas Stezaker offers a slight, yet informed, interaction with the existing, Marianne Vitale’s ‘Burned Bridge’ (2012) is far more literal and physically endowed. Although Stezaker has become synonymous with subtlety, Vitale offers quite a literal weighting to yet another familiar mantra. Consisting of reclaimed limber, the artist has constructed a very visualisation of its namesake – a scorched and frayed bridge. Although seemingly ‘one-liner’, the installation is astonishing in its size and execution; an artwork that is doused in relief, sly humour, and unbelievable folly.
With the term ‘social satire’ being thrown around hither and yon, it would be easy and understandable for its potency to feel diluted and burdensome. Exhibitions such as this one, however, remind us of the incredible motivation it can bolster within visual art – subsequently offering a whimsical release from the stifling status quo. It is imperative that we do not paint these expressions all with the same, broad-stroked, brush – especially in our current times. Quite simply, we could all do with a little more satire.
‘Black Mirror: Art as social satire’ is currently on display at Saatchi Gallery, London. Entry is free. For more information, please visit: https://www.saatchigallery.com/
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Brighton Students’ Union, its management or employees.