3AM: Wonder, Paranoia and the Restless Night

How do the ideas for your exhibitions develop?

My approach as a curator is to see as much art as I can, and then wait for ideas to germinate and emerge. I try to be led by practice, and there are things that haunt me and don’t leave me alone. I found myself seeing a lot of work about the night, and I sensed that was significant – a pressing theme. This was just before 2008, when we all knew that we were heading towards something inevitable.

So it captured the essence of a particular climate….

Yes, as it was like a ‘night’ that we knew we would soon inhabit, with the looming financial crash. And although there were many artists making work about the night, it had not been looked at enough. I was chatting to an artist friend, and explaining how the idea was not about when it’s growing dark or when it’s beginning to get light, but instead, that seemingly endless hour of darkness at 3am, and she said: ‘That’s it, that is your subject’.

How is that time of night perceived, and what themes begin to emerge?

We seem to use the words ‘3am’ not as a precise actual time, but as a kind of code for an impossible hour, that point when it is too late to be awake, but too early to get up: ‘I had to get up at 3am to get to the airport’; ‘my kids didn’t get home until 3am’; ‘there was a pounding at the door at 3am’. We are vulnerable then, it is when our bodies and minds are at their most susceptible. Teenagers and ‘misfits’ gravitate to the night, it gives them freedom, it covers and conceals, there is sense of secrecy – and potential subversion. It is when nature is at its most active, when wilderness returns. Then there are all the extraordinary insomniac creatives (in the 3AM catalogue we reproduce excerpts from an essay by Elizabeth Bronfen inspired by sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ Insomnia drawings). It is the idea that our psychological make-up alters at night and our minds and bodies are unleashed. I think these threads and more can be picked up as you go through the exhibition.

How did the choice of works come about?

I tend to like borrowing pre-existing works because when artists are asked to work to a theme, they work more consciously, whereas all the artists in 3AM have arrived at something much less directly, which I then associated with the night. Sometimes I thought I made a bit of a leap, but talking to the artists, they immediately recognised what I meant by it, and they felt it was an interesting setting for their work. I went to the Bluecoat in Liverpool with a long list and the basic idea, and they commissioned the exhibition. I had the most amazing backing and input from them, which made me more daring. But in terms of process, I always build shows gradually, artist by artist, looking to bring something different to the dynamic every time I talk to a new artist.

How did the exhibition installation change when it toured from the Bluecoat to the Ferens Art Gallery?

It is very interesting touring shows, as the works have different conversations with each other in the varying spaces. At the Ferens Art Gallery, 3AM is hung quite densely and so there is an intensity to the show. As before, it seemed helpful to group together ‘chapters’ of work, but they are quite loose chapters, so they come together differently each time.

At the Ferens Art Gallery, the ‘Future Ferens’, a group of young people involved with curatorial behind-the-scenes work, delivered events, made one or two decisions about the hang and also helped promote 3AM. So within the installation we’ve tried to emphasise the artworks about young people escaping into the night. If I had set out to do a show for young people I am sure I would have got it wrong (I am fifty-five), but the exhibition has been very popular with them.

Also, the previous venues – the Bluecoat in Liverpool, Chapter in Cardiff and The Exchange in Penzance – are all ‘white cube’ spaces, whereas the Ferens is a classic museum. In a really spirited way, Kirsten Simister and Claire Longrigg, curators at the Ferens, agreed to install Francis Alys’ video, The Nightwatch, – of a fox roaming the National Portrait Gallery at night – in amongst the collection, in the gallery you walk through to get to 3AM.

What is the initial visual impact when the visitor first enters the exhibition?

The Nathan Mabry sculpture, Process Art (Eat Your Heart Out…), (2007, Main image) of a life-size child carrying a monster on his shoulders is very shocking, and Danny Treacy’s sinister self-portrait photographs as a figure of dread, Them (2005), are attention grabbing. We chose these strong statement pieces to open the show. The Mabry anchors the exhibition, setting the tone, and the visitor senses the Danny Treacy figures looming in the background. The whole effect is immediately unsettling and creates a disturbing atmosphere. Then, just to your right, Marc Hulson’s drawings make you face your worst fears, showing how an ordinary domestic house can become a frightening place at night, with the slightest creak.

Can you expand on the threads you see developing in the nightclub area….

There are two large photographs by Sophy Rickett from her Pissing Women (1995) series, in which smartly composed young women in dark city streets urinate standing up. To me it’s very funny and also, as one blogger said (admiringly, I should say) part of a section of the exhibition that is ‘fucking horribly seedy’. Next to the Ricketts, Tom Wood’s photographs such as Double Grope/Legover (1995) show clubbers from the dreg end of night when people are getting off with each other. 

How does the dialogue between sculpture and photography play out here?

In Dorothy Cross’s powerfully simple black and white photographs, searchlights are trained on the sea to find someone lost in the water at night. To me, they evoke a sense of an unseen body twisting, struggling, drifting in the water – but this is especially the case because, not far from them, Rachel Kneebone’s white porcelain sculptures, such as At the Edge of Dawn and Darkness (2009), depict an erotic tangle of limbs, which to me represent a different kind of loss – of restraint, of self. Porcelain has that sense of delicate purity, but the pieces are erotic – and autoerotic – with a dark, disturbing edge – also manifest in The Black Shadow projecting on me appeared to elect its Prey (2012). It’s very female: I’d make sure I was watching the technicians’ faces when they opened the crates. And from a different angle, the Kneebones are seen with Wood’s images and these engage with the notion of merging, as the couples in his photographs seem fused together, snogging in a dishevelled state, and there is a loss of individual identity that mirrors the Kneebones. 

In the other space there is the Michael Palm and Willi Dorner work, Body Trail (2008), which shows young people running through dark city streets, and at other times piled up in heaps and at strange angles – so in that piece there are tangles of bodies too. I am fascinated by the strange coincidences of form in these contrasting media, as these tangles of bodies can be seen or sensed in the sculptures, photographs and video.

How did the ‘White’ chapter evolve?

Because I was given such amazing moral support, there is quite a strange unexpected facet to the exhibition, with white works, like Rachel Kneebone’s white porcelain pieces. The Tonico Lemos Auad white lace orbs hanging from the ceiling, drifting and irregular, called Sleep Walkers (2013), are very ethereal. In the Bettina von Zwehl’s Untitled (1998) the subjects in the photographs, who all wear white, have been hauled out of their beds while in the depths of sleep, and a bright white light shone on them. Just after the show first opened, I came across some writing with the idea of the night washing us clean – literally an explanation of sleep as the brain getting rid of dirt and debris – so that finally made sense of the ‘White’ chapter.

It’s like capturing the moment between the conscious and the unconscious state, that moment of fleeting transition. In that slippage between sleep and death, do you feel the Rachel Kneebone sculptures engage with this sense of the different states…?

You discover most of this stuff after the exhibition has been put together, I find. There are slippages and correlations everywhere between sex and death, and sleep and death, and night and death. The people in the von Zwehl photographs are barely with us, or they are ‘on the other side’. You sense in a way that they are coming back to life, in that dramatic seized shot. Kneebone’s placing of very sexy and beckoning leg-like and tongue-like forms on a tomb in Study in Self-sufficiency II (2010) is of course significant.

*How important was the installation of Tonico Lemos Auad’s Sleep Walkers in conveying a particular atmosphere…*e

The installation of these was crucial, to create the right sensation for the viewer. The delicate globules must look floating and arbitrary rather than arranged. The orbs are near Ed Pien’s artworks which are the most abstracted in the exhibition, they are ‘stream of consciousness’ white on black drawings, of semi-human floating, turning and coagulating figures. I avoided bringing together work that was too similar, but there are threads which you can take from one to the other. There is a dreamlike atmosphere emanating from the Lemos Auad installation and although I resisted the idea that the exhibition was to do with sleeping, it certainly creeps in, although not peacefully perhaps. Alongside this is the Sandra Cinto installation, Nights of Hope (2013) – about an ultimate star-gazing, with the unrolling of time and the mysterious layered universe suggested by unfurling blue cloth and children’s tops, both with drawings of stars on them.

Does that link to the idea of the mysterious, hidden world of nature…

Yes, and I think of the Lucy Reynolds video, Nocturne (2009), of the lake filmed at night. Because it’s speeded up, the water and trees twitch and shudder in the strangest way. It is quiet and subtle, and I wondered how it would cope in the same show as the more obvious attention grabbing works, but people have responded to it very strongly. It has an understated power and marked effect, as visitors are absorbed in the compelling image of nature beyond their understanding. In Dornith Doherty’s work, she did not know what was making her dog bark at night, so she set up cameras with automatic triggers in her yard and discovered it was teeming with life. One of the images she has chosen is of a coyote turning around, as if to say, ‘What are you doing here?’ It is a world beyond us that we cannot fully understand or penetrate. It challenges our preconceptions as humans are so territorial – yet we don’t own the night at all. Are the coyotes the threat or are we? Who belongs in the night? This links back to other works which present us with another reality we must try to make sense of, seemingly within our experience, yet just beyond our reach.

The Nathan Mabry Process Art (Eat Your Heart Out…) (2007, Main image) is a very psychological work – what do you feel is the relationship between the boy and his ‘creature’?

The more you look at it, the more it gives you. The boy is a clean cut Boy’s Own Annual type, an ideal image – however, he has a monkey-like grimacing monster on his shoulders. The boy has one boxing boot but the monster has the other, the boy has one boxing glove, and the monster has the other, and they’re coming at you. Is it an extraordinary conceptualisation of a child turning his worst imaginings to his advantage, or is he being taken over, being possessed by malevolence? The viewer is challenged to consider the nature of their relationship – have they struck up an allegiance? Also, when you are a child, you love the detail of things, and so it works on that level – the way the boot is on the monkey-monster’s foot and the lacing and thick fur of the monster. Although the sculpture looms over you threateningly, and the bronze is as black as a shadow, it draws you in and rewards you on a sensuous level.

What particular part do you think sculpture plays in the exhibition?

I am very pleased with the contrasting sculptures in the show, it is like looking at a prism that you can hold up to the light and turn and see in different ways. I think sculpture enters our physical space in such a vivid way, and I wonder if our unconscious particularly latches on to it because it is visceral and immediate.

Main image: Nathan Mabry, Process Art (Eat Your Heart Out…), 2007, bronze, marble and wood, 213.36 × 91.44 × 60.96 cms. Private collection (photo: Hannah Rogerson, courtesy of Ferens Art Gallery, Hull).

3AM: Wonder, Paranoia and the Restless Night, Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square, Hull.
20 September – 14 December 2014

A touring exhibition from the Bluecoat curated by Angela Kingston

Aurora Corio