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22 October 2012

Look before you leap - Matti Braun's 'Gost Log' at Arnolfini

Bumping into a friend whom I studied A-level art with at college in an art exhibition probably isn’t that unusual and nonetheless it was great to see them again after what’s been a long time. However, most of the time when this happens in a gallery I’m not navigating my way gingerly across various sized and placed logs partly submersed in a pool of water. The installation, titled ‘R.T, S.R, V.T’ is by the Cologne-based artist, Matti Braun and makes up the exhibition ‘Gost Log’ at Bristol’s Arnolfini until January 6th 2013. Upon seeing the installation, I was instantly reminded of Richard Wilson’s ‘20:50’, a room filled with oil in which a narrow walkway cuts into the room allowing the viewer to walk into it where the oil mirrors a faultless reflection of the ceiling creating a disconcerting illusion of space. Braun’s installation creates a similar sensation of the ceiling being reflected back into a pool of water. It’s not as effective as Wilson’s possibly because water doesn’t reflect as well as oil (not that it necessarily meant to either, it’s just an observation). Braun’s is also much shallower and invites the viewer to become a part of the work, to leave the safety and security of the gallery and, ‘leap out’ on and into the work. The viewer is both becoming and viewing the work at the same time. Between forty to fifty neatly levelled and sawn logs (cut from a Douglas fir at Westonbirt Arboretum we’re told) of different sizes make the stepping stones which are placed seemingly randomly in the gallery space.
 So, as I tentatively leapt from the safety of the gallery shore and out onto my first tree stump I thought that this was going to be pretty cool! It was, and I traversed my way across the logs making the less daring decision to take the easy and safe route across (whilst the water was only a few inches deep, I didn’t exactly fancy walking around Bristol with wet feet all day). I paused occasionally on one of the island logs to survey my surroundings and attempt to make sense of it all. Yes, it is visually beautiful as a pool of water often is, and the smell of the resin leaking out from the cut logs into the water was also an appeal to the senses, the still and glassy surface of the water meeting the cool crisp geometry of the gallery space was like a minimalist or Zen garden, but I still wondered what it was all about? The water was on black flooring so appeared deeper than it actually was and the resin from the logs also gave it a richer blacker tone. This and the cut logs created for me images of oil and deforestation and pollution, or there was also something blissfully reminiscent of childhood in hoping from one log to another across the water and I wondered if maybe that itself was the point to evoke memories of childhood and challenge viewers break out of their normal gallery viewing habits and ‘take part’ in the work. Yet on reading the information on the piece I realise I wasn’t anywhere close.

 “R.T, a project about an unrealised film by the renowned Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray entitled ‘The Alien’. While Ray’s film was eventually banned after negotiations with Hollywood producers, rumours say that the script became later the basis for Spielberg’s classic E.T. Braun recreated the opening scene of the film as a spatial environment-a dark and shimmering lake in the exhibition space...”-Arnolfini catalogue

 Oh, I see. Well, that does at least make sense even if it wasn’t what I read into it. If you read further into how Braun works as an artist the decision to recreate this environment from film makes even more sense,

“Braun is interested in the transit of cultural forms and crafts between different traditions. His paintings, sculptures and installations reflect the way in which meaning changes in shifting contexts. His work is often based on concrete histories and stories of specific people and ideas, but abstracts away from these into his own formal and conceptual explorations.”-Arnolfini catalogue

 Still, out of all the cultural forms to look at in the world how is the decision made to filter it down to making an installation based on E.T? ‘Why not?’You might say. For me it was a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or in other words, which came first the idea of the installation? Or did they both arrive simultaneously one out of the other? Who knows and in many ways it doesn’t matter as I still thought the installation itself was brilliant and certainly got me thinking. I think I dislike the way in which the reasoning behind it is so specific that you would never arrive at that meaning unless you read the literature accompanying it. Although again, I go back to what I said before and that’s if the art work itself is still interesting, relevant, exciting, witty or intriguing [like it is in this case] then does it matter what people read into it? Is there a right or wrong or preferred reading?

Curatorially the exhibition is laid out cleverly so that to get to an area of it you feel as though you have to cross the logs to get there (there is of course access across into the space if needed), but for me it felt a bit disappointing in comparison to the central installation piece. Braun creates replicas of patolas, coloured textiles from Gujarat in India. “Braun’s copies which make no attempt to disguise the fact that they are prints, play on the productivity of the relationship between tradition and modernisation...” They look deliberately blocky or pixelated compared to the originals and when put into the context of the overall exhibition the theme of referencing is evident in this piece and in the installation. In this room of the exhibition there are also prints of the stage version of ‘The Alien’ and concrete props that also featured in the play. Interesting images and I picked up some of the hints that Braun was creating replicas in his work but I would still have never made the connection between the photos of the stage play and the installation had I not read the literature so they were kind of superfluous and weren’t necessarily needed in my opinion. Downstairs the gallery space has been concreted over deliberately unevenly and silk paintings created with UV reactive paint have been hung under black light. Again, as far as viewing experience goes, then the concrete floor was very effective at making me think about how I moved around the room, you couldn’t help but notice it, but unfortunately the paintings themselves didn’t do it for me at all. I couldn’t work any of it out, it felt too much of a mismatch of abstract paintings created by drips in clusters broken up by photographic images. Even after reading what it was about, I still felt that it was almost unbelievably cryptic that began me to question the integrity of the rest of the work in the exhibition. I suppose that’s the leap of faith in art sometimes, whether you trust to believe in it whether it turns out to be a load of bullshit or not. I guess that’s up to you. Does the artist have a responsibility to be honest? This might all be getting a bit too heavy for a blog post and at the moment is all speculating and throwing around thoughts as they come into my head. Some further pondering required methinks!
 It was on my second trip back across the installation that I bumped into my friend, ‘well fancy meeting you here!’ seemed like the obvious thing to say (although I did not appreciate its irony at the time) and we began a quick catch up talk in the middle of the installation on our irrespective logs. This was much to the spectacle of the gallery assistants who seemed to also find our meeting here funny and to the bemusement of the other exhibition goers who had yet to venture out across onto the water. Ho-hum! So whatever it meant, why ever it was there in a way all that really mattered is that we were there to see it, both in the work and of the work and for me in its interactivity, that’s what made it special.
 Matti Braun ‘Gost Log’ can be seen at Arnolfini until January 13th 2013

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