Cameron Rowland: '3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73' review

Art
2 out of 5 stars
Cameron Rowland: '3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73' review

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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Art about contracts is a hard sell. But that’s what you’re buying into in American artist Cameron Rowland’s exhibition at the ICA. And not just buying into, but buying blind, because the artist has made absolutely zero concessions to approachability, legibility or comprehensibility.

This is Rowland’s first UK show. It’s an ultra-minimal display of paperwork and small objects relating to the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the treatment of black people in contemporary society. Before you get to the display, you’re handed a 20-page document that you have to read first. It’s a heavily footnoted, densely academic text on the relationship between slavery and property ownership. 

Then there are the objects and documents. Three police searchlights are propped against one wall. Strings of eighteenth-century manillas – brass armlets – lie in a pile on the floor. A coin hangs on the wall near a framed lease for a mooring at the Albert Dock in Liverpool. That dock was once the centre of the British slave trade and the mooring will lie empty for the duration of Rowland’s lease; the coin is a guinea, made from gold mined in West Africa; the manillas were British-made, used as currency to buy slaves. Upstairs, Rowland has taken out a mortgage on the ICA’s doors – big slabs of mahogany fitted when Carlton House Terrace was built in the 1830s. Mahogany was felled and worked by slaves. The building that the ICA leases still belongs to the Crown. 

These are shocking objects, and Rowland uses the tools of bureaucracy to bring their hidden, brutal history into the present. These are the same tools the British used to manage the slave trade from the safety of our islands: negotiated contracts, paperwork.

But for something so interesting, so important, it misses the mark so badly. A couple of almost empty rooms and a dissertation don’t make for an engaging, affecting art experience. And would it have killed the ICA to give just a single explanatory paragraph to help viewers into the show? Could they not have laid it all just a little bit more bare?

Instead, all of Rowland's work holds you at arm’s length, refusing to let you in. It’s the kind of academic, unyielding exhibition that makes people hate contemporary art. It feels like art for people with degrees; it feels like it’s saying: ‘If you don’t get it, it’s not for you, and that’s your fault, not mine.’ By being so resolutely dense, academic and unforgivingly unexplanatory, Rowland is immediately excluding the people who could most do with hearing the message of their art. It’s elitist, and it stops people from engaging. Rowland has powerful ideas; they’re just expressed really weakly.

(We are unable to include images from this exhibition)

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