Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Corin Sworn

Art Free
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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The fifth winner of the only art prize for women in the UK presents new work following her residency in Italy.

You can see straight away why Corin Sworn’s work impressed the jury of the Max Mara Art Prize for Women, because it’s packed full of intelligent and stimulating ideas. There are references to the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, for instance (Sworn was given a six-month residency in Italy as part of the award), in the form of videos showing actors performing dainty, dance-like charades. Meanwhile, the rest of the installation consists of various props, stage objects and costumes fusing period and contemporary elements – all reflecting the artist’s research into stagecraft and theatre. Finally, playing across four speakers, a sonorous male voice narrates the famous sixteenth-century tale of Martin Guerre, in which an imposter took on another man’s identity – to extent of marrying his wife – before being eventually discovered and hanged.

The whole piece, in short, is like an intriguing history lesson, exploring shifting concepts of acting and role-playing – both in a theatrical sense (the female dancers portraying male characters), but also in the broader social context, as the emerging capitalism of sixteenth-century Europe spelt the end, so the narrator tells us, of feudalism’s rigid social strata. It was during this period of fluid, more malleable identities, apparently, that the word ‘performance’ began to mean more than just executing one’s duty, instead conveying notions of enactment and outward display.

All of this is interesting, but it’s hard to shake the sense that there’s something missing from Sworn’s installation. Good art, after all, should be more than simply an index of ideas – yet here the work itself, its physical presence, never really makes much of an impact. Though perhaps that’s mainly due to where it’s situated, so that any subtleties – such as the narrator’s voice leading you around different speakers – become rather lost in the hubbub of the Whitechapel’s notoriously difficult Gallery 2.

Gabriel Coxhead


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