Lucky old Barking and Dagenham. While the rest of London’s boroughs had to spend the last three years languishing without a bunch of artists parachuted in to run workshops with local people, Barking and Dagenham was blessed with Helen Cammock, Ilona Sagar, Rory Pilgrim and Sonia Boyce, all sent in to work with the community and make art out of it thanks to the council’s New Town Culture programme.
The result is a series of films and installations about care, domestic abuse and health shown at the Serpentine, with a parallel show in Barking.
Helen Cammock’s film is based on workshops she ran with care givers and receivers in the borough. She asks them to draw, sing and write and describe things like ‘the colour of care’, and intersperses images of the workshops with clips of grey skies and poetry by Sylvia Plath. There’s a table of books on display too, filled with writing by Deleuze and Camus. The issue here is that the real art for Cammock was working with the carers, so the film feels like a rushed afterthought, and a table full of critical theory texts is no one’s idea of a good gallery experience.
It’s proof that art can be about serious topics without being good
Sonia Boyce presents a four-screen installation soundtracked by the testimonies of domestic-abuse survivors and their loved ones. The screens show the people who voiced those testimonies dancing, interacting, smiling. It’s a clash of harrowing words and joyful imagery. It speaks of survival, of listening, of finding a way out of the darkness. But despite all of that intense emotion, it’s still somehow flat, cold, unmoving. It’s stilted and awkward.
Rory Pilgrim’s work here is based on the idea of ‘rafts’ as fragile metaphorical lifeboats. The film at the centre of his installation was made with local residents all talking and creating art and poetry and music about the climate crisis. It’s another one that feels cold and stilted. And you have to ask if the people of Barking and Dagenham really need an artist swanning in and offering them a lifeboat via the magic of his art. It just feels patronising.
Ilona Sagar’s film is the best thing here. It’s a meditative, quiet, beautifully made look at the lives of victims of asbestos poisoning and their fight for recognition. It’s the only work here that manages to properly tread the line between documentary and art. It’s slow, intense, pretty but also direct and intelligible.
For most of these artists, the actual art was the workshops and outreach, so this just feels like the disappointing documentation of it.
It’s a brutal indictment of most of the art here that it has managed to take such powerful stories of abuse, care, death and survival and tell them with so little emotion. These artists have obfuscated the narratives, and obscured the voices they’re meant to be celebrating. This is cold, badly made, unclear and unintelligible art, swaddled meaninglessly in the language of care, with an exhibition guide pushing you to do grounding exercises, ‘take deep breaths’ and ‘sit in the rest zone in Benugos’. It’s proof that art can be about serious topics without being good.