Keith Piper at IKON Gallery, Birmingham (1998)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 29 October 2010
This review first appeared in World Sculpture News, 4(3), page 48.

Keith Piper at Ikon Gallery

With Relocating the remains, British artist Keith Piper presented a technically superb retrospective/re-presentation of his work that addressed "historical legacies, modern stereotypes, and new technologies—on a chronological discovery of both (his) work and issues of race." Consisting of four new installations organized in 1997, the works make strong reference to the artist’s output during the past 15 years, "represented using photographs and texts from the original work as a starting point."

In Prologue (1997), Keith Piper uses lightbox-illuminated computer montages, which look unnervingly at times like either glossy advertisements, authoritative historical museum displays, or cathedral stained glass. In part of the installation two coffin-like forms are topped with the image of a black [man] layered with grid-defined images of currency and commodities—a reference to the historical African slave trade, subtitled Cargo Cultures.

The video installation Another Arena (1997) questions perceptions of blackness and sports performance with relation to nationalism, and the stadium as a container of thought. Unrecorded Histories (1997) consists of a video projection set opposite a stately desk, chair, desk lamp, computer monitor with CD-ROM, and a comfortable carpet. With a video commenting on the effects of slavery, the opposing arrangement became tense with its solidity, authority and reference to socio-economic class.

In the installation Unclassified (1997), viewers entered a semi-dark room that recalled a secret research laboratory. The conspiratorial tone of the work was suggested by two computer monitors offering interactive CD-ROMs set amidst symbolic box files and research folders. In one section, viewers click from a menu consisting from top to bottom of: "Al Gore look-alike","tech-head", and a dark-colored, faceless "other," and are encouraged (and discouraged) from accessing the information superhighway. Clicking "other" we clearly see that our application is not encouraged. For "tech-head", incomprehensible error messages abound, which are a giggle for those who have experienced frustration with computer babble. And with "Al Gore look-alike," Keith Piper refers to the American Vice President’s power position, socio-economic class, and comparatively privileged upbringing, as well as his advocation of the information superhighaway.

With Keith Piper’s arrangement, it is not entirely clear that race, social class, and income are separate categories. This comes at a time when computer technology and Internet access in the United Kingdom is prohibitively overpriced for a large segment of British society—beyond exclusivity of race. In the context of predominantly working-class Birmingham, the work acts forcefully as an impetus for discussion of access across economic class as it does to issues of race, and more largely, concern for the United Kingdom’s comparative international technological position.

Keith Piper’s work is visually enticing with illuminating results. As a representation of work in the late 1990s, the content may appear old news to those familiar with history, historiography, and sociology, yet the work is important for those who have yet to pursue the examination.

The show opened first at the Royal College of Art [in London], then at the IKON Gallery. This touring show has been curated and produced by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva). In 1999 the show will be at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Canada.