In his last New Year Quiz for frieze, writer and curator Tom Morton joked that 2013 would see Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012) transform itself into a robot exo-skeleton for the iconic sculptor, and take on Antony Gormley, armoued in his own Angel of The North (1998). So it was appropriate enough that Morton was in discussion with David Blandy about ‘Mobile Suit Academy’, his installation at Peckham Space, a few weeks later. London-born, Brighton-based Blandy established early on that, even via a middle class upbringing in Kilburn, he was aware of the “battlesuits” that all people, but especially the young, feel the need to wear every day: “the tactics that are required, just to get by”. For Peckham Space, Blandy has collaborated with students from the local Harris Academy @ Peckham, and re-imagined their school via ZAFT, the training academy for children in the Japanese anime genre of ‘Gundam’. When trained, the academy’s pupil pilot large, armed robot vehicles – the ‘Mobile Suits’ of the show’s title – to to do battle with rival factions.
Blandy was inspired as a child watching the TV show ‘Ulysses 31’, a Franco-Japanese cartoon which re-told variations on episodes from the Odyssey, but set in an intergalactic future; sharing intricate loyalties, rival heroes, and sometimes unfathomable conflicts, the parallels between the story world of Gundam and that of Homer, or indeed of The Mahabarrata (itself adapted into a staple of Saturday morning TV, for a certain generation of kids in early ‘90’s), are not obscure. The artist’s ongoing ‘Anjin 1600’ series of video works (the first episode of which was recently screened at the nearby MOCA London) foregrounds the connection, recounting the story of William Adams, claimed to be the first Englishman to visit Japan, in 1600, in an anime style. These series of cultural transmissions testify to a view of pop culture as, in the artist’s words, “a kind of pointing at things”.
Similarly, thinking of these artefacts as a series of permutations or re-configurations of a single narrative or character set, provides a bridge between ancient epic and Blandy’s contemporary interest in the ways that digital economies, technology and pop culture foster new, radically hybrid forms of authorship, like the remix, the .gif, or M.U.G.E.N. (the 2 D fighting game produced by a customisable software platform, in which a character from Street Fighter might, on a programmers whim, face Homer Simpson). And just as we now largely understand “Homer” not as an historical individual, but a distillation of a wide oral tradition, Gundam itself has no individual originator. Described as a “meta-series”, it germinated from a toy design and evolved through differently authored Mangas, films, games and fan art. This zone in which the Protean model of the creator is quite impossible to locate, where traditional ideas of originality merge with a sort of creative cannibalism, and where ficiton and historical reality overlap (in 2008, Japanese blogs announced that a convocation of academics from Osaka and Tokyo universities were founding a real life Gundam Academy, attempting the realisation of the show’s technology), is given expression in the form of the exhibition here. As well becoming another Gundam co-creator, Blandy shares creative duties not only with the Academy pupils, who were responsible for developing their own Gundam identities, but the graphic artist Inko, who would re-work the pupils’ initial Mobile Suit designs, before, in some cases the pupils made their own re-interpretations – in some cases literally cutting award Inko’s finished drawings, and re-assembling them.
Speaking of the classroom experience, Blandy described the pupils’ reluctance to begin imagining their Mobile Suits, before they were shown existing examples of Gundam images: “They couldn’t even put pen to paper without “resources” — which are basically things to copy”. Strikingly, there’s no condescension in this observation, or not at least as the exhibition has been realised – for the pupils’ relationship to “resources” is openly replicated in Blandy’s involvement with Inko, the draughtsman. Blandy thus re-imagines himself what it’s like to be enthralled to the one kid in class, the Kid Who Can Draw.
To be faced with the two examples on show here of the developed Mobile Suit designs, printed onto standing cardboard cut-outs, like promotional figures for a blockbusting film or game, is to be reminded what “real art” looks like to a 12 year old, which is to say stylised, skilled, smooth, intelligible, referential, and quite inscrutable. One figure in particular bears witness to the last point: a feathered, feminised mecha with wide outstretched arms, hoveing like a sort of angel above a streetlamp-lit Rye Lane, has for all its manga slickness, a compelling, intimate strangeness, like the doodles from a diary.
Peckham Space has always posed something of a challenge for its commissions: relying on asymmetry, angular forms, neon green branding, PENSON-designed Peckham Space looks more like an eye-catching Expo pavillion than a white cube. But, perhaps more so than any previous show, Blandy instrumentalises this space and its quirks. Converting the interior into an immersive, space-ship step: the walls are gunmetal grey, set with screens showing passing galaxies, and giving over half the space to a bridge, with screens, painted control-panels, flashing buttons, the overall effect is something like that of a set from the ‘Futuristic Zone’ of the Crystal Maze. It’s hugely effective as an appealing environment — 5 years old come in from the street to press the bridge’s buttons (which, perhaps due to budget or perhaps through a half-thought symbolism, don’t respond to their touch) — but it also plays up the gallery’s potentially troublesome relationship to its own physical and social surroundings, what might be termed its “alien” aspect. Frankly, from the exterior, Peckham Space can look like nothing so much as a landing pod. So if this installation invites the visitor to look down from the bridge, through the space’s angular trapezoidal window, and gaze like an intergalatic traveller onto Peckham Road’s LLC Nails, Victory Food Stores, Manu Africa Hall (what brave new world, that has such shopfronts in it!), it is simultaneously making the consumer of contemporary art, high culture, Arts budget, an alien themselves: uninvited, out-of-place. Despite — or rather, exactly through — the imaginative make-believe of the show’s realisation, Blandy admirably refuses any illusion of a frictionless fit between contemporary art and contemporary life.
The heart of the installation, and its most conventionally “artistic” component, is a video loop, shown on multiple screens at the bridge. After an anime introductory sequence, a Mobile Suit mecha beams onto a launchpad. There is a close-up of its face, impassive, as with minimal movements it begins to speak. The dialogue is Japanese, but is subtitled: “Life can be hard sometimes. But you adapt to it”. Reading the notes, it transpires that these dialogues were recording of interviews between the artist and two Academy pupils, which were translated before being spoken by a robotic voice synthesiser. The dialogue, part self-analysis, part confession, rolls on (“You think ‘I’m going to be like my parents and make the same mistakes'” “I want to rap and stuff but it’s hard there’s all this bad energy around you, you get put down at home”), before the mecha beams off, quite abruptly. The shortness of the tape and its jolting rhythm implies an overhead / just caught broadcast, enhancing the sense of intimacy, and fleetingness of the apparent emotional connection between speaker and listener.
Blandy has played with the dislocation of the voice before. Years before Oliver Laric’s acclaimed ’50/50′ (2008), Blandy took a more unsparing, self-critical look at cultural appropriation, community, and privilege, filming himself lipsyncing to the Wu Tang Clan’s ‘Bring da Ruckus’ on a London tube journey in ‘From the Underground’ (2001) or to Ben E. King’s ‘What is soul’ in his bedroom in a 2002 film of the same name. More tenderly, in a 2007 residency at Bristol’s Spike Island, he invited young mothers from Bristol to lip sync to songs they chosen to ‘sing’ to their unborn babies. In works like this last, Blandy shows a willingness to imagine along with his subjects, in a way that the output of the post-internet generation ( ‘50/50’ foremost among them) might seem to be more forensically examining, gawping even, at the furtive self-invention which web use so often uncovers. So too in ‘Mobile Space Academy, the characters printed onto cardboard or speaking in cartoons are granted the same ontological status as the personae, like The Lone Barefoot Pilgrim, who ran around the countryside at Grizedale Arts in 2004, which the artist has adopted elsewhere in his work. This isn’t just art inspired by ‘amateur’ self-invention: it earnestly treats all self-invention as art.
The self-image employed in the videos shown here is of the child inside the robot, the softness within the shell, the terrible disjunct between projected strength and inner vulnerability, which has haunted areas of the Sci Fi/ Fantasy imagination, from ‘Frankenstein’ through to the post-metamorphosis Gregor Samsa. Indeed, it’s hard not to watch the videos and not think of some form of these characters’ lonely dilemmas – terrifying to all, and desperate for company, their outsides stolidly betraying their insides. These videos are an understated reminder that even our most self-defensive gestures can be self-defeating — that, as one of Blandy’s idols might put it, if you talk a big enough game, people one day might just believe you. But the familiarity, even obviousness, of this metaphor does nothing to reduce the emotional heft of these dialogues, the clear ring of authenticity in the words of the testimonies, and the affecting grain of the childlike, artificial voices. They are words spoken from inside an armour which has also become a kind of cage.
The mobile suit metaphor functions pretty well for Blandy’s practice as a whole – the way he inhabits the culture, puts it on, sees what it sounds like to speak from within it. If this stance implies a lack of critical distance from his subjects, the same charge could be levelled at the work. There’s none of the unsettling, sinister elements that might be read into the video works of, say, the Russian collective AES+F. Rather, criticality emerges in Blandy’s work in the kind of ruptures, tensions that ensure during the course of this kind of habitation or embodiment — like Gregor Samsa trying to get out of bed, or open a door, in his new form. Arguably, the apparent paucity of detailed content in this exhibition (the videos last a matter of minutes, the cut-outs only bear so much admiring) might be one of these limits appearing. But, you imagine Blandy saying, if exploring modes and methods of display from outside the contemporary art world — those used by HMV or comicbook stores or cinema foyers — means there’s less to hold the gaze than a series of framed prints: so be it. You pays your money and you take your choice. Indeed, ‘Mobile Suit Academy’ is a refreshing change from those exhibitions (for example, Ed Fornieles’ recent ‘Character Date’ at last year’s Frieze) in which a artists challenges the traditional terms of contemporary art reference (taking instead computer games, or the internet, or product design, as their starting points), but nevertheless produces a contemporary art exhibition that looks just like a contemporary art exhibition.
If Blandy has been criticised as an artist for failing to enthuse, for not producing the kind of seamless, joyous fan-boy dialogues as a Cory Arcangel or a Tarantino, it’s precisely this sense of the openness to anticlimax, disconnect, a willingness to fall wide of the mark, and then see what the territory’s like there instead, which marks him for me as such an interesting figure, and ‘Mobile Suit Academy’ as such a singular exhibition. It accounts for the paradox, and melancholy that runs through the exhibition, and moreover casts the project of social art in a revealing, open-minded light. During the conversation with Morton, Blandy said the aim of a pedagogical project like was to offer the pupils’ an “incremental increase in confidence, if no in art, then in life”. And so the gallery staged a kind of awards ceremony for those “graduating” from the Mobile Suit Academy, to see their installed work, and get a certificate. “And did they seem proud?”, asked an audience member. “Yes”, said the gallery manager. “But it was a Friday at 3pm. After school. They wanted to go to McDonald’s. So it was hard to keep them all in”.
Words: © Matthew McLean 2013 Photo: courtesy Peckham Space
David Blandy : Mobile Suit Academy Peckham Space 18 January – 24 March 2013