Fear is a primal instinct that evolved to protect us from harm. But in an age where real, imagined and exaggerated threats loom everywhere, this powerful emotion has become a danger to our well-being. Newcastle-based artist Aaron Guy examines this modern malady in The House that Jack Built at 36 Lime Street, using photography, film and sculpture to shape a facsimile of our malignant confusion and discontent.
In the centre of the intimate gallery space, three large CMT monitors are stacked. A video piece plays on a continuous loop on the topmost screen, while the bottom two remain switched off. The unpowered monitors each have a handwritten post-it note affixed to their screens: the middle one has ‘It’s not working’ written on blue paper, while the bottom has ‘You’re not working’ on red. The filmic piece shows prolonged close-ups of a young man’s face, which is bathed in blue light from one side and red light from the other. Akin to a totem shame pole, the work condemns our dysfunctional ascent into an enlightened era of mediation, where social relations can be both endless and meaningless and our sense of self must endure a barrage of doubt and trepidation. Tears well up in the man’s eyes, his composure breaks and he clasps his head in despair, before regaining his stoical resolve and silently persevering.
At the base of this alter sits a sprawling sculptural piece, where rusty tendrils of rebar, the steel wires used to reinforce concrete, snake out across the floor. They seem almost sentient as they twist and turn, rise and fall, as if searching for something or someone. The jagged rigidity of their movements conveys a sense of angst; their desperate search is futile, impeded by the cumbersome remnants of concrete that still cling to the metal, requiring visitors to cautiously step around the decrepit, serpentine steel.
It is deeply unsettling to see the distressed bones of our cities writhing on the gallery floor. Like a harbinger of doom, it hints at a virulent disease lurking beneath the facade of our society. Its ill presence casts a pall over the room, and the photographic work that radiates out across the walls is seen through a different lens.
A monochrome seaside image is deprived of joy and hope; the elongated hole dug in the beach no longer waiting for a loved one to be playfully buried, but instead a shallow grave waiting to be filled. An otherworldly sunrise becomes a setting sun on a polluted world. And the mysterious ruby hues of shifting smoke herald the opening scenes of Paradise Lost.
There is a similar biblical feel to another of Guy’s pieces, in which chunks of concrete dangle like fruit from coiling branches of rebar. Shot in a bleak urban landscape against a white board held by someone just out of sight, it seems we are being tempted in our own lacklustre oasis. But whilst we may claim to know the difference between good and evil, applying moral distinction in the digital age is far more problematic.
Guy confronts this issue in a piece that displays two sets of parallel photographs each taken moments apart. One set shows an unremarkable city riverfront; the other, breaking waves against a basalt cliff. Subtle differences in each set reveal how easily meaning can shift. A man in haste is suddenly fleeing from some untold terror; the mesmerising force of nature is moralised into a battle of beliefs. Guy shows us that within a climate of fear, imaginations – and rhetoric – can run wild. When our fight or flight instincts are overloaded, we don’t know what to confront, support or simply ignore.
The House that Jack Built was on at 36 Lime Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1 – 16 December 2018.
Christopher Little is a writer based in Newcastle and NE Editor at Corridor8.