Here I Am marks 20 years of collaboration between Neil Conroy and Lesley Sanderson. The show is diverse in terms of media – photography, video and sculpture are all represented – but tightly bound through the motifs of structure and the human form. Human figures (their own, we are led to presume) are prominent and the figure of two is repeated even when they are not. Ideas of identity, displacement and strangeness are all at play in this landmark exhibition.
In the photographic pieces we see Conroy/Sanderson standing front and centre of the images. Distorted proportions mean that the figures disrupt the urban and rural landscapes they sit on. The most notable feature, however is the concrete heads – part block, part bag – which sit atop their bodies. They’re comically large, with eye-holes, heavy enough that the bodies shouldn’t be able to hold them up. Daft, yes, but a little sinister too. In one video piece, they stand at the shore as the waves lap up behind their shrunken figures. Their ‘real’ heads are obscured by an origami boat or hat, again with eye holes (but not enough for the two tiny people which hold it up).
The implausible concrete block heads are brought to life in one sculptural work. The physical grey masses tower above the heads of the viewer, on top of two wooden frames. They loom down and don’t look half as funny in real life, invoking a deliberate discomfort. In neon text, ‘HERE I AM’ and ‘I AM HERE’ adorn the structures, though we might be cautious of reading these statements as wholly empowering. The same distinctive wooden structure has also been made miniature. This tiny diorama is displayed spinning at the entrance to the exhibition, making a spectacle of the thing which makes the spectacle.
Through timeliness or coincidence, Conroy/Sanderson are also showing in the Millennium Gallery’s neighbouring exhibition, Hope is Strong, a look at protest art from a broad field of contemporary artists. Their series No More Tears similarly approaches ideas of displacement, as iconic images from modern global conflict are embroidered on handkerchiefs. Here they talk more literally about being uprooted, but again, their absurd charm seeps through.
In the largest image in Here I Am, the figures of the artists look out to sea on a large black and white hyper-realistic drawing (meticulously created over a series of months). The attention-seeking properties of blue neon strips are used to carve up the image into sixteen identically-sized blocks which impose a sense of formality and order on an otherwise emotionally-charged image of longing. On the horizon, another figure of a tower looks back at them.
Throughout Here I Am, the subjects of the work try to route themselves, but the almost-comic head substitutes deny them their identities. Neon lights may seek to affirm their location in place and time, but the work leaves us wondering where ‘here’ might actually be. At this twenty-year anniversary, the work is (literally) heavy with physical symbolism, but Conroy/Sanderson look out towards some strange horizon of hope, buoyed by a deeply surreal sense of humour.
Conroy/Sanderson: Here I Am, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, 22 February 2018 – 20 May 2018.
Lucy Holt is a copywriter, journalist and poet based in Sheffield.