A white walled room full of stuff scattered all about, all looks a bit sci fi techy, with lots of silver medal and red tones

Lee Holden:
Universal Bridge

Universal Bridge by Lee Holden, installation view at Cross Lane Projects. Image by Rebecca Larkin.

In the early days of cinema, a pioneering Russian filmmaker called Lev Kuleshov codified the editing technique of montage: the idea that unique and superficially unrelated shots could generate new meaning through the act of juxtaposition. To prove his theory, Kuleshov cut together shots of a famous theatre actor gazing at soup, to show his hunger; and then at a corpse, to show his sadness; and finally at a young woman, to show his love. Audiences were astonished by the subtlety and power of the actor’s performance, but in truth Kuleshov had used identical footage of the actor three times. It was therefore not the actor who conjured those ideas of hunger, grief or lust, but the audience, generating meaning through their own acts of association and interpretation. Montage is the foundation of all modern media.

And so to Lee Holden’s compelling exhibition Universal Bridge, currently showing at Kendal’s Cross Lane Projects, which takes those ideas of juxtaposition and association and makes them all the more urgent, profound, unsettling and extraordinary. No coincidence that Holden has also worked in film and expressly in editing; he cites David Lynch as an influence on his practice.

Is Universal Bridge a sculpture? An installation? A residency? Cross Lane Projects removed their internal walls to provide Holden with the biggest possible space to work, and the artist has seized the opportunity to reinvent his own process. Living on-site for two weeks during construction, and combing through thousands of repurposed objects sourced from his decades of collecting – it took two trucks and a van to deliver all the materials – Holden has brought confounding and chameleonic layers of depth to the space, at times industrial, theatrical, funereal, medical, celebratory, technological, playful, transactional and parapolitical. From the soft play to the oil rig, Universal Bridge reimagines the role of technology in the human sphere.

Is that a blancmange tin? Is that a modem? Or the workings of a doorbell?

Yes. Maybe. And maybe it’s something different now.

A white walled room full of stuff scattered all about, all looks a bit sci fi techy, with lots of silver medal and red tones
Universal Bridge by Lee Holden, installation view at Cross Lane Projects. Image by Rebecca Larkin.

There is an inherent challenge to describing Universal Bridge. The exhibition is huge, built from literally thousands of items. At first sight the eye is drawn to an island at the centre of the composition, where a huge circular tube dangles overhead from hoists and winches. Suspended from this is the cadaverous presence of a medical stretcher, filled with fishing nets and plastic marigolds. Body-shaped and body-sized, this central element infers both death and rescue. Is this a funeral lament, then? Or an act of ascendance? Whether it’s raised unto rapture or lowered into landfill, this contradictory centrepiece defines the feeling of the entire work, where every object has a bespoke counterpart. It becomes impossible to consider any item in isolation, given its proximity to the next; so clamps, vases and mannequin limbs combine with heat sinks and spigots and shackles. There is no single conceit that binds the entire work. In building so many layers of juxtaposition, Universal Bridge poses a lot of questions and consciously ducks the answers, obliging the viewer to provide their own meaning.

Sprawling from the central shrine is a spaghetti of nets and cables. What must be kilometres of tubing, rope and wire appear industrial and also organic. Honeycombs and grids recur throughout the sculpture, giving the sense of both thriving hive and riddled ruin. So many of the items are posed in the moment of collapse, and proximity sensors trigger lights throughout the piece, generating movement and shadow. The floor is a confetti of haulage webbing, kicked and scuffed, always moving underfoot. These moments are ephemeral, rendering the work alive with kinetic potential. To one side, an ancient computer flickers as it digests a floppy disk. A bank of switchboards sprouts electrical wire. Back to the future perhaps? The feeling of Futurism and science fiction is inescapable, cemented by the wry placement of HG Wells hardbacks, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine paying tribute to one of Holden’s inspirations.

At first glance, this barrage of images and associations gives the sense of chaos and disarray, but the longer one remains in the installation, the more the composition becomes assured. There’s an increasing awareness of control, of intent. Nothing is placed by accident. Bulbs are smashed on concrete but also racked in tidy ranks in boxes. Arcs of broken glass and Bakelite curve across a battered crash mat, dull menace laced between the funeral flowers, terminating at an ancient device and a drum of stained paper, then a chintzy glass handkerchief – Holden dreamed about these handkerchiefs and brought a dozen of them into the exhibition. In isolation, it’s the knick-knack you find on the back shelves of a thrift store, but placed alongside the dead device and the shattered Bakelite, there’s a sense of having stumbled upon something confounding, and I can’t help but project narrative onto the arrangement: what happened here?

Drawing strongly on cinema, theatre and literature, the work is inherently dramatic, staged as… what, exactly? Is this an abandoned experiment? A ransacked museum archive? The fossickings of a lifelong hoarder? An interrupted act of military intelligence? Considering the purpose and functions of this sprawling machine-shrine leads inevitably to reflections on one’s own place in its presence. Not only what happened here – but to whom?

This is where the work becomes most exhilarating. Holden makes the inner world external through the interplay of objects we think we know, pushing the viewer to understand these discarded and reimagined fragments with the same passion they were placed. Again, association is the core dynamic, with the installation evoking an era that is tantalisingly near our own and also entirely unique to itself. There are threads of nostalgia and kitsch, but the juxtaposition is such that any identifiable time or place is upturned and reimagined. A medical bag, a magnet – a spinning wheel, a laser. It’s impossible to stand within the sculpture without thinking of the thousands of people who handled these objects in their daily routines. Those past lives feel thrillingly tangible, leaving traces of themselves through the work of hands; whether switchboard operators or paramedics, lampworkers or hauliers, Universal Bridge plays host to a legion of ghosts. The hospital gurneys in the corners of the room are immediately and superficially medical, but take a moment to consider the many hundreds of patients who used them; those who died, certainly, and those who walked away. Each of them, living and dead, leaves something in this space.

A wider view so little items can be seen strewn about on the floor, they look like scraps of fabric which resemble striped braces, and more large metallic techy structures around the outside
Universal Bridge by Lee Holden, installation view at Cross Lane Projects. Image by Mark Woods.

The viewer is not simply witness to this exchange, as though in a museum diorama. Universal Bridge instead obliges the viewer to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the past and project again into the future. Each viewer will bring their own associations, and the work thereby becomes an empathy engine, generating endless acts of imagination. While I was there, I heard multiple people identifying objects from their own lives – oh, I caught my fingers in a latch like that – my mother had one of those – and finding momentary confidence in that knowledge, only to fall into disquiet as they reevaluated the object in its new setting. By upending those associations, the exhibition questions the place of the personal in a post-industrial society. Is this all that remains of us? The overall experience is mesmerising and uncanny. Holden has channelled Lynch in his work, but where a Lynchian experience is consciously devoid of context, here there is almost too much. In both cases, the audience must interpret the work alone, becoming both guide and creator. Holden’s juxtapositions and layers of contradictions, whether instinctive or consciously aesthetic, oblige the viewer to assemble ideas from concepts which are usually separate. Stripped of the context or narrative that aids interpretation, the viewer must therefore create their own. This process of ownership is magnified over and over, the longer one remains with the work, until Universal Bridge becomes a barrage of invention and uncertainty and experimentation, an assault on the viewer’s understanding of the everyday. The overall feeling is of unease, moving almost instantaneously from the scientific world of a laboratory to a place of play, becoming then military, and next archaeological. Unable to settle on one object in isolation, to know where we are or why, it becomes impossible to arrive at one conclusion. All things are possible. The particular experience of Universal Bridge is unique to you and you alone. Bakelite, shattered glass. Radio dials. Scaffolds and surgical tools. Whoever you are, you’re in here too.

On leaving the space, I find a gurney has been moved to the entrance since I arrived, right on the threshold, placed half-in and half-out so it splits the palms of an industrial plastic curtain. It feels as though it was abandoned in a hurry. Scattered on top are a dozen reels of magnetic tape, spooling loops of themselves over the bruised leather. There are ghosts on the gurney and ghosts in the tape. When I leave, my ghost remains with them, crossing the bridge from present into past, and remaining there for someone else tomorrow. I walk out into a night still touched with blue and a sense of awe in my heart; because these are my juxtapositions, my associations, my own Kuleshov experiment. This is what Lee Holden has captured in his extraordinary work – the sense of presence – of belonging – of existing in this moment, and sharing it with others, and going on from here alone. It is unsettling, yes, and it is profound.

Universal, in a word.

Lee Holden: Universal Bridge, Mark Tanner Sculpture Award winner 2022/23, Cross Lane Projects, Kendal, 16 March – 27 April 2024.

Simon Sylvester is a writer and film editor working in Cumbria.

This review is supported by Cross Lane Projects.

Published 28.03.2024 by Jazmine Linklater in Reviews

1,658 words