Queer writer and philosopher Simon(e) van Saarloos speaks of rules as ‘physical, integrated knowledge; you follow the rules without questioning them’.1 This, they say, results in scenarios, relationships and games that lose their playful character where ‘nothing new is created any longer’. These ideas were playing on my mind whilst I explored Luke Beech’s first solo exhibition Winner Breaks First at Humber Street Gallery in Hull.
As I focused on the initial work presented in the gallery ‘CRUCIBLE’ (2023), I thought about the rules of viewing an artwork like this. The viewer is supposed to put on the headset and watch the performer, Beech, ram a pair of antler horns attached to his head against a wall again and again. The horns titled ‘HEAD PIECE’ (2023) etch eerie blue scratches against the wall via the snooker cues and blue chalk attached to them. I interpreted this spectacle as a metaphor for Sara Ahmed’s idea of intersectional work as ‘banging your head against a brick wall’ (Ahmed, 2017).2 I felt uncomfortable, not least because Beech is semi-naked and perceived to be vulnerable, but also because this action feels futile. Beech seems to motion towards the shifting of something – whether it be the unrelenting, real-life systems that this exhibition alludes to (mental health institutions, educational systems or seemingly straight sporting activities such as snooker) or broad conceptual references to queer identity (lip syncing and operatic singing) and histories of contemporary art (Joseph Beuys’ social sculptures). Overwhelming discomfort is one of the tenets of this particular game.
As I made my way through the exhibition, navigating objects which are both obstacles and artworks such as ‘BAULK, ‘YARD BOMBS’ and ‘KNEELING LEGS’ (2023), I found myself in a familiar area furnished with a grey two-piece Ikea sofa set, green screen and a vase of sunflowers. Titled, ‘WAITING ROOM’ (2023), this installation operates as a series of visual cues to situate the visitor in a clinical institution. The sunflowers recall Alistair Gentry’s recent writings on Vincent Van Gogh, his paintings of sunflowers and history of psychotic episodes.3 As I sit on one of the sofas, I read a zine written by Beech, ‘maybe my entire practice is about making space – a space for people to sit with their demons’. Commissioned by Two Destination Language, the zine coalesces with Gentry’s efforts to unravel and resist the ongoing romanticisation of artists experiencing poor mental health. Artists in this ‘category’ are often described as ‘mad, bad and sad’. These narratives are still rife in the representation of the artist as a tortured genius. However, Beech’s proposal to sit with our demons points to the understanding that all of us – artist, patient, queer or otherwise – have something to learn from sitting with vulnerability, unbelonging and discomfort.
It is a sunny day and the windows, embellished with a refractive film, let through a visible spectrum. A rainbow dances on the floor. Seasons are significant in Beech’s work and life. Slowness and what he describes as ‘fallow’ seasons are moments for the artist to reflect, write and make connections with others. Bipolar disorder can also follow a seasonal pattern, with depressive episodes arriving in autumn and winter, and mania following in the spring and summer. This rotation is highlighted by ‘CARTE GASTRONOMIQUE’ (2023), an absurdist installation made up of nine floating slate shelves flocked with snooker table felt and topped with organic matter foraged by Hull’s Queer Foraging group. The public programme for the exhibition included two walking tours of the city’s natural environments and a meeting turned foraging session with esteemed forager Isaac Marsh. Fed by these activities, the artwork features a rotation of local fauna, flora and fungi such as Oak Maze Gill and King Alfred’s Hot Cake. The work engages with rewilding as an attempt to nurture learning relationships between the artist, Hull’s Queer Foraging group and the gallery, to strengthen and add complexity to the ever-developing arts web and ecology in the city. In this way, ‘CARTE GASTRONOMIQUE’ is part of a research process that Beech employs to care for the relationships formed through his work. It hints at a definition of care as a relational issue that ‘maintains and repairs a world so that humans and non-humans can live in it as well as possible in a complex life-sustaining web’.4
Finally, with its back to ‘CRUCIBLE’ sits ‘SINGING HOLE’ (2023). It is against the commanding aural presence of this work that the entire exhibition sits. The two works are intertwined through the scratches made on the wall by ‘HEAD PIECE’. These marks are used as instructions for an operatic aria, composed by Beech and sung by opera singer Niki Zhodi. A mischievous hole in the wall, perhaps recalling a glory hole, invites the viewer to watch Beech’s mouth as he lip-syncs the melody, slightly out of sync. The formation of language between Beech’s lips looks, sounds and feels both familiar and unfamiliar. I interpreted this as an unmistakable calling card of Polari, a coded language historically used by maligned folk, then adopted by queers in the 20th century to survive in an increasingly hostile and heteronormative world. Whether Beech is creating his own coded language or recalling the Romani and Italianate heritage of Polari is not clear. Either way, signalling to it creates a community of insiders for whom these symbols are signs of welcome, and a community of outsiders destined to leave the exhibition none the wiser. For the curious visitor, an accompanying booklet deciphering the score is tucked away in the corner. It is peppered with morbidity, proposition and queer iconography.
As I leave, I feel like I have been let in on an inside joke in a language I do not speak or given access to a cheat book for a game that I am not familiar with. I imagine Beech winking at me in jest – nudging to the parts of the game that arbitrarily make the rules harder and more complex. Again, I am reminded of the work of van Saarloos, for whom ‘play always succeeds as an investigation, whatever the outcome’. It is in this vein that I think this body of work succeeds. It is an invitation to play, sit with discomfort, begin unravelling the knots, embark on a new enquiry, make a new friend. After some time reflecting on Winner Breaks First, I remember Isaac Marsh’s invitation to Beech whilst discussing the public programme for the exhibition: ‘I’ll meet you in the woods.’
Winner Breaks First was at Humber Street Gallery, Hull, from 12 April to 2 July 2023. Their current exhibition, Bruce Asbestos: BOOTLEG SHREG & FRIENDS runs until 1 October 2023.
Dr Emma Curd is an artist-researcher, writer, producer and zinester.
This review is supported by Humber Street Gallery.
 Simon(e) van Saarloos, Playing Monogamy. (Rotterdam: Publication Studio Rotterdam, 2015).
 Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
 Alistair Gentry, ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know – a look at disability stereotypes’. Disability Arts Online, 2022. Available at: https://disabilityarts.online/magazine/opinion/mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know-a-look-at-disability-stereotypes/
 Maria Puig de la Bellacasa. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).