The black silhouette of the artist wearing a baseball cap is visible in front of a green pram containing a bright pink humanoid form collaged from various types of fabric and mannequin bodyparts.

Mark Woods:

Installation view of Mark Woods: Absorption. Image courtesy Cross Lane Projects, photography Vanya Balogh.

A year since Corridor8 reviewed the group exhibition Made With… at Cross Lane Projects, artist Mark Woods – one of those on display in Made With… – returns with the solo exhibition Absorption.

Absorption is named after an African-inspired fetish object by Woods, one of many you can expect to encounter in his nightmarish labyrinth of lightboxes, mannequins, and peepholes – a space for visitors ‘to be absorbed and for absorption to take place’. [1] The exhibition is inspired by the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme at Galérie Beaux-Arts in Paris, the pivotal group show which foreshadowed the concept of art exhibition as an immersive experience. Visitors to the exhibition were provided with torches to reveal a corridor lined with mannequins provocatively dressed by pioneers of Surrealism such as Man Ray and André Masson’s ‘Girl in a Black Gag with a Pansy Mouth (1938).

Cross Lane Projects itself is a nondescript building, hidden away up a narrow lane. You’d never expect that it would house as bold an exhibition as Woods’. An outdoor mural titled ‘SNAP’ (2021) by Manchester-based artist Alex Giles has recently been commissioned to add a pop of colour to the former mint cake factory on the adjacent wall to the gallery, guiding passers-by to the independent venue.

In the foyer of the space is a single trestle table behind which sits a gallery invigilator. To the left, behind a black curtain, Serenade for the Doll by Claude Debussy pulsates ominously on repeat. Curator and long-time collaborator of Woods, Vanya Balogh, responds to the question ‘What is Absorption?’ in an introductory text, encouraging first-time visitors to pause before entering the exhibition and ‘gather your senses for the visual experience that is ahead of you’. Though this seems a somewhat moot point, given the reading material is provided only after the exhibition. [2]

I take a deep breath in anticipation of what is to come.

A single step leads to a pitch-black corridor. Before my eyes have a chance to adjust to the darkness, my nostrils are hit by the intense smell of rubber latex which coats the walls from floor to ceiling. I run my palms along the walls as if finding my way through a stuffy underground nightclub. I’m completely alone. I wonder if Woods and Balogh have considered how the latex will be recycled or disposed of; then my mind moves to questions of capacity and social distancing and ‘can you fireproof wall to wall latex?’ as I grope my way through the claustrophobic bottleneck corridor – it reminds me of seaside walk-through horror shows.

On the left is the first of four lightboxes. A soft glow shines through the back of a digital photograph of an antique lampshade, revealing the floral details and graininess of the negative space around the image; combined with the eerie music, I’m transported to a 1920s speakeasy in a secret London location. In an exhibition so keen to emulate the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme, these digital photographs of analogue objects feel like a compromise, and their practical application – subtly illuminating the space – exceeds their aesthetic merit.

I stumble towards ‘Hans’ Bedroom’ (2021), partially hidden behind two Parisian-style wooden doors; a direct nod to the French location of the famous Surrealist exhibition. Within sight, in the bedroom, a pair of wooden limbs are bent upwards on the mattress surrounded by fake fur. The voiceless feminine figure is penetrated with a showerhead, producing an image that is, overtly, sexually violent and aggressive. The sexualisation of the female body by a male artist makes me feel very uncomfortable as a solo woman visiting the exhibition.

Rebecca Larkin, Gallery Projects Manager at Cross Lane Projects, explains after my first lap of the installation that ‘the doors are fixed slightly ajar to frustrate the viewer because they cannot see everything. They want to know who or what is perched at the other end of the bed, beyond the mannequin’s legs’. For me, the limited sightlines heighten the implication of sexual violence and I’m keen to move on.

A black background with heads and figures visible in the centre through a peephole. The heads and figures are 'grotesques', constructed from other parts of mannequins and waste materials.
Installation view of Mark Woods: Absorption. Image courtesy Cross Lane Projects, photography Vanya Balogh.

Mannequin body parts are also dominant in ‘The Laboratory’ (2021) at peephole four. Woods describes the final scene of curated heads dangling from the ceiling and rotating on stands as ‘contemporary grotesques’. [1] There is a consideration as to what forms the body could take in the adornment consisting of taxidermy owl eyes, teeth, and headdresses but again there is violence in the process of ‘turning these collected heads into skulls’ by drilling out eye and mouth holes to manipulate the forms. [1] According to Tess Thackara in Why Contemporary Women Artists Are Obsessed with the Grotesque (2019), ‘the contemporary grotesque is interested in underlining the way that bodies that are different from the (white, male) norm, or that, in deviating from impossible standards, are treated as aberrant or monstrous.’ [3] The grotesque is not owned by women artists, but it would add to the work here if Woods demonstrated an interrogation and awareness of why he is making work in this way. An artist who does this well is James Ostrer; critiquing his own white privilege through grotesque art and acknowledging the context in which he is working, such as in Johnny Just Came, curated by Azu Nwagbogu at London’s Gazelli Art House in 2018. [4]

Are those other visitors I can hear following in my footsteps? ‘I feel like a Peeping Tom’, someone whispers.

With no sense of how long I have been absorbed in the black hole I am spat out at the other end and find myself in the ‘Gift Shop’, an extension of the exhibition containing a series of objects in a museum vitrine and a limited-edition photographic box featuring twenty-two signed, full colour prints which can be made to order. Woods’ presence as a solo artist is central again in this transitory room. An interview between himself and Balogh plays on an Apple iMac. It is over-edited to the point where it is impossible to follow the narrative because scenes are cut at seemingly random points. This feels like a missed opportunity for the artist to offer the viewer an insight into his aims and intentions within this exhibition. I’m unclear whether the editing of the film is deliberate obfuscation to serve some artistic purpose or if this is a mistake by the artist.

Set against a black background a kaleidoscope tesselates parts of an image. In the centre a small, clear, image of a mannequin complete with a wig, white cotton lace collar, and green tassels is visible.
‘Donald’s Dick’ (2021). Image courtesy Cross Lane Projects, photography Mark Woods.

What does it mean to be showing this work here and now in Kendal? The comments book in the gift shop is full of glowing praise from the previous evening’s private view event, though I note on the day of my visit only seven members of the public have attended. I can finally access a copy of the interpretive handout. In an interview with Balogh, when asked how the exhibition will engage with the local audience, he responds:    

‘I hope it is the other way around. I hope that the Kendal audience engage with this extraordinary show, enthusiastically so, and are left amazed and inspired. There is much to discover, to experience and hopefully the beauty of Mark’s work will make an impression on art loving audience locally who are brave to come and see it’. [2]

This assumption is indicative of an arrogance that punctuates the entire exhibition – converting the gallery space at Cross Lane Projects into a temporary home for fetish objects is no challenge for the talented jewellery maker-cum-boat builder. But why is it here? Woods has been in Kendal since 2018 when Cross Lane Projects was set up. His studio is adjacent to the exhibition space, yet this feels like the work of an artist who is still making work for a London audience. Kendal’s appetite for art is much more than Lakeland watercolours, but Absorption is markedly disconnected from its setting.    

Although not officially an age restricted exhibition, I also question the potentially triggering content on display that could leave vulnerable individuals feeling overwhelmed. After months of gallery closures due to the pandemic, it is not my intention to dampen the ambition of this artist-led venue, but on this occasion the sensory journey I was taken on needed some refining.

On the train home I glimpse into my bag to see a pair of bulging orange eyes and tongue studded with metal findings. It is one of the artist’s heads, ‘Art Director’ (2021), on the cover of the exhibition handout, staring back at me. A reminder that I have taken a piece of the installation with me into the world; an indirect adoption of one of Wood’s creatures. 

Mark Woods: Absorption is on display at Cross Lane Projects 24 July – 18 September 2021.

In February 2022, Woods also has a solo show at the Cable Depot, London.

Danielle Ash is a curator and writer based in Lancaster.

This review is supported by Cross Lane Projects.

[1] In Conversation with Mark Woods and Vanya Balogh, interview, edited by Rebecca Larkin, 2021

[2] Vanya Balogh, Vanya Balogh on Absorption, published by Cross Lane Projects, 2021

[3] Tess Thackara, Why Contemporary Women Artists Are Obsessed with the Grotesque, Artsy, 2019

[4] Kathryn O’Regan, The White Male Artist Making Grotesque Work About White Male Greed, SLEEK, 2018

Published 05.09.2021 by James Schofield in Reviews

1,490 words