In its fifth year, Platform 21 returns to the galleries of Sheffield in a multi-site exhibition celebrating the halfway mark of the two-year Platform residency, an artistic development initiative part of the wider Freelands Artist Programme. Bringing together five distinctly different artists, Rachael Colley, Jan Hopkins, Seiko Kinoshita, Lea Torp Nielsen and Anisa Nuh-Ali, Platform 21 shows work developed in the first year of their two-year residency.
Site Gallery, one of three galleries participating in Platform 21, is home to Soft Loop. Two black curtains hang in the entranceway. Shuffling through them, the space becomes almost comically large, like passing through the back door of a barber shop into a jazz bar or underground rave. Lights strobe across the walls, and the crushing sounds of Japanese-born textile artist Seiko Kinoshita’s ‘shuttle’reverberate around us. Her accompanying installation ‘distant’hangs in front of us, a jagged sphere of paper and light spinning purposefully, allowing us a delicate moment of contemplation. Bits of tracing paper woven together with fishing line hang together to create a sphere, each one unique in how it has been creased and bent. Viewed from afar, ‘distant’ appears as a single unit; up close, each piece of paper becomes its own mini sculpture. As pixels of colour pass across the paper, the experience becomes ephemeral: light dances, moves, passes by and never returns to where it started. Dedicated to Kinoshita’s late friend Katey Felton, ‘distant’ appears suspended in its own never-ending planetary rotation. Perhaps that’s the perfect act of remembrance: to give an object absolute freedom to move, and simply notice the randomness of sensations, the light and colour.
A little way down the road at Yorkshire Artspace sits Danish-born multimedia artist Lea Torp Nielsen’s solo show BROOK/HYDRA. Sitting ourselves down on pink beanbags and cushions hoping to get lost in the visual and narrative mix, we are bathed in a pool of pink hues and warped sound. Torp Nielsen’s short film ‘Brook (Hydra)’ is projected onto the wall, a six-minute descent into the dream-like consciousness of the artist’s field recordings and found footage. Like Kinoshita, Nielsen seeks not a remembrance through grief, but through a sense of origin and the self. Embodying the folkloric character of HYDRA, Nielsen is searching for a mythic past; ‘I am the life force of terra…I am life’. The attempt at pseudo-psychedelic videomaking that seeks to disorientate and displace is fuzzy, disappointingly held back by the bright lights of the gallery and the audible presence of the world ticking by outside. After a while, it all begins to feel like an overpriced holistic retreat rather than a convincingly built world of folklore and imagination.
Back in Soft Loop, the plasticine-like colours and ambiguous forms of Rachael Colley’s assemblages feel like something out of a Memphis Group catalogue, whilst visual artist Jan Hopkins’ retrofuturism speaks to 1960s Star Trek nostalgia. Colley manipulates shapes; Hopkins manipulates reality. The ritual of eating, often a shared experience but also a deeply personal one, is explored in Colley’s assemblages. With leather aprons hanging from barbells, surreal metal cutlery and wooden tools, the reconfiguration of objects is often surprising. Barbells are weightless in these assemblages and ceramic bowls behave like quotation marks across the installation. Things lose their function as they are hung, dressed, concealed and appropriated. By bringing the gym into the kitchen, and both rooms into the gallery, the artist muddies the waters between public and domestic spaces, the latter of which is private and at times suffocating.
Hopkins’ ‘In My Life’, a cabinet vitrine filled with wires, LCD mini screens and transistor radios, sits stoically at the back of the gallery, where technology and the handmade coexist. Crystal glasses line the shelves of the cabinet, as kitsch sculptures of wooden giraffes sit atop, alongside a transistor radio. The items are like stand-ins for something bigger, each one representing broader ideas of the past, the future and our place in the world. In Hopkins’ androidian mannequin ‘The Fool On The Hill’,she seems particularly intent on telling us that we are deeply connected to technology, perhaps overly so. The idea of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – the inexplicable unease we feel when presented with a robot that looks a little bit too human – is continued throughout. Wires feed into the mannequin’s arm like a bunch of needles pumping life into a disconnected body. Dressed in a wool vest and white shirt, its head is replaced by a small screen with an eye glaring out at us. It seems Hopkins isn’t trying to terrify us with an insane vision of the future, but perhaps to unsettle us with a bizarre version of it.
Bloc Projects is, for me, where the gem of Platform 21 lies. Swedish-born Sheffield-based Anisa Nuh-Ali’s ‘Imprint(s)’ is a meditation on the artist’s Somali heritage, on family history and personal experience. The installation is fiercely intimate. For better or worse, often the most compelling art is that which lays bare its trauma; as viewers we often demand more from artists than we would be willing to give ourselves. The collection of personal items presented by Nuh-Ali is an opportunity to reflect on the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of someone else’s life. Three basketball hoops laced with tiny white shells are affixed to the wall. Opposite, a fishing net hangs from ceiling to floor, woven with what Nuh-Ali refers to as ‘talismans’, bequeathed items that pay homage to the migrant journey. A slide projector screens archival photographs of Nuh-Ali’s family onto the underside of an open suitcase lid, tracing lineage through image and narration. Passports and photos lay partially hidden beneath a layer of soil in the base of the suitcase, revealing only what Nuh-Ali wants us to see. ‘Imprint(s)’ is not just an exhibition of artwork, it’s a shrine to those who came before, a way of ensuring they are not forgotten.
Having consumed everything on show, it dawns on us that Platform 21 is as much of an open studio as it is an exhibition. The spectre of hours of trying and trying again pokes out of the repeated use of foam and leather in Colley’s assemblages, whilst the use of netting in Nuh-Ali’s basketball hoops and fishing net demonstrates a desire to test the limits of materials. Hopkins’ collections of multiple materials suggests a willingness to experiment, a commonality seen in all five artists. The presence of the artist’s labour fills each gallery. Though the failed experiments, leftover materials and discarded rubbish that usually fills the studio are absent, we know they’re hidden somewhere amongst the polished sculptures, videos and assemblages. Each work is a present reminder of the process of making and unmaking, of speaking the unspoken truth that is the artist’s process. It’s not often we are gifted a look behind the scenes, but in Platform 21 that’s exactly what we get.
Platform 21 is on across multiple sites in Sheffield until 20 February 2022 at Site Gallery and 19 February 2022 at Bloc Projects and Yorkshire Artspace. More information about the exhibitions can be found here.
Alex Stubbs is a writer based in Hull.
This review is supported by Site Gallery and Freelands Foundation.