I'm Here But I'm Not A Cat - Exhibition Text Originally published to accompany the group exhibition ‘I'm Here But I'm Not A Cat‘ at SET Kensington, featuring Daniel & Clara, Duncan Poulton, Adonia Bouchehri and Edwin Rostron (London, 21st September - 1st October) September 2023
“I’m here live, I’m not a cat”. A white kitten pleads with the 394th Judicial District Court of Texas, its eyes wide and almost bubbling over with tears. This seemingly surreal moment, as many will remember, was Rod Ponton’s fifteen seconds of fame, as he accidentally hid behind the feline filter during a Zoom court case during the pandemic. The video quickly went viral, at a time when virality was firmly occupying its original - and altogether more grave - definition. It provided light relief to the millions worldwide confined to their homes, spending extended periods staring at their screens.
This exhibition takes as its title the attorney’s now-infamous utterance, and gathers together a group of artists all well-acquainted with the increasingly blurred boundaries between the real world and the virtual realm. Exploring ideas surrounding the overwhelming abundance of online images; moving image as a space to both define and distort location; our over-reliance on images to retain memory; obsession as an artistic preoccupation and creativity as a subsequent coping mechanism; and the projection of the personal onto object or image. All deftly move between digital and analogue, and often back again, employing means of making that engage materiality whilst showing deference to our lives lived increasingly online.
The artist duo Daniel & Clara have maintained a collaborative practice for over a decade and present, in their own words, as “one artist split into two human forms”. Their series of short videos, ‘On The Island’, gained attention during the pandemic due to being originally shared and disseminated via Instagram. The videos, a response to both the physical lockdown limitations and their associated psychological consequences, saw the pair utilising their daily allotted hour of exercise to explore the surroundings of their new home on Mersea Island in Essex. We witnessed them commune with the local landscape; looking, listening, lying. The British countryside serves not only as an extension of their studio, where the duo walk and talk to generate ideas, but as more of a muse, a third co-collaborator in their practice even. This enduring love affair with England’s green and pleasant lands began when they returned to the UK for a short screening tour in 2017, having previously spent an extended period of time living in Portugal. The tour ended in Avebury, Wiltshire, a small village entirely encompassed within one of Europe’s largest stone circles, a place replete with menhirs and monoliths, all overlooked by Silbury Hill, an artificial neolithic mound of unknown origin or intention.
The pair describe this serendipitous encounter with the mythic stones as ‘life-changing’, the visit forming the culminating climax of their feature-length moving image work ‘Notes From A Journey’, and initiating their eventual move back to the UK. Unsurprisingly, Daniel & Clara are not the first artists to be awe-inspired by Avebury. Paul Nash returned to the stones as a subject matter in a number of paintings and photographs, most notably 1935’s ‘Equivalent for the Megaliths’ which currently resides in Tate Britain. Derek Jarman too turned his camera onto the many monoliths in 1971 for his orange-hued film ‘A Journey to Avebury’, which can be viewed at Paris’ Pompidou Centre. ‘Avebury Imaginary’, the duo’s own addition to the site’s artistic lineage, includes a moving image work documenting their return to the village in 2019; photographs documenting the stones’ stasis across their three visits; and a scale model constructed entirely from memory. A linear timeline collapses as the past and present merge. Memory and reality are investigated, their importance and veracity called into question. Enduringly analogue, with vintage video cameras and polaroid photography, the duo document themselves documenting Avebury, seeking to capture the moment as their memories, and mythologising, of the original encounter deepens.
Adonia Bouchehri’s animations and moving images merge lived experience and imagination to create spaces foregrounded in fact but that can conjure fresh ways of feeling, thinking and ultimately, existing. Engaged with Michel Foucault’s conceptual concern of ‘heterotopic’ environments, those liminal third spaces that can transcend geographic location and stand outside of traditional societal structures, offering a familiarity yet with a rarefied freedom. The artist’s latest body of work presents as an investigation into her own personal history, specifically her matriarchal heritage. Bouchehri’s mother was born and lived in Iran until her mid-teens when she left the country at the start of the revolution of 1979. The artist herself has yet to visit Iran, but the country, its cultures and its customs loomed large during her own upbringing, passed down through that tender tradition of oral history.
Taking the twinned sites of the Persian garden and Persian rug as her starting points, Bouchehri transports the viewer, and herself, to an imagined Iran, carefully crafted from her mother’s recollections, second-hand memories and added imagined realities. A performance piece, ‘The Mind Is Wearing A Mask’, sees the artist repeatedly circling a Persian rug replete with empty drinking glasses. Wearing a motorcycle crash helmet and trailing behind her a taxidermied flying fish - seemingly incongruous elements that quickly become ceremonial or talismanic in context - it feels ritualistic, the artist at once removed from the reality of her own lineage, creating a new narrative and reclaiming artistic agency. A meditative sound piece accompanies the duration, further banishing that boundary between memory and the imaginary. The viewer is invited to experience through that aforementioned oral history the physical feelings of visiting Iran, lulled into transcendental teleportation by the recurrent refrain “The Mind Is Wearing A Mask”. Alongside, Bouchehri’s moving image work ‘Ghassem’ attempts to achieve resurrection, reanimating a cherished photograph of her late maternal grandfather with the assistance of artificial intelligence. Four thousand ever so slightly distinct images flit and flicker when sequenced together in stop motion, simulating an attempt to recreate an impossible encounter between granddaughter and grandfather as a young man and thus entering into a new conversation with the past.
Edwin Rostron, a mainstay of Britain’s small but vibrant experimental animation scene, has developed his own idiosyncratic artistic style over the last twenty-five years. Employing an almost automatistic approach to animation, a manner of making known as “straight ahead”, he pays little attention to the potential of a perfected end product, opting instead to allow intuition and improvisation to lead the way. Artist Paul Klee has frequently been quoted as saying that drawing is simply “taking a line for a walk”, and Rostron’s analogue animations perfectly encapsulate that ideal. His ‘Fragments’ series of micro-animations, showing at Close Up Cinema in a screening to accompany the exhibition, sees drawings, collages, sketches and studio detritus come to life through stop-motion captured crudely on the artist’s phone. Produced during the lingering pandemic lockdowns, the series displays a certain self-regeneration inherent in the artist’s practice, made using what was instantly available and easily on hand. Described by Rostron as being “made for the sake of making”, you sense their significance as a coping mechanism during an unstable and unsafe time. Vital vibrant vignettes, distractions from the daily doomsaying and rising death toll, akin to the light-hearted, oft-animated idents that are interspersed between terrestrial television programming of nightly news, true crime documentaries and Scandi noir dramas.
Rostron is not precious about his choice of materials, embracing a DIY or punk aesthetic and ambition to create something out of nothing, unabashedly employing shop-bought stationery with little aim to disguise the accessibility of such means of making. ‘Jam Sandwich’ is one such animation piece, and sees bright felt-tip figures and scenes pulsating and looping in constant convulsion, reminiscent of educational scientific stop-motion of embryonic evolution or a hallucinogenic music video for psychedelic acid house. Displayed alongside are a selection of the artist’s paintings, murky muddy portraits rendered in gouache and wax pastel, as well as Rostron’s own abstracted interpretations of Cezanne’s ‘Grand Bouquet of Flowers’ (1892-1985). A final animation, ‘Ghosts of the 2020s’ features a seemingly never-ending reel of these painted and drawn portraits, small objects and scraps of paper dancing across their surface as they scroll downwards before the viewer. Its title suggests a morbid in-memorium, a steady death march of the nameless masses.
Intimately acquainted with abundance, Duncan Poulton has been applying an archivist’s approach to internet imagery since 2015, scouring forgotten corners of the web for those overlooked images no longer pumped out and promoted by the all-seeing algorithms. These supposedly ‘poor’ images - both in quality and often content - low on likes, scarcely shared and rarely re-posted, are saved from the online annuls by the artist, who saves, stores and carefully catalogues them with an attentiveness akin to a digital archaeological dig. It is arguably a futile endeavour, fighting against the tide of internet image overload, a Sisyphean task the artist himself is happy to acknowledge. It is, of course, less about the images themselves - these disregarded snaps shared on long-ended eBay listings, long-silent chatrooms and long-ignored blogs - but about what they say about the importance, or lack therefore, of images in a contemporary society dominated by social media, steady screen reliance and increased online existence. Poulton collages such images into chaotic constructions that carry the evidence of such virtual excess, maintaining a maximalist approach befitting our overindulgence in, and overreliance on, the internet. He also addresses the dwindling distinctions between the digital and the analogue, how the former has frequently borrowed from the latter - supposedly to comfort consumers and assist in the ease of transition - with vocabulary such as ‘desktop’ or ‘cut & paste’, as well as nostalgic pictograms that appeal to our collective memory (the since outdated floppy disk continually commemorated as the identifiable icon for ‘save’, for example).
However, whereas previously the artist would complete each collage with final physical alterations post-printing - adding stickers, spray paint or old-fashioned cutting and pasting - recent works are rendered entirely resistant to IRL interference. They present as technological trompe-l’œil, that term originated by French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly when his illusionistic depiction of overlapping prints, drawings, and papers framed behind broken glass was accepted into the Paris Salon of 1800. Poulton’s prints engage similar optical trickery, as they impersonate family photo albums, childhood scrapbooks or annotated tattered charity shop tomes, complete with simulacrum shadows, imitated tape, fake folds and feigned fading. Gone too are the easy identifiers of the internet, with emojis, aforementioned ideograms and overt evidence of digital manipulation, replaced by fragmented images of community notice boards, badge-covered jackets and weather-beaten lamppost notices, thus delving deeper into his involvement with vernacular image-making and amateur forms of display. AI again makes an appearance, albeit almost indistinguishable, employed only to extrapolate and add further abundance to pre-existing images of accumulation. A nod, perhaps, to how machines have now entered the content creation game, independently generating images, destabilising notions of the authentic and ‘hand-made’, and unconsciously contributing to the digital garbage dump.