Jennifer Tee, Let it Come Down, Camden Arts Centre July – September 2017
There’s a lot I enjoy about a visit to Camden Arts Centre. Granted, their particularly well-stocked bookshop and the elegant proportions of CAC’s Victorian building make no small contributions. For me though, it’s the composure, clarity and generosity with which they deliver their exhibitions, residencies and events that underpins an altogether more engaging and rewarding viewing experience than that of some of their ‘kunsthalle’ peers. This institution’s particular strengths are perfectly illustrated in Jennifer Tee’s solo offering ‘Let It Come Down’.
Tee’s artist CV reads of someone held in high regard by the big hitters. Representation by Galerie Fons Welters, working with Stedelijk, Van Abbemuseum and the parallel exhibition to ‘Let it Come Down‘ currently being presented at Bonner Kunstverein. But it’s Tee’s more subtle and public interventions which pepper these significant solo exhibitions, such as public commissions for St Werburgh’s Primary School in Bristol which have kept me intrigued and substantiate her interest in provoking audience engagement with her work beyond those visiting these weighty institutions.
Participation in the group exhibition ‘Five Possibilities for Sculpture’ at La Loge, Brussels in Spring 2013, was what initially placed Tee’s work firmly on my radar. A former Masonic lodge, the symbolism and ritualistically- laden architecture of La Loge provided a near perfect backdrop for Tee’s work, charged with esoteric enquires and complex material investigations. Since the brilliance of this nimble show, Tee has continued to probe distinctions and connections between the tangible and intangible, finding form in sculptural elements, collage and performance which reference cultural motifs from both the East and the West.
Tee assumes the role both of a provocateur and an anthropologist, intimately connected by a desire to catalyse ‘moments’ and certain modes of behavior through the physical form and layout of the works. The floor of the gallery is dominated by enchanting hand-woven sculptural textiles, all titled ‘Resist’. The use of this medium will provide a familiar sight to those who have seen previous presentations of Tee’s work.
Most immediate is a thick woven piece of a deep mustard colour. Images come easily of slow weekend afternoons stretched out upon its comforting surface which seeks to welcome you graciously upon it. This vision is gently disrupted, however, by the ceramic slug-like objects which slowly come into view: bringing with them an illusion of greater permanence and history. Emerging- or should I say creeping- from the four corners, the ceramic objects seems certain of their direction of travel. What might transpire from their restlessness seems unknown: ambiguity between what exists, in the present moment and what may still emerge.
Two further textiles command attention, displaying an Aztec influenced patternation across a graduated spectrum of vibrant pink, blue and greens. Defined crystalline or diamond forms, their lighter weave and naturalistic form imply a more malleable state, somewhere between a liquid and solid with a suggestion of its ability to multiply. Once again, Tee implicates us in a material and physical dichotomy, indicative of restlessness and a state of limbo.
Such latent potentiality is utterly intentional. These textiles will be activated through performance, a notable highlight of Tee’s practice, which for this exhibition includes a choreographed event and readings. As a visitor who can only anticipate this secondary level of engagement, the ‘Resist’ works prompts a broader questioning of the positioning of stand-alone installations within a performative context. To what extent can an exhibition offer a full satisfying viewing experience, when comprised largely of objects which are currently at rest? One gets the sense that the performances on 2-3rd September will eschew the installation’s ambiguity which as a provocateur, is precisely what Tee seeks to encourage, if only temporarily.
This reading of Tee’s work may be supported by the artist’s intriguing choice of exhibition title and referencing. A video interview with the artist on view in CAC’s foyer- another example of their generous interpretation- explains the quotation’s root in Shakespeare’s great tragedy ‘Macbeth’. Whilst the title’s reference infers pure fatalism, my understanding of the piece is work with which it also attributed, is not wholly condemning.
The large-scale rose collage work formed of Queen of Night and Rembrandt tulip petals of an intense indigo, visually falls down and rise to resemble a extraordinary weaving, stretching four and half meters wide and nearly two and a half metres tall. Clues pointing towards a looser attribution of the title, can also be found in the deeply personal and historic connections between the artist and her choice of materials. Tee herself lives and works in Amsterdam, whilst her grandfather was tulip grower.
In ‘Let it Come Down’, Tee allows us to inhabit works layered with conceptual, emotional and psychological narratives. Her world is not only aesthetically beautifully but highly-charged. Contemporary life as we know it is complex. Of that Tee is no apologist: in fact this seems to be her primary motivation. But the result of her probing, through idealistic and realistic approaches in equal measure, ones which at once let events unfold but also similarly urge viewers away from acquiescence, means I left CAC feeling energized but lacking instruction.
The latter, however, is precisely what Tee is hoping to avoid. Annick Kleizen in her introductory essay to the exhibition’s ‘Footnote’ micro publication writes; “Utopia is not prescriptive; it renders potential blueprints of a world not quite here, a horizon of possibility, not a fixed schema”. Through Tee’s labour intensive processes and repeated invitations to contemplate the spiritual through her works, encourages us, as viewers, to work that bit harder. Didacticism is not this artist’s raison d’etre: rather it seems to be the creation of environments, enriched with multiple cultural reference points, which prompt the coming together of people and activation of space. Tee seems to propose a utopian view of how we can live better, provided we can follow her lead and show a certain willingness to let go.