Zilvinas Kempinas, IKON, Birmingham

Zilvinas Kempinas, IKON, Birmingham

A realisation has dawned on me over the past few years that when it comes to exhibition style, I seem to have a clear preference. Evidence would suggest that I appreciate a discernible but not overly worked curatorial premise: an inkling as to what might come- thematically or artistically-without being spoon-fed via overly contrived presentation or heavy handed interpretation. A lead-in rather than being led, you could say. Galleries take note: this visitor wants a feeling of agency and I would imagine I am far from alone.

So in relevance to my recent visit to IKON, alongside the truly mesmeric works sprawling Birmingham’s waterside contemporary arts venue, this could in part explain why I was particularly spellbound by Zilvinas Kempinas first UK solo presentation. Given that this visit was more a “Quick, I’m in town, get me to the nearest gallery” than a planned excursion, on entering, I picked up and hastily skim-read the exhibition programme. I was able to briefly deduced that forms of sculpture cut across these three artists on view and immediately my mind was taken back to a stand out show I saw in Brussels a few years ago. The show in question was simply titled ‘Five Possibilities for Sculpture’ and was curated by Zoe Gray at the city’s architecturally curious and rigorously programmed La Loge. This exhibition has long stayed with me in its clarity of vision and diversity of works. On entering Ikon’s first gallery, an encounter with a sign warning visitors that the ‘exhibition involves magnets, moving imagery and fragile artworks’ further piqued my intrigue levels.

Although three artists works traversed IKON, I must make clear that by the time I had left Kempinas’ presentation on the lower galleries, I felt I had already seen something so exciting and holding of attention, that my mind was whirling. In no sense then, is this intended as a fair and balanced review of Sara Barker and Philippine Hamen’s work also on display, despite the former’s delicate work commanding serious inspection. And equally, this review is also predicated on the fact that prior to stepping in to IKON, I was utterly naive to the work of this Lithuanian born, New York-based artist. It would seem, however, that on this occasion, ignorance can be bliss. If labels or categories are your thing, his work could easily be referred to as being ‘minimalist’, ‘abstract’, kinetic art’ and ‘op art’. Personally, I would urge you to go and make up your own mind.



Underpinning Kempinas’ works is a tension between visual rhythms, disruption, balance and instability, explored through non-traditional materials and bookended by two, superbly affecting and transfixing immersive installations. Kempinas presents a gentle chaos. As a whole, the works ingratiate themselves through appearing beautifully refined, precise and considered. A more patient study reveals them as defiantly precise but never resolved: their perspectual and experiential shifts constantly complicating them. This places the viewer at the centre of the work and as a result, the work’s completion and interpretation: The works are never conclusively determined but constantly reimagined through the interaction with those around them. If I wanted greater agency in a gallery, Kempinas certainly knows how to deliver.

The first work encountered on entering the galleries, certainly sets the tone.Untitled (Forest), 2016, is characteristic of his preoccupations with physical and optical experience of the viewer, the passage of time, and the perception of the body and architecture to form a work as seductive as it is disorientating. This new installation, made specifically for the show at Ikon, combines an upside-down video projection of a ride through a forest and a mass of metal rods (tripods) painted white, arranged on the glossy black floor. It is indicatively elemental, representing and embodying natural phenomena such as light and the sky but the projected moving scene’s unexpected pace and shifting orientation makes for an unsettling environment and viewing experience.

Kempinas’ interest in the magnetic finds form of in Bearings (2015). In these floor-based works the artist presents thousands of steel ball bearings atop two black box-like objects.Initially the small balls appear to be in a static formation, but on closer inspection there is occasional movement – the bearings each slowly shifting, rearranging and re-positioning themselves into an infinite work in progress. The tickertacker of the ball bearings resembles a light patter of rain and the slow movement as transfixing as the ripples of a pond. Bearings is one of several expressions of movement, liveness and the relationship between the performative and traces of these events.


Unprecious, everyday objects and materials are further reified in his 2008 work,Double O, which utilizes his signature material, unwound magnetic videotape. The tape is held aloft, almost as if it is levitating, by the interaction of noisy fan and magnetic semi-circular magnets, creating an unpredictable experience as the floating videotape cannot be contained nor predicted. On the one hand, the free movement of the circular piece of videotape is reminiscent of a feather floating by in front of your eyes or a ring of smoke subtly diminishing. Its transfixing nature is punctured only by a fear of its path being interrupted causing the tape to drop dejectedly to the floor. Curious on this point, I sought the clarification from a gallery assistant who had testified that the tape’s flow and the flight had indeed, been interrupted through proximity to visitors, reaffirming the affective role of the viewer in determining elements of Kempinas’ work. The tape becomes the critical medium,  an object of contemplation and a narrator of its own story.


The final room is home to a blistering installation. In keeping with the subtle yet effective curatorial style of the show, the entirety of the installation is invisible from the other galleries, only fully revealed on entering the room. The room is almost cinematic in its presence, the experience formed from various works including crystal clear moon-lit images (Illuminator XX-XVII) 2015, dense lengths of unspooled videotape stretched across the gallery walls forging a labyrinth path(Verticals), 2015 towards the well-known and frenetic White Noise, 2007. As the title implies, the latter ratchets up the chaos levels. White Noise presents a confronting projected image which vibrates, hums and flickers like static or piece of unturned video. In moving further in to the space, it becomes clear that Kempinas has once again played an optical and perceptual illusion,: the screen is in fact countless pieces of horizontally stretched tape activated by fans and illuminated through the sharply glowing and compactly hung moons metaphorically holding the visitors hands through the space.

Kempinas’ solo exhibition left me with a full heart and a whirling head. Both signs of a great show in my book. And given I had encountered the melee that was the Conservative Party Conference en route, it also felt corrective.  If only, on coming toe-to-toe with Sajid Javid, I had relinquished my British resolve and had defiantly shouted ‘Sajid! Great contemporary art, that way!’ arms stretched back in Ikon’s direction. Next time, Birmingham.

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