Phoebe Boswell: The Space Between Things (Autograph)
Review by Laura GarmesonTo be a multimedia artist in the 21st century is, in many ways, to be something of an anachronism. In an age where ever-increasing specialization is encouraged across all disciplines, where the art market tends to favour the security that comes with narrowed horizons, and where the clarion call of branding imposes the need for a simplified aesthetic and message, those who inhabit the tricky, grey areas of the multidisciplinary mode are all too often left out in the cold. But there are certain artists whose work thrives on plurality, and whose message – crucially – lies somewhere in between the shades of grey.
Phoebe Boswell is one such artist. Her commitment to the interstitial spaces of multimedia art, and the gaps they can reveal in our own comprehension, is announced in the title of the Kenyan-British artist’s first institutional solo show, The Space Between Things, now on display at Autograph ABP in East London. The exhibition encompasses still and moving images, charcoal drawings, and recordings of poetry, creating an immersive multisensory experience which coalesces at intervals into meditations on the female body, the alienating power of illness, and the inherent fragility of the self.
Boswell clarifies from the outset that the multidisciplinary nature of her practice grew out of a “restless state of diasporic consciousness”. Her mixed heritage (her mother is Kikuyu, her father fourth-generation British Kenyan) and her cross-continental upbringing (born in Nairobi, she spent much of her childhood in the Arabian Gulf before attending London’s Slade School of Fine Art) have led her to address the fragility of concepts such as home, race, and belonging in much of her work. One installation entitled The Matter of Memory saw her recreate her grandmother’s living room, filling it with objects based on her parents’ childhood memories of home. In Stranger in the Village, inspired by the James Baldwin essay of the same name, she documented the myriad racial microaggressions she encountered from strangers on the Tinder dating app during an artist’s residency in Sweden.
The Space Between Things takes up some of these themes only to painfully magnify them through the lens of personal trauma. Spread across two floors of the gallery, the exhibition features Boswell’s own body extensively, reproduced in pencil and charcoal, film and photography, on screens and on walls, even inscribed in the very fabric of the building. She uses layered imagery to play with the idea of composite selves, which are constantly being superimposed and doctored by our experience and perceptions. The most visually arresting work in the exhibition is On the Line, a large-scale mural that wraps around the interior of the main gallery. Commissioned by Autograph and created over three weeks, Boswell drew this 25-metre extended self-portrait straight onto the walls of the gallery using willow charcoal. Depicting the artist’s naked body in a series of overlapping poses, the soft, feathery quality of the charcoal line on the blank canvas of the gallery walls emphasizes the transient nature of art and the evolving self.
In contrast, the trauma that lies at the heart of the exhibition is of a visceral, medical nature. Multiple video projections made using new medical imaging techniques show film taken in East London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital during an operation to save the sight in Boswell’s right eye. The moving images from the surgery, projected in black and white, show blurry, indistinct forms in which it is almost unclear what organ is being operated on. The ocular trauma creates a kind of chasm, a sense of alienation from the self. As parts of the body fail in illness, it becomes all too easy to see the corporeal as a cage. While at the hospital, Boswell began work on a set of 35 drawings on paper with the title She Summons An Army, depicting nude female bodies each with a single eyeball for a head. A monocular celebration of feminine strength with tinges of surrealism.
Following the operation, Boswell travelled to her family home in Zanzibar to recuperate. Six floor-mounted video screens show various episodes from Ythlaf, the video work she made there symbolizing her healing and recovery. Filmed using her father’s drone, the work focuses on Boswell’s figure floating in the liminal space between sea and shore, with aerial footage of the rolling waves and the sand creating yet another ‘in-between space’, suspended between Zanzibar and the Indian Ocean. Boswell’s body seems to drift in limbo in these ethereal moving images, which also evoke the healing powers of water.
“Take me to the lighthouse / There is peace there / In the space between things”. While Boswell lay in hospital following her eye operation, she heard the patient in the neighbouring bed call out repeatedly, “take me to the lighthouse!” These words become a kind of mantra for this exhibition; the lighthouse imagery bears echoes of the writings of Virginia Woolf, but also illustrates the craving for a way out of the darkness, to be saved from blindness. From the blurry depths of an East London operating theatre to the gleaming white sands of Zanzibar, Phoebe Boswell’s multimedia art explores uncharted grey areas of trauma, sickness, and the self, taking us ultimately to a place of transcendence, a space of comfort to be found in the in-between.