Zoë Paul: La Perma-Perla Kraal Emporium @ Spike Island


Emoji summary: 😔🚫🚪

I think I am disappointed, dear reader. I think that is the feeling hanging in my stomach, that or dread. I don’t know but we can figure it out, the 2 of us, as we write together. there’s just this hard heavy lump right in my middle of me because of this exhibition.

Last week we went to visit Spike Island in Bristol, never been before (really enjoyed it overall and wish there was 1 in every city - the way it brings together artists seems to flatten social capital hierarchies, becomes about the activity of art itself, the way it should b. the building hosts the Spike Island gallery programme, a tonne of artist studios, the university studios ! and gallery associates all in one. and from the outside in it’s looking like a healthy space; like when you are young and imagine how happy you would be if all your best friends lived on your road but,,, ye -), while we were there we saw the opening of Zoë Paul’s La Perma-Perla Kraal Emporium. We were there for the press preview and were brought into the space a few hours before opening. picture a long, wide beaded curtain, still being installed. it constellated an image of grey and brown bodies against a cobalt backdrop, the long beads hanging and swaying as u walk past,,, flinching at your movement. the bodies were sat dramatic in a tableaux. In the middle of the space there was a large cube for a fountain w water spewing out the mouths of the fountain-people’s heads; they were black and stylised so with arched eyebrows and eyes and long necks and exaggerated lips. We’ll circle back 2 this, but just setting the scene for now: add 2 plinths either side of the room with 2 more of these heads with the same features as the fountain statues. The plinth ones were also functioning pots that we watched the curators lift and pour herbal tea from, sicking it up into little ceramic cups whose edges were fingered and thin. Everyone had been invited to sit at a long table and so We slid in and the cups were passed around and everyone drank. there were lumps of clay in the middle of the table btw, and they looked coy if clay can look coy. Although we were informed that this wasn’t a workshop, it was in fact an artwork (a pedantic i don’t care about tbh), we were told gallery visitors can wear special robes and drink the tea and roll beads out of the slabs of clay that Zoë Paul could use in her future works. (The beads that made up the long curtain in this show were rolled when this exhibition was at Documenta).

And now I wana circle back, because we need 2 unpick the tension in this show! it dissolved all my oxygen. I wana talk about the BASIC, VIOLENT issue of white artists using black bodies as literal props in FOUNTAINS and TEAPOTS to engage what is always a predominant white gallery-going audience,,, that complexity, weirdness etc etc. We were sat at the table amongst other press and invitees and I turned round to Gab and grimaced, my bum clenched while i looked to her for confirmation. her eyes were wide and nodding back at me. I am glad glad glad to have a sister in this weird art world, someone to affirm the sticky awkwardness as I tense up and curl up like a woodlouse. I put my hand up and told the artist we were surprised she was white and she didn’t give much of a response or admit her appropriative position and obviously, it’s too late, she’s got a solo show at a big institution ha ha ha ofc no one can say anything now - except we can and will and did, even tho we are tired of being the only ones to do so. It doesn’t matter if the space is put together and curated in a way that feels pleasant, or the colours are nice, or the workshop mindful: use aesthetic languages u have agency to use and have that be enough. u shouldn’t have to prop up your own porridge art with what is ExoTiC to you, special.

overall the exhibition was obsessed with a v weird white particularity; this hankering for an ancient Greek past, fetishising the mythology of a shared European ancestor, the birth of civilisation as europe knows it. the weird model of Boris Johnson being obsessed w Sophocles or whoever, these Oxbridge dons living that DiOnYsUs LyFe; a weird particularity that makes me uncomfortable more than it being problematic. Museums are rude, i don’t want to be catfished by them when I think I’m in a gallery.

i guess disappointment comes bc i liked the show formally, i liked the long bead curtain, the feeling of sipping tea in a gallery; it was nice, a Mood™ and that felt like it could or should be celebrated. I feel let down bc there’s always a shit in the ointment and this particular shit was a shit i couldn’t pick at n throw out so i could carry on; i felt myself stall, grind to a halt. i felt myself try to reason n pick apart the pros n cons of it all; not in a ‘this is so complex and meaty’ kinda way - - in a ‘i literally didn’t wana see this, it doesn’t fit w my dietary requirements’ kinda way.  This review feels bad, badly written bc our guts j curled up when we saw the show, bad bc we don’t rly wana put our words in cotton wool to pad the edges, but also bad bc we were put in this weird and uncomfortable position where we liked certain things (the institution itseld, the show formally n how it used its material) while simultaneously being intolerable. a bad review for us both,,, even, level we r all unhappy down here.

a big white cube gallery space has a beaded curtain in the backgound of statuesque bodies

a close up of the beaded curtain shows the imagery has bodies reaching their arms out towards and away from each other

a low square water fountain with two black heads spurting water from pouting mouths, heads are conjoined at the back

another sculpture of a black head with lips poking out and forward in a dramatic pose, but this one is not connected to water for a fountain, it almost looks like an outtake