Parasol Unit, London
18 January – 30 March 2008
Review by Erica MacArthur
There's panic on the streets of Lhasa, streets thronged with a phalanx of angry paint-stained cheeks. Wharf Road in East London, the home of Parasol Unit, is deserted, but Darren Almond's exhibition Fire Under Snow reaches out to make a connection. A former train spotter from Wigan, Almond's work has always been a product of his travels, but never on such a vast scale. Fire Under Snow takes its name from the autobiography of Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who, suspected of subversive tendencies, spent 33 tortured years in different Chinese prisons and labour camps. With Almond's opening piece in the gallery, Tide (2008), we face a grid of hundreds of unified clocks, which flip over with a satisfying clunk, introducing the loop as a theme in the exhibition. The press release informs us of something we might not otherwise realise about Tide: all the clocks are sort of slaves, controlled and prompted by a single master clock.
During In The Between, a video triptych from 2006, we're taken on a journey from Beijing to Lhasa on the new bullet train, traversing the world's highest plateau. The two outside screens show the journey, while the middle screen shows the Buddhist monks of Lhasa's oldest monastery chanting, eating and meditating in a 14-minute sequence. In daylight Almond shoots through the train window; the green of the mountains is neither luscious nor arid, a naturally sculpted blank. Almond's view across the land is futuristic and sleek, but has a human sensitivity, like Matthew Barney filming Badger Watch.
Almond's landscape is unmistakably his own. As with his recent photographic work in Moons of the lapetus Ocean at White Cube, the distant Himalayas begin to appear computer generated in their smoothness. Then there is the bunting (abandoned piles of traditional Tibetan prayer flags) – layer upon layer of technicolour polyester, initially giving us calm, meditative respite, but soon whipped up with a violent wind and accompanied by the increasingly loud ever-present chanting. The layering of the flags is sinister without end, a bottomless pit of rags one could fall into and choke on.
In Bearing (2007), a video depicts a sulphur miner in remote Indonesia. A western eye observes fashionable colours – canary yellow rocks wheezing out plumes of white smoke against pale grey rocks, turquoise water and baby blue sky. This initially looks less like a vision of hell and more like the backdrop for a new wave pop promo. Trudging slowly through the smoke, the miner seems completely alone in his merry-go-round of exhaustion of resignation. Although the miner’s face is shot very close up, it is somehow not exploitative, nor do we feel that his subject is playing up to the camera. Almond doesn't patronise us by attempting to gain sympathy; the video simply says, I was here, and this is happening.
The exhibition also features a photographic series from 2007 borrowing its title from Alain Resnais' movie Night and Fog (1955), which contrasts the stillness of an abandoned Auschwitz with dramatic images of war and beautiful winter scenes around the nickel mines of Siberia, whose meaning bypasses my brain completely; the prints are so ethereal and appealingly monochrome I forget the tree stumps poking out from the snow are dead, due to the pollution spilling into the forests from the nearby mines.
This could be said for Fire Under Snow as a whole – although it says so much to us about cause and effect, and the horrific cycles of labour that take place, what we see is so aesthetically remarkable that for a second, we might just forget.