Art & Photography

Slow Boat: Summer 2012

William Kherbek reviews a national collaboration between Chisenhale Gallery, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham and The Canal and Rivers Trust

Slow Boat: Summer 2012
Slow Boat Summer 2012/ Propeller/ Benedict Drew, installation view at Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Thomas Lock

This summer, the artists Ben Drew and Sam Belinfante, together with a group of young artists called Propeller began a journey in a modified canal boat from Birmingham to London.

Along the way, they created the works that make up the current exhibition at East London’s Chisenhale Gallery. The show is titled Slow Boat and it is put on in collaboration with Birmingham’s own contemporary art space, The Ikon Gallery.

Drew and his fellow artists moored their boat outside the Chisenhale for the last week of the Olympics during which they programmed a series of workshops and events in keeping with the theme of the journey, an examination of place and displacement.

Sadly the boat has gone and is making its way back up to Birmingham, but the results of the journey can be seen until 26 August at the Chisenhale.

The works that remain at the gallery are all created by the youngsters in Propeller. The centrepiece is a video work, The Concrete Ripples Underneath, about the evolution of East London’s physical geography. The Concrete Ripples Underneath intersperses images of nature with hyper-speed edits of urban landscape and animated text.

The screen on which the film is projected spans the sizable gallery, but the story the film tells is pleasantly human-sized.

“The screen on which the film is projected spans the sizable gallery, but the story the film tells is pleasantly human-sized”

Admittedly, the subject matter is about as familiar as possible, the encroachments of humankind on nature, the alluring then stifling buzz of life in an urban megalopolis. Still, if Drew and Belinfante’s project is about anything, it’s about the fact that every person has a story and it is the moments when the animate text appears on the screen, written across animated sheets of paper with animated handwriting, that the film feels most fully realised.

I remember one line read, “The Pace of the City Doesn’t Fit the Pace of My Body”—something along those lines. Perhaps having just had a cycling accident on the way to the gallery, I was especially

susceptible to such sentiments, but the ingenuousness of the statements and the fragmentary character of their presentation made me see them as something like a more emotionally resolved version of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s text-based pieces. There are also headphones to listen to the audio documentation the artists made during their trip down the canal. There’s a nice open-endedness to the piece but admittedly, without visuals, the full significance was harder to grasp.

As it was, the sounds were just the disembodied sounds of modern life: humans vs. nature. This said, one of

the chief virtues of the show is its ability to wear history lightly. In this most patriotic of British summers, it would have been far too easy to, in classic British fashion, marvel at and bemoan the transmogrification of the Grand Union Canal.

While the canal may not be quite as heavily populated as it was in its industrial glory days, Drew’s et al.’s project is pleasantly ambivalent about the decline of the waterway as a commercial juggernaut. Being less a business artery, it becomes somehow friendlier and more accessible, and, therefore, less easy to classify.

Slow Boat is at Chisenhale Gallery until August 26th