by Herbert Wright
A host of white cones huddle in clusters cross a floor. It looks good, but what are we to make of it? The headline work of Phoebe Collings-James’ solo show at Camden’s Cob Gallery is 50 cones in all but no two the same, different sizes standing at different angles, all imperfect, their surfaces sometimes punctuated by random openings, as if they’d been smashed, giving a glimpse of the darkness within. It’s called oKoKoK and it might make you think of the Klu Klux Klan- indeed, their initials are in the title. Collings-James refers to them when explaining that her investigation ‘into falling, physical vertigo’ took on those shapes. Like KKK hoods, they suggest there’s something to hide, and ‘there’s a ridiculousness in them’, she says. Philip Guston saw the same thing in The Studio (1969), mocking himself as anti-hero in a white hood. But there’s yet more going on here, and we’ll come back to it.
Two other pieces in this intriguing show are worth considering, and they seem unconnected. Fleisch (Honey I’m Home) (incorrectly referred to as Just Fucking in the show notes)- a blurry video of garishly red meat being cut as it’s held by a chainmail-gloved hand. Some people eat meat, but who thinks much about the butchery? Here, it’s made obscene with colour overload, general out-of-focusness and the clinical metal intervention. It’s disturbing, like watching some weird slasher porn on VHS, yet feeling detached from it.
More food reference is in Murder by Chocolate, an assemblage of speakers mounted in inclined planes of glass on the floor that visually has something of Haroon Mirza to it. The sound coming from these speakers, however, is voices talking about desserts, and that has something of Bruce Naumann and his aesthetic arrangements of speakers pushing speech into the space they define. It couldn’t be more different from Fleish, but there’s another interplay of the sensual and the shiny hard-edged solid. This time it’s separated between matter and sound.
The show is called Lament for the Walking Dead, a great title that may suggest a connection in these disparate pieces. Sure, chocolate and meat can kill us eventually- but should we lament our weakness as we walk towards death indulging in such things? There’s a hint here of the old theme of mortality, albeit a bit oblique.
Back to oKoKoK- how does that connect to the show’s title? KKK men disguised themselves in preposterous hoods so they could feel organised and anonymous as they indulged in brotherly bigotry and bloody terror. Death was in their souls already – in a way, they were the walking dead. They were certainly pathetic, and these cones have a vulnerable aspect, huddling for safety.
And this piece has another dimension. Collings-James is also exploring her interest in the theory of architectural ruin. Her cones are made of plaster and invite you to feel their texture. They are thin and brittle like egg shells, something those holes highlight. Everything our civilisation makes is ephemeral, even the things we build of stone- sooner or later, structure will fail, just like oKoKoK. The cones could be a metaphor for what we build, but they could be a metaphor for us too. Like our souls, they may aspire to purity (white) and reach up to something higher (cones point upwards), but they’re all flawed, cracked and maybe, ultimately, empty.
That reading of Collings-Phoebe’s intent may be high-falutin’. But take it or leave it, missy, I do declare them there cones are a mighty pretty spectacle anyhow.
Phoebe Collings-James’ show Lament for the Walking Dead is at Cobb Gallery, 205 Royal College Street NW1 0SG until 5th October.
Her film The Descent will be screened at Building 4, Bethnal Green E2 9DS on October 3rd