Beauty may be dead but there is never a crisis in Bond Street. Extremely smartly dressed people carrying equally smart carrier bags cross the road to look at one more pair of very expensive shoes. MOT International have a gallery here, rubbing shoulders with the old-school art world that existed in Cork Street and around Bond Street before the early 90s great march Eastward. Art loves money and money loves art, the two are conjoined in some primitive manner, just like art and religion, intertwined in a way that no-one ever seemed to adequately theorise, except perhaps the dissident Surrealist Georges Bataille.
Bataille is an important influence on artist John Russell whose work MOT is currently showing. Aside from calling him a belligerent psycho-semiotic techno-Surrealist it is hard to place Russell in any art word other than his very own. His incommensurability is the outcome of an incomparably uncompromising approach to art throughout a long (to say ‘distinguished’ would seem incongruously triumphant) career. You first encountered Rusell when he was a member of the collective known as ‘Bank’ in the 1990s. Since ‘Bank’ went their separate ways Russell has been on the edge of your R.A.D.A.R, publishing door-stopping collections of radical writing for which he designed outrageous covers and maintaining an exemplary investigation of the continued possibilities of the image in an age where and when most artists seem to feel ironicised by or nostalgic about the fact that their own need to conjure up the counter-images of their day has been hi-jacked by the powers-that-be of state, media, technology and commerce. Russell’s main aim still seems to be to find, distort and amplify the visual arena in such a way that images are able to continue to attain the level of disruption required of a truly avant-garde practice.
In his MOT show you are (un-)welcomed by the reverse side of a huge canvas-like object, a little like a Pollock-proportioned rectangle or illuminated airport billboard. The front depicts something like a barren salt-flat on which an absurd nuclear family are walking a dog. The dog looks quite fit but the humans are reduced to skeletons and all seems to have been rendered in something like a sickly 2nd Life-style pixilation, a 21st century material which comes with its very own, slightly repellent anti-aesthetic – just the kind of thing Russell likes.
Nearby, a turtle, faecally smeared with thick black paint, is stuck on a stick, the point of insertion unavoidably invoking a vagina. This unexpected assault connects you to the vivid blue texts rising like credits over a projected film on another wall. The film presents a kind of video-game aquarium in which a computer collaged turtle and several kinds of fish drift languidly around as an eerie, sub-trip-hoppy soundtrack makes you feel immersed and decellerated as if you too are living the crepuscular half-life of a boneless aquatic creature.
Following Bataille, Russell strives against all odds to break taboos and thereby liberate us from our merely human and bourgeois limitations. We only have to swear or scream to momentarily access our primitive drives. Thus language and meaning are exposed by shocks and ruptures as mere mediations, a representational apparatus that hides our true animality and underlying material condition.
Russell, unlike any other artist you know, has an ability to find and tweak images so that they once again perform what may have been their original, shamanic, mythical, maybe even medicinal function. You seem to see an owl with an erection, a bifurcating embryo that has a formed vagina, some undulating guts – and at every event your jaded eyes are surprised.
Meanwhile, a series of lengthy theory citations scrolling over the surface of the film expounds the brilliantly imaginative and uncompromising brand of feminism seen through the post-structuralist liberties carved by writers and thinkers like Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva. The body is here invoked in all its mystery and abjection as woman’s marginalized and repressed sovereignty is painstakingly reclaimed from the phallogocentric rule of oppressive reason and syntax by means of a new writing. The heights and depths reached by those thinkers remains impressive as they seemed to write and think in ways that succeed in the ambition of turning the world inside out. Their enduring accomplishments, albeit arcane, now seem to tower over the relatively playful, ironic and ambiguous ‘post-feminist’ strategies that followed in their wake.
You have a few animal hunches but soon give up the struggle to make any cohesive interpretation of all these connections. Instead you hunker down and open all your pores to take in the full experience, ultimately bathing in the rule of a kind of inflamed non-sense that can only be the late, late legacy of DADA and Surrealism combined. Russell’s film takes about half an hour to watch and is strangely compelling. You feel like a pre-linguistic child left home-alone with only a Toys-R-Us TV and ample supply of LSD to keep you from fretting. Occasionally you twist to look up at that stuck turtle still flying through the air of the white cube gallery, and peer again into the big advert where the skeletal family are still walking that dog as if taking in the very last of the air, one fine evening just beyond the end of the world. Eventually you make your way back down the narrow staircase and spill out on to Bond Street to wander home wondering which is the truly monstrous aquarium, this bewildering city, or the cruelly collaged scenario witnessed in John Russell’s exhibition.