REVIEW: The New Immortals Exhibition at the Phoenix Gallery - In God we do not trust

In God We Do Not Trust

The Phoenix Building, home to over 100 artists and makers, has always been a bit intimidating. It is a fairly brutal 1970s block, slap bang in the middle of a massive road junction linking all the main arterial roads of the city. Even as a Brighton art student in the early 1990s I think I visited only once and haven’t found another reason to visit since.

However, now with a brand new entrance and the New Immortals exhibition, The Phoenix is trying to re-establish its connections with the public and literally open it’s doors to visitors. 

The New Immortals is billed as an ‘exploration of ideas about immortality in an age of scientific miracles’. Curated by Judith Alder, it is a strong theme that plays with the death of religion alongside human desire to out-smart the aging and dying process. 

As you enter the space you are greeted with a new born baby piece by Gabriella Sancisi, symbolising the start of the journey as we enter into Alder’s exploration of decaying youth and immortality. 

Alder’s own work consists of ‘Life and Death Conversations. Excerpts from conversations held during the New Immortals project, 2015’, which are A4 texts, laced with images and simply framed. Although the texts were engaging and at times even charming, I personally feel the delivery could be more interesting. However, the film ‘In Praise of Renewal’ sees Alder write a hymn to modern medicine and the film, accompanied by the Brighton Festival Chorus felt more accomplished. 

Elsewhere, I feel Alder’s presence dominates some of the other artist’s work. For example, Fleur Alston’s ‘17 Species of Lichen’ deserves more space and I am slightly baffled by the inclusion of Alder’s cabinet placed nearby which contains a collection of related samples and books. 

Similarly, Rachel Cohen has used the image of the apple to evoke mankind’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. I liked the elegance of the cast version and the specimen display case but wonder what was gained from the all the others scattered around the space? 

Elsewhere, we find further use of the museum display case as a device with Guyan Porter’s ‘Species’ purportedly one of the world’s only remaining Neanderthal Skulls. This piece clearly evokes both Damien Hirst and also Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’, and the subdued lighting adds to the impact.

Porter’s other piece, ‘De Conditioning Chamber’ was another carefully fulfilled piece as are the photographs by Murray Ballard of a Cryonics laboratory in America. 

However, the highlight for me was Duncan Poulton’s ‘No Body’, which depicts an animated figure ‘infinitely bound to it’s domain’ with a haunting Chopin accompaniment. Here the piece is given isolation and space in which the viewer is able to fully engage with the work and it’s quite beautiful. 

In contrast, Anna Macdonald’s films depict a diagram showing the path of a clinical trail in ‘Falling for Everything’ and ‘I will not hope’ shows a group of people reveling in the joy and frustration of trying to catch falling leaves. Here, the space includes a single bed, obviously belonging to an elderly person or even patient. So now the film becomes a backdrop for the bed and its bedside paraphernalia. Again, I am not sure either the bed or the films benefit from this relationship. 

Alder does however, give us balanced view across all disciplines and Angela Smith’s etchings explore all the more bizarre therapies and quack remedies that have been explored through the ages.  

This idea of searching for the secret of eternal life is further explored in the installation by Cat Ingrams, who presents the vast array of medical advice and information that we are bombarded with each day, telling us what we should and shouldn’t be doing in order to achieve a long and healthy life.

I think overall, New Immortals has a strong theme but at times it lacks the lightness of touch that would enable the works to be enjoyed in their own right. I can understand that with a group show one of the challenges is how to create cohesiveness between the works, but at times I felt that the theme overshadowed the work itself.

That said it is a bold and courageous show, dealing with the big themes with a sense of curiosity and exploration. I think it is accessible and has broad appeal all of which make it an excellent choice for the launch of the Phoenix’s new and improved exhibition space.