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> > > Review: Niet Normaal: Difference on Display


Adapted from a landmark Dutch exhibition, Niet Normaal (a popular phrase literally translated as ‘not normal’, but also meaning ‘cool’) features work in a variety of media.

DAO is gathering a range of responses to the major DaDaFest exhibition on display at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool from now until the 2 September.

Go to DAOs listings for further information about Niet Normaal

Susan Bennett: Bonfire of Realities

sculpture of a black female torso, without arms, legs or head, covered in spikes

Birgit Dieker, Bad Mummy, 2005

‘There is no escape from creativity..’ even when the words are stuck on a plank at the base of a bonfire. The Niet Normaal exhibit has to be viewed at forty five degrees either side of normal made as it is of sloganeered wood with no Guy Fawkes on the top. Splashes and splinters of imagination, wit and candid observation include comments on the abilities in 1963 of MI5 and 6 to deal with intelligence matters which many would not argue with the week before the Olympic Games open in London.

You are urged to walk circling Bob and Roberta Smith’s bonfire whispering your chosen words of the masses aloud and on the opening night this was quite a show, I believe. As it was, there was no one around that day so I tried repeating: ‘Peter Hain is a shit… Peter Hain is a shit….’, wondering how to also do justice to the upside down keyboard, in sixties stark red and black which didn’t even clatter when I pressed for sound.

Moving on whispering my next choice: ‘The university loony director is still unplugged...’ I approached the next exhibit, a surreal film called ‘Sleepwalker’ (Javier Tellez, 1969) in German, mostly written on chalkboards, with English subtitles. A sleepwalker is discovered by a professor based in a great white art décor lighthouse like a telescope at Potsdam. Cesare is an extra terrestrial, in black polo necked jumper, which elongates his neck with concentric circles of white so he looks impossibly pale, stark and stretched out. He tells his eager questioners that this planet is all an illusion, there will not be world peace until there are no more humans left and that his home Slave Star is a psychiatric planet where everyone is in treatment and therefore normal.

Compelling, it commanded myself and a couple who kept illuminating the darkened area with the light of their mobile phone.

It is hard to keep a focus when the room reverberates through the bench you are sat on with the hesitant attempts of a man trying to say the word ‘‘Het… Ha… ‘and eventually ‘Hate’ (Imogen Stidworthy).

Niet Normaal continues: an empty shop mannequin made of mosquito nets with no internal organs (Christian Bastiaans) tells you how:

"I sold my kidney for a plot of land
Physically feels weak
But I possess a house, my home."

Further on and pitifully a semi naked man tries to get up off the floor, caught thousands of times in perpetual video loop (Douglas Gordon); a masochistic ‘Bad Mummy’ effigy (Birgit Dieker) in dark leather stuck with needles and pins demands to know whether you can be a good mother if you have sexual fantasies; white plaster sculptures by Christine Borland which she ‘wants people to think of the dissection process…’ and resemble Michelangelo’s Pieta in 1498 all crash to crescendo in a mixed up wall which shouts cheerfully: ‘Everything is going to be alright.’ (Ben Cove)

‘The outside paintings only come inside when I do a show,’ the bonfire reminds me. Through the external window I could see TESCO’s illuminated sign and 24 hour cash machine. Hurrying zombie like shoppers with their Next and Primark bursting paper eco friendly bags almost obscured a window proclaiming: ‘Anyone who thinks money can’t buy happiness simply doesn’t know where to shop. ’

Hmm, I thought: ’This isn’t reality, it is fantasy.’ But which?

Colin Hambrook: Next Nature Baby

image of a foetus inside a womb, holding a mobile phone

Koert van Mensvoort, Next Nature Baby, 2008

Niet Normaal is intense, riven with a dark humour. There were a thousand or more dialogues that could have been provoked by each of the thoughtful exhibits on display, at turns political, grotesque, beautiful, touching and humorous.

But talking to a friend in The Bluecoat garden, our conversation focused on ‘Next Nature Baby’ by Koert van Mensvoort. Showing a foetus floating in amniotic fluid clutching a mobile phone, we began asking ourselves what sort of conversation the baby might be having?

Would it, possibly, be asking for an end to the interminable advances in technology that continue to obsess us? We talk about the change for the better that comes with the march of progress, but (speaking as someone for whom the glass is always half empty) conveniently forget that for every upside, there is always a downside.

Back in the seventies BBC science programmes like Tomorrow’s World were predicting the potential of new technologies to save labour to the extent of halving of our working weeks. In fact, 35 years on, as the computer has become an essential component of our working lives, the opposite has happened.

Mensvoort’s image begs the question: what has happened to childhood amidst the ever-encroaching tide of new gadgets screaming for attention? We live in an age where the binary code rules the deck of cards we’re handed at birth?  The multiplicity of numbers we had to play with has been reduced to a zero and a one.

And in that process, how much has the meaning of childhood changed? Where has the quiet space gone that allowed us to simply settle into ‘being’ as children? Everywhere is white noise, digitally reasserting itself, on screens, in the home and on the street. Everywhere you go real conversations are being replaced by digital conversations. How often when talking to someone, do you pick up a ringing phone and turn away from the person you are talking to?

Our notion of what is normal has changed. And for no section of society more profoundly, than how ‘normality’ has changed for children. When did we consciously decide, for example, that it was perfectly acceptable to steal the traditional children’s playground – the street – away from them, and hand it over to the motorised vehicle?

What was normal for those of us who were children in the fifties and sixties is no longer normal. For everyone thirty and under, so many rites of passage have either changed or gone. The freedom for a child, as young as five, to walk out of the front door in the morning and spend the day with his or her mates, out, in the street, has gone. Instead the invisible umbilical chord, protecting young children from harm, has stretched out ever further, through early childhood into the teens.

The acceptance that danger is a normal part of existence has gone: and with it the opportunity to learn resilience and self-assurance through dealing with things on your own, without a parent to take control. The hands-on reality of learning the confidence to respond to perceived ‘danger’ is no longer deemed to be right, in legal terms.

I’ll give an example. I recently went to an arts and crafts museum offering a workshop in using a lathe to turn wood. Except safety measures meant that although it wasn’t something unfamiliar, I wasn’t legally allowed to operate the machine. The idea of having a go at doing some wood-turning meant being allowed to lightly hold the hands of the lathe operator, whilst he did the turning. And no doubt he had to have a fully enhanced CRB to allow him to have ‘the general public touch his hands, while operating machinery.

And so, as a species, in the present society, we grow into our twenties and thirties with absolutely no idea what to do, except call home, like the foetus in the image is possibly doing, asking what the hell is going on?

Niet Normaal isn’t about disability, but through examining the idea of what is and isn’t normal, another conversation emerges about how impairment is a normal part of life. And through that of how disabling, accepted notions of normality can be?

Niet Normaal: Difference on Display is showing at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool from 13 July - 2 September. Go to DAOs listings for more details