Michael Dean: Having you on
22 Jun - 30 September 2018
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
Gateshead | baltic.art
Michael Dean (born Newcastle upon Tyne, 1977) makes work that explores language and intimacy. Having you on is a major new sculptural installation that responds to BALTIC’s vast Level 3 gallery. Using his own writing as a starting point, Dean abstracts his words into an alphabet of human-scale forms using everyday materials such as concrete, plastic tape and metal. His work often incorporates pages from his own personal texts and self-published books. He takes the bitterness and nastiness in the world and as he explains, ‘passes poetry through it’.
The title of the exhibition Having you on suggests Dean is having a laugh with us, probably at our expense. As he says, ‘I’ll show you a three-day food pack for a family of four and I’ll tell you how many were given out last year in our country and I’ll have you think I’m having you on’. The idea is that all the jokes and punchlines in the work, ‘these little visual crescendos’ are like ‘bitter pills to swallow’.
People take pills for various reasons, to treat themselves, to cope and to ‘get off their faces’. A sense of rage and contempt for societal inequalities comes through in the work that is nevertheless lled with love and humour.
Dean begins with writing, his work is language made physical. By turning his writing into something that is manifestly ‘there’, something that can be touched, Dean’s presence as the author, he argues, ‘kind of evaporates’ and there is nothing better than presenting a hulking object to achieve this. It is a way of ‘placing the people in front of the work instead of the work in front of the people’, that invites a direct conversation and attempts an equality between art and audience.
Dean lays out the exhibition space like the page of a book. He considers the space as if it were a page to be written on, from the ‘gutter,’ (the blank spaces around the type area), the ‘cuts’ (lines to indicate a crop) to the ‘bleeds’ (the margin extending past the cut). He writes with and on tape commonly used to barrier hazards and crime scenes
– printed with words such as ‘cope’, ‘laugh’, ‘bless’, ‘cry’, and ‘sorry’ – to conjure and de-mark zones that highlight and create moments of intensity.
Having you on includes, as Dean says, ‘100 bitter pills to swallow’. Typically, he uses materials that surround us such as coins, concrete, stickers, steel, cable ties, wire fence, roo ng plastic and doormats. The pills are made from steel reinforcement bar (rebar), commonly used in architectural construction, that are shaped into hoops. Dean has often used rebar as armatures for his works which has associations with labour, industry and urban space. Here, the pills are stripped to their bare bones, their concrete bodies perhaps rotted away, corroded by bacteria, chemically damaged or burnt. As with previous works, they have been left outside to take on the effects of the weather.
The dimensions of the rebar pills correspond with the heights of the artist and his family. Some of the pills are alone, others are holding hands, while some are clustered in family groups, overlapping each other like Venn diagrams. The rebar ‘Os’ are like yawning mouths with cast concrete teeth and tongues. It is a reminder of what people have to masticate and swallow. Other rebar shapes appropriate the designs found on recreational drugs such as doves, bunnies and hearts.
The concrete tongues that anchor the rebar pills have been stamped on. The tread patterns of the stamps correspond to Reebok Classics, Nike Air Max 90s trainers or army boots. Pound signs and heart treads are taken from recreational drug designs. Hung from the rebar, gestures are found in clusters of crossed fingers and fists.
Thousands of padlocks encrust the structures. Padlocks are often used as symbols of love and are found on landmarks all over the world – such as on the High Level Bridge between Newcastle and Gateshead. Attached by lovers in a ritual public performance of emotion they can threaten to overwhelm the structures they are attached to with their weight. Snapped shut and locked in anticipation of eternity, they capture a moment of intensity, a bubble of exceptional time that allows lovers to be alone in time and space. Love is vulnerable, inherently hazardous, on the brink of failure and at constant risk. The impulse of the padlocks is to give permanence to a human emotion and to mitigate its fragility, against aching and anxiety, separation and loss.
All of these elements are brought together by Dean who then choreographs their relationships. The work elicits empathy, complicating and enlarging our sympathies. In Dean’s words, ‘it matters that it’s you who just walked in through the door. It’s you I’m having on’.