Sarah Morris, Machines do not make us into Machines
April 17–June 30, 2019
April 17–June 30, 2019
[En anglais] Machines do not make us into Machines, I say to myself, over and over, walking to Sarah Morris’s striking exhibition of new works at White Cube Bermondsey, her first in six years. Inside the cavernous gallery, I say it again; and again as I leave, walking home over the murky, rushing water of the Thames, across the Millennium bridge, which is thronged with people travelling between St. Paul’s and Tate Modern—those cultural bastions of the north and south banks. “The whole bridge sways,” an American tourist says to his friend. “The entire structure is unstable, you just can’t tell when you’re walking on it.” He’s right, in a way, this fellow-walker: when the bridge first opened, in June of the millennial year, pedestrians experienced an alarming lateral sway. The bridge was immediately closed for repairs, and today the sway is no longer; the official explanation that eventually emerged for this unnerving early occurrence is something called “positive feedback,” or “synchronous lateral excitation”—the tendency of pedestrians in large groups to unconsciously match their footsteps to the imperceptible lateral sway of a bridge, thereby amplifying and exacerbating it.
Machines do not make us into machines, no, but some things are beyond our control. The entire structure is unstable, and we are lodged firmly within it, processed, moderated, modulated. But we make our way, dogged, nonetheless, dazzled and consoled, exhilarated by the patterns and processes of our own making. This all too human propensity undergirds much of Morris’s work, belying the hard-edge and slick painted surfaces of her canvases. In Machines, the artist’s signature language of geometric abstraction and an upending use of the grid system as a kind of indexical urban, architectural, capitalist pop is employed to new ends. Where Morris’s focus has often been the city and a sense of place—how power structures infiltrate institutions, geographies, and governing bodies with entropic intent—these new paintings, while writ in a similar visual language, etherise the forces that be.
Ataraxia (2019) consumes the walls of one gallery with riotously coloured vertical lines of pink, mauve, mustard, orange, and blue, punctuated by nodes of white, black, and red, that seem to simultaneously draw, pull, and interrupt the colours above and below. Ataraxia is an ancient Greek philosophical term used to denote imperturbability, equanimity, tranquillity: a state of being free from distress and anxiety. Morris’s paintings, with their energetic configurations that resemble encoded information, diagrams, mapping structures, digital or sonic files, are not without of a sense of nervousness or disquiet, but the artist harnesses and reconfigures this to her own ends. How are we to interpret this room, with its frenetic, vertiginous wall paintings as a state of freedom? “I don’t view my work as resolved,” the artist has said. “Like the structure I depict, it’s constantly in motion. It relates to power: power is always in flux, unresolved and up for grabs.” To be free of chaos is, perhaps, to accept this state as natural, ever-occurring—a series of constellations and structures that repeat and repeat, allow us to enter, to coast along their grooves and trajectories, even as they threaten to consume and then spit us out. As if printed from the walls, a sculpture in the same room, variegated tubes of scientific glass arranged on a marble platform, echoes in 3D the colourful flux of its surroundings.
In the second gallery, Morris’s visual motifs repeat across a series of canvases. Like Ataraxia, their titles reveal an interest in the spectral turned visible—each title is followed by the notation [Sound Graph], a reference to their origin: audio files of Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker and polymath, reading passages from James P. Carse’s cult publication, Finite and Infinite Games (1986). Is this a nod to Morris’s combinatorial agility, the sense that the forms and materials of her work can be arranged in endless, self-generating permutations? Finite and Infinite Games is also the title of Morris’s 2017 film, which layers clips of Kluge speaking about his days as a filmmaker, and as lawyer for the Frankfurt School, with images of Herzog & de Meuron’s notorious Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg. We see freedom, infinity, structure, rules—in life as in art—interwoven but perhaps not always opposed. A similar strategy is employed in the other film on display, Abu Dhabi (2017), which arranges fragments of the city and its people in an elliptical, hypnotic visual narrative. There is decadence here, rapacious consumption, generation of goods and wealth; but there is also beauty, and loss. Because in the end, machines do not make us into machines, but we continue to make them.