Stuart Semple at Bermondsey Project Space

With an exhibition title such as 'Dancing On My Own', which shares its name with Robyn's track, arguably the biggest LGBTQ anthem of the past decade, I felt compelled to explore what the show was all about. (To nip this train of thought in the bud, the show has nothing to do with any of this.) It's a solo exhibition of Stuart Semple's work from 1999 to 2019, who is labelled as a "post-YBA" artist dabbling in activism. Reading this in the curator's statement has got me revisiting the capacity of artists to be genuine activists within the restricted space of the gallery. Visitors to commercial (or similar) galleries tend to belong to limited demographics, which is an issue I've been thinking about for years; this is one reason why spaces in residential areas are so important and must market themselves as public places. If these ideas aren't engaging with all members of the community and wider public, I'm not sure how appropriate the word 'activism' is. Having said this, there is some important biographical detail whereby Semple suffered a near-death experience before he began making art, with his work thereafter being a response to the severe anxiety he was dealing with.

Installation view: Stuart Semple, Dancing On My Own, 2019. Turntable, digital print on acrylic, costume jewellery, 35cm x 46cm x 46cm. 

I've been to Bermondsey Project Space a couple of times before but the space has really been transformed by the curator, Lee Cavaliere. Neon strips run across the ground floor, basement and first floor rooms, each with separate identities and almost different energies. Upon entering from the street, the first thing most visitors will notice is the exhibition's eponymous piece, a kinetic sculpture produced this year, boasting the rotating face of Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Belair. Cashing in on nostalgia is a recurring theme in the show, and incorporating neon palettes is very much a part of this. Millennials, myself included, are subconsciously drawn to neon, and with the novelty of a pop culture reference, it was amusing to observe people coming to the gallery window and taking photos and videos of the spinning Carlton. This is certainly one way to attract people who might not ordinarily visit galleries!

Ideas of solitude and isolation in a complex, mixed-up society runs deep through the show, in ways that are tongue-in-cheek and, in most cases, glossy and commercial with the American tone of bizarrely hypnotic optimism. The readymade is also embraced in Semple's work, rarely moreso than in the piece 'Weirdo', which is acrylic on a refrigerator door in the style of fridge magnets spelling things like "a weirdo small town kid" and "alone". If I was supposed to feel any sympathy towards any potential backstory here, it went over my head.

Installation view: Stuart Semple, Dancing On My Own. 8 August - 7 September 2019, Bermondsey Project Space.
Image courtesy of the artist

I couldn't stay in the basement gallery for long, thanks to my sensitivity to flashing lights, but it has a much darker ambience, both literally and conceptually. With video works, light installations and sexually explicit pieces, venturing downstairs has a real lair feel about it, and certainly feels like a dark little secret from the otherwise family-friendly environment of Bermondsey Street. The 'Transdermal Satyriasis' series of vintage postcards show naked women with sewn badges of rock and metal bands, including Led Zeppelin, Megadeth and Black Sabbath. The definition of 'satyriasis' is uncontrollable sexual desire in a man, and truthfully I feel uncomfortable about cis male artists appropriating images of real women in this way, especially given that they're vintage photos, meaning the subjects have no agency in this use. Another piece is quite striking, 'My Loneliness is Killing Me', mostly due to its nod to the Britney Spears song 'Hit Me Baby One More Time', but the palette is jarring as well as a gratuitous pair of breasts in a bra. It doesn't sit too well with me.

Stuart Semple, My Loneliness is Killing Me, 2015. Digital print, acrylic, marker, spraypaint, vinyl, graphite and india ink on cold press watercolour paper, 150cm x 120cm.
Image courtesy of Bermondsey Project Space

The kitsch goes into overdrive on the first floor, especially in 'Soft Bench (non hostile)', a wooden bench covered in kids' soft toys. The whole first floor space is filled with marketing rhetoric, bright colours and messaging aimed at children, which has been curated well so that the viewer feels highly uncomfortable, leading to more questioning about why that is. The dichotomy of the dark and seedy basement with the bright colours and smiley cartoon faces of the first floor certainly contributes. Whizzing noises from video works and aesthetics reminiscent of Acid House and Happy Hardcore music overlap, as do the world of children's and adult entertainment. Self-awareness comes hand in hand with the tongue-in-cheek nature flowing through the exhibition, and given the relatively small interior area of Bermondsey Project Space, the curator has managed to produce a solid retrospective of the past twenty years, and a great introduction to anyone who is not familiar with Semple's practice.

Installation view: Stuart Semple, Dancing On My Own. 8 August - 7 September 2019, Bermondsey Project Space.
Image courtesy of the artist

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