This exhibition, of 35 contemporary artists, was about to close at the Whitechapel Gallery when I finally caught it. It’s a long time since I went to an art show, so I actually enjoyed some of the one-trick ponies that seem to bedevil most contemporary art and went on to find a few things to engage with. Here are some highlights:

Plaster casts of faces mounted high over the whole far wall of the gallery, many dented and squished beyond recognition, folded in on themselves, smeared or smoothed in places as if to avoid definition, the whole unsettling pantheon seeming to laugh down on me. This turned out to be by Leigh Clarke, and called Heads of State (2012). A numbered list covered a range of politicians that included not only Sarkozy, Thatcher, Mugabe and Gaddafi, but also Mandela, Osama Bin Laden, and Bernie Madoff.

I started to wonder whether the higher the level of distortion on the faces, the more moral disapproval was implied, but the theory didn’t stick; and in fact, I questioned whether the list was ironic, meant as a competing seduction, a textual interpretation that ran interference on the visual spectacle. I liked this theory as a seduction in itself, and because the whole political angle for me diminished the looming anarchic disquiet of the piece, but the wall notes described the work as ’30 reverse casts of latex masks commonly worn during political demonstrations’.

Here too, my scepticism was animated – was there a metaphor of the arrogance of political power in the failure to provide good copies from these masks? Or in the slither away from identity and towards malleability? When I turned back from looking at the notes, the lower left head sported a Pussy Riot-style orange balaclava that I could have sworn hadn’t been there before. A moment of coy paranoia.

Lucienne Coles, As Tears Go By, 2011. This video piece may be in the so bad it’s good category.  How is it possible to escape from questions about artistic intention? Watch it on Youtube here and tell me what you think. Coles herself singing the eponymous song, dressed up as Marianne Faithfull in a white thigh-length cotton tunic, walking by some tailored bushes in the garden of Braziers Park, which is apparently associated with the singer.

I took it as a parody of the pop video, rather than the heartfelt meditation on ageing the gallery told me it was. Coles unmade up, looking anything but gamine, singing poorly, though not terribly, into a handheld camera that held her image clear but allowed the bushes around her to move into and out of focus. In her white shift she seemed to loom as part of a constructed stereoscopic space, unreal, in a plane of her own, a joke on the angelic quality of celebrity. Fortunately the whole thing was only 3 minutes long.

My favourite was by Nikolai Ishchuk. The title began:
B-449
536
B423
-1055
B1179
and so on. It was apparently a “C-print, collage and household gloss on paper,” and I always find it particularly sexy to not have a clue about what is special about the medium. To me it looked like some photos interspersed with some black and white designs the same size as the photos.


A series of family photos , or artfully constructed as such, each always containing a man and a woman, but always separate, first it seems young and posing in the forecourt of a church, then the man standing apart in the sea, whilst the mother hugs a child, then two of them at an event but the man with one child and the woman at a table in front with another child, then the two people each appearing to kiss others out of shot on a boat, and finally dancing with a partner we do not see. Always the photos cut off what could be seen, suggesting a troubling the borders, the arm or the back of someone else entering the frame from nowhere.

The black and white designs alternate with the photos. They are images reminiscent of Rubin’s optical illusion in which a couple facing each other across white space can also be seen as a white vase in black space. Here the black spaces at the centre formed the ‘vase’. Yet though they are on this model they don’t constitute a recognisable vase or human shape, each is a horribly distorted miscast vase, or blobbish monstrous couples etched in white across from one another. There was no clear relationship of parallel between them and the family photos, though doubtless one might construct an internarrative, for example the largest space comes just after the scene on the boat kissing others, which offers the largest gap between the couple.

I loved this work as a meditation on borders of the self, barriers, the space one traverses to reach the other, interrelationship as inexactitude. One could narrativise the sequence as a story of a love relationship that blossoms into children but always contains the seed of apartness until an accepted separation, but equally the couple might be sister and brother. And in turn this may hint at incestuous desire, on monstrosity but also on the potential that is created out of that which is not clear cut. One feels incredibly tender towards these black and white presences and their elephantiasis as they negotiate awkwardly in each other’s space . At the same time the piece functions with brilliant formalism, as an invitation to look in the family photos at the spaces which do not contain the human figures, to see their pure space, mass, light, away from the underspecified wireframe or iconic mode that family photos tend to be. And in this precisely to reach for a synthesis: as the ineffable or the refusal of the ineffable?