SOUTHAMPTON, UK — In a literal and perhaps metaphorical high point of the Futurist movement, Italian artist Fedele Azari staged the world’s first aerial ballet. It was 1920. The show came with its own manifesto, written by the aviator and scattered from the participating planes. Engines were fitted with sound modulators. Parachutist performers leapt from the sky. Planes were deemed to be the quickest way to reach an audience in the least time.
The British artist Tom Dale works at a time when speed has lost its innocence. His droll, modified objects and installations are less noisy than Azari’s. The key work in his new show, “Terminal Blue,” features only one plane and no manifesto. Instead, the aircraft will trail a color swatch of varying cerulean shades above the port city of Southampton. The day and time of this event will be advertised in the local paper, which will also print a copy of the color swatch so that readers can match their own free swatches to the spring sky. The stunt promises to come across as a decorating project, deflating the pomp of Azari and idealism of the early 20th century.
When not in use, the several-meters-long banner hangs in John Hansard Gallery on the leafy campus of Southampton University. Dale captions each color panel with the corporate poetry found in many a DIY store: “soft steel,” “calm crescent,” and “African daisy.” The artist has also branded the work with his name together with a crown logo at the tail end of the banner. You might reflect that a strong brand rather than a nimble aircraft is the quickest way to reach an audience in these overloaded times.
But without the help of the media, brands go nowhere. Dale also works with poster-sized carpets, cut to resemble newspapers, with missing strips representing headlines. Like the paint swatch, the front page is an instantly recognizable form. We don’t need the headlines; we know enough to make them up. “Green rules slap £50 on your ferry fare to France,” reads one of the work’s titles. These are the types of paper you would be better off wiping your feet on.
There’s another study of failed communication in the dark form of a full-size garden conservatory coated in lacquer. Where there should be windows there are treacle-colored book spines. The usual pleasure associated with browsing a shelf of books — any shelf of books — is here frustrated by the translucent coating which seals them all in place. There’s a wine guide from 1988, an out-of-date film guide, and a selection of novels, some of which you might actually want to read. Bad luck. Dale once again translates a form of media into a form of objecthood.
“Exit Strategy” is a quintessential piece here. It features a wide hoop of copper piping which meets itself at the base where you find a redundant tap. It works as a visual joke. It frustrates our love of function. You might even say it provides a metaphor, or more likely a prop for thinking: is all contemporary art a similarly closed circuit? Is all thinking about art the turning of an unlikely tap? This is a resonant, if deadpan, piece.
More blank humor is found nearby with a piece called “Rock on Standby.” This features a sandstone boulder the size of a medicine ball with a tiny red LED fixed upon the surface. It blinks as if ready to bring its stony host to life. As we fish around for a metaphorical remote control, this piece might just call to mind the “Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo: this rock also awaits a creative spark. It is as if the origins of life were already digital, and surely this rock we live on always held that potential.
Elsewhere, Dale demonstrates that there can be few more compelling objects than humble fishing floats. He is said to collect the things, and for this show has produced a body of meter-long replicas. Like the swatch that greets you upon arrival, these five batons lure the eye with colorful bands, and the dream of a quiet bend in a peaceful river. Magnified in a white space, they offer the chance to meditate on something even bigger than a pike. Just what are we looking to catch here?
The works collected in the John Hansard Gallery all seem to share a single-minded pursuit of nothingness. The artist expresses this most explicitly in one of the two films looped here. “Leaf Blower” follows the progress of two single-minded groundsmen, who have the endless task of clearing leaves. Each one is equipped with a petrol-driven leaf blower that drones back and forth to give the film an almost psychedelic intensity. Dale has layered the sound to accentuate this, and passages of the limited action are broken up with blank screens of bright color.
Not far from “Leaf Blower” is a piece that might qualify as a mind blower. A webcam photographs a shredder, then sends data to a printer which feeds paper into the shredder; the shredded results end up on the gallery floor. “Infinity Wall” is as witty as any piece in the show, but it reveals a certain violence that a sculptor needs in order to manipulate the material world. Stand in the wrong place at the wrong time and you might be surprised to see your own photo slide down into the tray. From here you can only look on, helpless, as your likeness is shredded for the purposes of another serio-comic installation.
This is a show filled with absurdity. It tells us we’re surrounded by so many objects that — taps on a copper hoops notwithstanding — there really is no exit, no getting away from our material condition. We might escape into the virtual world for a while, but we cannot get off the vast rock we live on. We have libraries full of knowledge, but a slowly accreting lacquer is obscuring it. We have 101 ways of describing the sky, but none really help us transcend it. Tom Dale’s work is a quiet counterpoint to the Futurists one hundred years before him: he, too, makes objects speak, but in a nihilistic, albeit comic, way.
Tom Dale: Terminal Blue continues at John Hansard Gallery (University of Southampton, Highfield, Southampton, UK) through February 7.