Art, Wealth and Contemporary London: On a Film by Joanna Hogg

joanna hoggExhibition is a fierce exposé of art and wealth in contemporary London. It’s the third film by British photographer turned director Joanna Hogg and it might be described as puzzling, minimalist and arthouse by turns. Hogg works repeatedly, like the early Woody Allen, like Almodovar, with the same small group of actors. The class that interests her, the upper middles, hasn’t been fashionable for decades. The characters they play are well-spoken Home Counties professionals who have everything. Above all they have money. Selfish, apolitical, emotionally stunted, they have too much money, too many lovely properties at their disposal; and, lest you get the wrong idea about the year 2014, they have a surprising number of servants.exhibition 4 As Hogg showed in Archipelago and Unrelated these materially tiptop, good taste lives are empty, which rebounds on the children they make in their image. If you’re British you should pick up those minute nuances of accent and dress that make this class at once posh and so acceptable to itself, but also just on the edge of what is vulgar, fraudulent and mean. If you’re not you’ll surely recognize your local equivalent. Hogg focuses on her characters in such microscopic detail that her work is almost painful to watch, for all the emotional connections that aren’t happening; for all that isn’t being said. In her first two films her civilized, excruciatingly hollowed-out types were on holiday. Here in Exhibition they are, fashionably, ‘working at home’.exhibition 7
Exhibition features a middle-aged couple, well-preserved, carefully casually dressed and aimless; or should that be pseudo-busy. Both are artists and neither has anything to say. Listen out then for the two or three occasions in the alarmingly sparse dialogue when Hogg’s subject is illuminated.
They work in different parts of a fabulous modernist glass house. exhibition 6They communicate mostly, and most effectively, by intercom. He would like an hour in bed together. She wants some other kind of comfort she can’t name, although sex is also pressing. Both of them end up pleasing themselves. Men do that, don’t they, but in her case it’s quite a step. Yet it’s an activity very close to what she does for her art all day, as her strange antics ‘at work’ suggest. She studies herself, she makes drawings of herself, she poses in the mirror and in the reflection of a window, where she plays with the Venetian blind effect. She dresses up in strange costumes and adopts contorted poses on a stool where she might well imagine being ravished. exhibition 3Then there are the middle-aged fantasies of true love which she speaks into the dictaphone beside the bed, her answer to her husband reading aloud passages of difficult and ecstatic contemporary fiction. They don’t have names, by the way, this sub-Kafkan pair. She calls him H and I didn’t catch if he had a way of addressing her. They are not nameless because the system hollows them out but because of the willful narrowness of their lives, their empty ‘working at home’ and their immense and overwhelming self-preoccupation with imaginations that aren’t there.
Their house, says a friend, is not a family home but an artists’ house, and it’s important to follow that metaphor through, because all that nominally happens in Exhibition is that ‘he’, H, the husband, puts the house up for sale, against her will, and ‘she’ is unhappy. But eventually a buyer is found and they prepare to move on, with her happiness apparently restored and a new ‘project’ in sight. The house is an extraordinary architect-designed modernist construction, all glass and light and airy rectangular spaces, doors that slide rather than open, and a spiral staircase that is both the centre of their existence and just a structural skeleton without meaning or satisfaction.Exhibition ‘She’ often seems to be hiding, or locking herself in a cupboard, or spying on the house as an alien where she is not welcome. Into this house they both pour their artistic self-images. He in particular talks, minimally, in a language which is nonsense: a kind of artspeak which thinks of itself as plain and unpretentious, original even, and is empty and banal. When the upmarket estate agents arrive our artist thinks it would improve the house – that it would betoken artistic and who knows if not human progress – if the next owner extended this elongated spiral a little higher. The relevant incomers turn out to be just as much up themselves, literally if you remember the modernist house reflects the human body, with here the private life as its back passage.Tom Hiddleston, one of Hogg’s favourite actors, plays the impeccably public-school educated lead salesman whose function is to mediate between his wealthy incoming and outgoing clients without causing them a moment’s ‘distress’. He is, in a minor role in this film, a wonderful example of the new breed of servile human adjunct to what wealth looks like in twenty-first century London.exhibition 8
The title, Exhibition, is the most obvious clue we have that this is, when all else is said, a film about the art this couple practice, and the kind of artists they are. They say at one point that they don’t want to be pigeon-holed, but that it’s good when people want to talk to them, and ask about their work (which they approach with a memorably vacuous seriousness). Her work, for a possible upcoming show (though the arrangement is more tenuous than she dares admit and leaves her waiting for an email that may never come), will be, she says, ‘as usual’, a mixture of drawing and performance, and she will improvise from day to day, so gallerygoers can experience her mistakes with her, and see the works grow. Well, that’s pretty much what we’ve experienced all through this painful, paint-dryingly slow study of her ‘at work’. Now that’s what she promises to inflict on a public. ‘Will it be just your show?’ ‘Just me.’ ‘Good. That’s good.’ There’s faint irony in her negative reply to his query as to whether the gallery will be open for extended hours. Who after all could bear more of gazing at this? Second time round I’d laugh at this moment in the dialogue, when the puzzle that Exhibition only seems to be is patently undone. These people are ridiculous wasters; exhibitionists of a new order.exhibition 1
There’s a finale of sorts, when the house is finally sold. They bake a cake in the shape of the house that must be left behind, and together with similarly upmarket guests, they eat it, torture-room by empty torture-room, chic bed to hardly present furniture,, all now reduced to a mouthful of sugar. We have seen the minimalist bedroom with its vast black curtain on a rail, relieved with pinpricks of light, a private lift, a double front door which like the metal staircase has something fiercely medieval about its failure to suggest a domestic hearth, and an exterior garage entrance from the road so unobtrusively designed that it brings them into conflict with the hoi polloi in the street below. I mean, ordinary folk expect a front door, some visible entrance. When a workman parks his van in their space and H’s telling him to fuck off doesn’t get anywhere, you begin to feel how vulnerable these two unreal people are. There are other hints, as life filtered by wealth passes their windows, that London at large might not be so friendly if it could actually penetrate this designer fortress in a posh sidestreet. But what sticks in my mind is that final gathering of friends just like themselves (was that the architect Richard Rogers I saw joining in the toasts?) when they eat the emotional problem they’ve run into in their middle-aged lives. They feed off their own obsessions and call it art. They self-cannibalize and self-empty, as artists. Marinetti did it first in the fable that introduced his Futurist Cookbook. To rescue a poet who couldn’t forget a woman his friends serve up an edible model of her. The artist eats his own dissatisfaction and it’s gone in an appetizing bite and a later evacuation. One instance of this whimsical anti-Romantic idea in the history of art is surely enough.
We don’t know what happens to our pair, except that they’re on their way to buying another property and pushing through another ‘project’ that answers to H’s sense of freedom. That announcement comes early on in the film, and follows from their having no responsibilities any more. What we know by the end though is that it’s also their art that doesn’t require any commitments, and further it seems they don’t have any commitment to each other, except what is bound up in the routine of two hollowed-out but nicely spoken selves pretending to work alongside each other on empty projects in an unreal living space. exhibition 5 Watch also the way nature subtly threatens. Hogg loves a stiff breeze that at any moment might turn remorseless.

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