Ian Breakwell: Keep Things As They Are at De La Warr Pavilion

By Chloe McCormack | 11 December 2012
a film still of people dancing on a baclony
Ian Breakwell, The Other Side (2002)© estate of Ian Breakwell

Exhibition Review: Ian Breakwell, Keep Things As They Are, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea, until January 13 2013

Ian Brekwell had a long association with the De La Warr Pavilion, and this retrospective marks ten years since his last commission for them, The Other Side, which makes a welcome and wholly suitable return to the venue it was filmed in. 

Sadly, Breakwell didn’t live to see the revamped Pavilion re-open its doors in 2005. He died just weeks before, but the 50-odd works in Keep Things as They Are make for a fitting retrospective of his varied career. 

Amid the different media (Breakwell was a multi-disciplinary artist who used drawing, painting, photography and video to portray a multimedia view of society) he was known for his obsessive diary keeping, and it is a recurring motif here. Journeys, waiting, walking, and the inevitability of time passing are all dealt with via a gallows humour and an unflinching honesty.

a black and white portrait of a man with a bare torso and arms folded
Ian Breakwell, Parasite and Host (2005)© estate of Ian Breakwell
The Walking man Diaries saw Breakwell photograph a man who walked past his studio every day for a year, and the result is a collection of voyeuristic writings and photographs of a stranger that are strangely affecting; “past the gin factory, past locked and guarded gates, pasting a choking man in a telephone booth."

Breakwell’s use of text and his diary method work partly because he has an extraordinary and unerring eye for detail that is darkly humorous and revealing.

A perfect example comes towards the end of the show in the ravaged self-portrait, Parasite and Host, which is an unblinking look at the terminal cancer he was diagnosed with in 2004.

Another piece, called The Waiting Room, is a haunting installation with its own four-walled space. Comprising two identical portraits on opposing walls, it is inscribed with the words "Tick Tock" and the sound of an alarm clock playing incessantly at an unnerving volume.

The paintings are a dreamy, melancholic blue and the ceaseless beating of the impatient alarm clock is stressful, reminiscent of sleepless nights or the doctors’ waiting room.

As this chronological show progresses, the explosive enthusiasm of the start of the show gives way to works that are more refined. He still uses text, but no longer are the messages screamed at us from enormous boards.

His seminal 2002 work, The Other Side, is the fitting final piece. The double screen video installation, commissioned by the De La Warr, opens with the sound of waves breaking and the shriek of seagulls, before giving way to Schubert’s Nocturne in E Major as elderly waltzers tea dance serenely across the Pavilion's balcony.

The work, which is now owned by Tate and has been exhibited nationwide, is both compelling and incredibly beautiful. Given Breakwell's premature death, at the age of 62, it conjures macabre thoughts about the passing of time.

But regardless of the back story or the sub text there is something eminently peaceful - and heavenly - about this beautiful epilogue, described by Breakwell himself as possessing "grace and dignity".

  • Open 10am-5pm (4pm December 24, 26 and 31, closed December 25, 11am-4pm December 26 and January 1). Follow the Pavilion on Twitter @dlwp.
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