Marvin Gaye Chetwynd brings exuberant performance to Nottingham Contemporary

By Mark Sheerin | 30 January 2014

Exhibition review: Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, until March 23 2014

Colour photo of an improvised sculpture of a brain-like alien
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Brain Bug (installation view)© David Sillitoe
A hideous giant creature that feeds off your inner thoughts is not perhaps the best advert for a show of fine art. But passers-by in Nottingham will be able to look through these gallery windows and see the grotesque sculpture move. Its stubby tentacles beckon you.

Welcome to the world of Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, the artist formerly known as Spartacus Chetwynd, 2012 turner prize nominee and occasional beard wearer. If you like your artists to be eccentric, you will be more than impressed by her first solo show in a UK institution.

But Chetwynd is not primarily a sculptor or a painter. She is a prop and costume maker, plus director for goofy and occasionally ecstatic performances. Visitors to the gallery at certain times will be swept up in an exhibition which runs at two speeds: “high energy” and “low energy”.

On press day, the latter was in progress, but things were still lively enough. The Brain Bug looked out from its vulva-like mouth and waved from the darkness and a human hairball in pork pie hat and shades skittered around the gallery bleeping at interested parties.

Giant improvised sculpture of a carriage shaped like a grinning cat
Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Cat Bus (installation view)© David Sillitoe
Pop culture boffins might recognise both of these elements from film and TV. The telepathic alien is taken from the film Starship Troopers; the hirsute wanderer is a reincarnation of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family. Serious white walls give these cultish characters the element of true surprise.

Having said that, there could be no better place for Chetwynd to do her thing. Yes, she makes work about cats and Star Wars, but previous work has also referred to Dickens and Karl Marx; this is the kind of freewheeling cultural commentary which some contemporary theorists love.

So if Slavoj Žižek made art, it might well look like this. Chetwynd comments on rapacious property developers in London, by modelling three of them as Jabba the Hut. She relates student debt in art schools to the artistic debt we all owe to Giotto. And his so his boulders form part of the show, or at least improvised cardboard facsimiles.

As for the performances, which are not to be missed, influences as far back as medieval Mummers’ plays are cited for these. And as gallery notes also point out, Futurist manifestos, Constructivist theatre and vaudeville are all in the mix. But the footnotes are all swept aside by an exuberant rush of pleasure as soon as Chetwynd’s amateurish props all come to life.

There were always going to be challenges with this show. For obvious reasons, the full cast cannot be there all the time; you cannot have a carnival lasting two months.

Three video pieces here, and a sound installation, can only hint at what’s to come. For the record there are four events scheduled to activate the Brain Bug. See below for details.

Chetwynd is an interesting artist, with an infectious enthusiasm which allows her to borrow wholesale from, say, a Studio Ghibli film, and give us a giant grinning Cat Bus which invites allcomers to climb on board.

Thanks to cheap materials, chiefly linen, such recreations retain a sense of fun. They appear knocked up by a talented art class. She knows what she likes and, unless you are one of performance art's many haters, you will probably like it too.

  • Open 10am-7pm (6pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Nottm_Contemp.

  • Brain Bug performances on February 1 and 15, March 1 and 15, all at 2pm.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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