The art of mutation

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An exhibition by HRL Contemporary examines the nature of metamorphosis and hybridity in art. Matilda Battersby reports

A stranger collection of oddities and curios gathered together you’ll rarely find as those currently exhibited at the HRL Contemporary’s show in London. As it’s title, The Nature of Change: Hybridity and Mutation, suggests, the exhibition by 13 modern artists nestling unexpectedly in a bleak, whitewashed-concrete space in the shadow of Christ Church Spitalfields, is made up of varied exercises in metamorphosis.

The concept, in a nutshell, is that hybridity and mutation are forms of change with particular relevance to post-modern culture - a form of deconstruction, I suppose. Although it might be a simplistic view, this is something which could be said of all art, because borrowing form and manipulating it is integral to the very concept of rendering a likeness. In this way even the most precise portrait is in some form a bastardisation of its original. But what the HRL Contemporary curators, Josephine Breese and Henry Little, seek to present us with is a bit more specific: art which explores transmutation, gender bending, shape-shifting and shocking alteration.

The weirdest thing on show is Jan Manski’s 'Onania' series. The Polish Central St Martins graduate has combined photography, sculpture and film to present his idea of an onania machine (onania being an archaic term for masturbation), which fits over the wearer’s face and genitals. He shows the disfigurement (pictured) which befalls those who overuse the onania machine in the form of grotesque sculptures, collections of seeming bone, flesh and resin for which he used real human fat (allegedly purchased from a lipo suction clinic), which lie prone in surgical cubicles.

Click here or on the image to preview the show in pictures

Manski’s work provokes horror for the simple reason that it shows the mutation of human faces and genitals; teeth grin out of holes that shouldn’t be there, a blue eye looks out painfully from a mangled torso. Manski’s installation is located near to Piers Secunda’s much less sinister sculpture ‘Briar’. It is rather a relief to examine this colourful and snaking form immediately afterwards. 'Briar' is made from thick steel wire painted red, green, pink, yellow and blue. But it looks far springier than solid steel would suggest, like giant tangle of elastic bands.

David A Smith, one of last year’s Catlin Prize finalists, creates sculptures that strip animal form down to anatomical basics, with quirks. His piece ‘Banshee’ is some sort of feline skeleton painted black with contrastingly garish red wire being vomited from its stomach onto the podium. Similarly compelling is Kazuya Tsuji’s ‘Guest’, a sculpture that appears to be a long, colourless wriggly worm, but upon closer inspection reveals itself to be a cleverly composed collection of false finger nails.

Alexander Kyriacou’s print of a pair of legs of indeterminate gender with a pool of congealed red liquid cascading from the crotch of a pair of dirty-looking underpants is, like Manski’s work, another uncomfortable abstraction of human castration. The red fluid looks like menstrual blood until it reaches the floor when it begins to look more like a lascivious tongue. It is really quite disturbing.

The most charming feature of the exhibition is Sadie Hennessy’s ‘Shoal’ – a collection of bits of used soap of varying colours, sizes and shapes, which carefully laid side by side on a silver trolley resemble pebbles on a beach or tropical fish. The curator tells me that the artist spent a long time collecting bits of used soap from friends and family (some of whom were reluctant to pass on such an intimate item), having found that replicating the crusty, cracked form bits of squished soap take over time is impossible to fake.

Elsewhere in the gallery, twigs with Sellotape wrapped round them are propped against the wall; Alice Bradshaw’s other work, ‘Blown Light Bulb’ is a stroke of symbolic mastery; a deflated balloon tucked within a light bulb’s base, as if the bulb's glass had gone all floppy. It is more palatable, it seems, when everyday objects (rather than animals) like soap, twigs and wire are transformed into recognisable, but altered, versions of themselves.

This intriguing exhibition was put together by a pair of young curators, Little and Breese, after they scoured degree shows and platforms for emerging artists in this country. Although not everything they’ve chosen is for the faint-hearted, it is well worth a look as a selection of interesting emerging talent.

‘The Nature of Change: Hybridity and Mutation’ is at The Old Truman Brewery, 4 Wilkes Steet, E1 6QL until 17 April 2011, for more information visit

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