Smoke, Pump House Gallery, Battersea Park, London, November 2008
For people squeamish at the idea of giving or receiving the kiss of life, falling into the water in 18th century London was distinctly more concerning for both parties, as the remedy of choice was a smoke enema, and devices were installed at strategic points along the Thames. I learned this rather disturbing fact, evidenced by a beautiful brass appliance with appropriate polished nozzles, at Smoke, the latest offering of Implicasphere, a collective who produce shows, with an accompanying broadsheet, based on simple words. Thus previous productions have covered themes such as ‘The Nose’, ‘Stripes’ and ‘Mice’.
The word Implicasphere ‘refers to the radii of associations that encircle each word in the imagination of those who hear, read or simply consider them’, so what we have here, set in the victorian Pump House Gallery, is a hotchpotch of all things related to the word smoke. This ranges from a 16th century engraving showing Sir Walter Raleigh being dowsed by his servant when finding him for the first time with smoke coming out of his nostrils, through a 1950s informational film on skywriting with biplanes, to John Smith’s ‘Om’ - a video of a man having his head shaved while he intones a single Om, behind the tendrils of his cigarette smoke.
This is a diverting exhibition, and I was certainly engaged while meandering through the four floors of the gallery, the setting of which was very appropriate for this catholic set of ephemera. I particularly enjoyed Pae White’s striking tapestry suspended between the top two floors, and the stunning patterns produced by Marey’s 1901 smoke machine (I want one!). At the same time, the show is curiously unsatisfying, because the whole is not greater than the sum of parts. Some exhibits are so tenuously linked (plants whose common name includes the word ‘smoke’?) that the connections seem to dissipate rather than strengthen the theme.
Although this is the first Implicasphere production I have seen, I initially mused that ‘diverting’ was as high as such a concept is likely to rise. However, on reflection, I also see the value in reclassifying things in unconventional ways, to cock a snook both at our insatiable urge to categorise everything, and at the the rather dull ways in which this is done in many museums. Also, they describe their exhibitions as collages, and as such they bring together objects and ideas in ways that might otherwise never happen, and therefore they open up new potentialities.
Whichever view you take, I have spent many an hour less enjoyably. I stepped out into the copper world of Battersea Park at sunset, wondering which aspects of our world would look as bizarre in 200 years time, as The Humane Society’s generous donation of enema stations does now.