Fig-2 at Bicester Village – 29 October 2015

One cold October day a bunch of journalists and I and the whole of Gaggle were shipped off to the Baudrillardian Bicester Village where ’tis forever Christmas . . . 

12189644_10156188631880181_6023941664043227912_nFig-2 is a great project taking place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA). For fifty weeks in 2015 an artist is selected each week to create a new exhibition that is only in place for seven days. It’s a curatorial ultramarathon that has seen the ICA studio transformed into a dizzying range of different uses and appearances from a paint-splattered art studio to a gleaming white cube.

12187835_10156188631540181_5435690224447651839_nOne of Fig-2’s sponsors is Bicester Village, and part of the deal was that four ‘Fig-2 artists’ would be asked to respond to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and produce site-specific work there. From the forty-some Fig-2 artists so far the four commissions were a performance on October 29 by Deborah Coughlin and Gaggle (from Week 9 of Fig-2), a film by Annika Ström (Week 10), an immersive animation by Shezad Dawood (Week 13) and a sound and light installation by Vesna Petresin (forthcoming Week 46).

Bicester Village, Oxford

Bicester Village is a kind of open air shopping mall in the visual style of a village in a Christmas movie. When we arrived it was even snowing! (Courtesy of a snow machine). Regular villages have post-offices and pubs, or used to, but Bicester sells luxury goods, mainly designer clothes. Each of the major fashion brands has a house in the village but you can’t get a drink anywhere. It’s busy too. Aspirant Brits and affluent tourists flood in via the purposely built station, getting their Christmas shopping done early. They’re served by staff dressed like bellhops to mimic the American retail experience’s visual class distinctions. At 4pm the bellhops entertain the village in a dance performance.

120322WearingDance_5968452Dancing and shopping have been paired before in art. In Gillian Wearing’s classic video “Dancing in Peckham” the Turner Prize winner dances uninhibitedly by herself without music in a London shopping precinct. It’s hilarious, but very few of the shoppers walking past even turn their head to look. Noone points and laughs.  Everyone is very British about it and ignores her. Presumably they think she is a crazy lady. There is a disparity between the unabashedness of the dancing and the refusal of the shoppers to step away from their purposive walking and shopping. The video is from 1994 so perhaps today everyone would be filming her with their smartphones, as they were the bellhops at Bicester.

02212012_EDU_1998.1.709_LargeFashion and shopping have been a source of fascination for artists, as you can see at the current blockbuster show ‘The World Goes Pop’ at Tate Modern where pop artists like Andy Warhol both celebrate and satirize modern consumerism and its obsession with the latest thing. Art itself is subject to the vicissitudes of fashion and the reputations of artists often rise or fall in parallel with the prices their works command at the auction house.

Sylvain_Deleu_Fig-2_10.50_-14Annika Ström’s work explores encounters between people. Just as Gillian Wearing’s video worked by dropping her into a public space, Annika Strom likes to set actors out into public spaces to interact with people. For Week 10 of Fig-2 she directed six actors to act in a lovely manner toward everyone they came into contact with. Her friendly film ‘Changing Rooms’ depicts two women who only meet at Bicester Village. Their friendship is in a sense based on the act of shopping, which you might see as a devaluation of their friendship or as an ennoblement of shopping!

12195975_10156188631710181_5276000071257545234_nShezad Dawood created an animation that you view through eyeholes in a colourful shed-like circular structure in the centre of the Village. It depicts digitally generated characters from the animation he made during Week 13 of Fig-2 and in watching it the viewer enters a kind of virtual reality. Is shopping also a virtual reality?

CSe__jLWwAA_HedWe are looking forward to Vesna Petresin’s week at Fig-2 (from 16-22 November). Her sound and light installation at Bicester is playful and challenging. You enter a white phone box and are immersed in pink light with flashing lights running up and down like Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, soundtracked by a female voice sexily whispering. It was too much for a couple I saw who emerged after barely seconds slightly perplexed. Art can take you to another (virtual) world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like that world.

CSgt-IxWEAAdJAvDeborah Coughlin’s work with her all-female choir GAGGLE is also challenging, with an explicit feminist purpose of female empowerment. In Week 9 of Fig-2 they performed in between readings of classic speeches by great women including Virginia Woolf. In Bicester each member of the choir carried a rock made out of paper and wire and sang ringing harmonies to her source of burden, “I wish my rock.. were you!” The choir carried their rocks through the crowds along the whole length of Bicester Village.

10178099_10156188632215181_2974744521471714333_nWe fell about when we saw a dad successfully goading his children. “Those women must be so strong!” he said, provoking their incredulous reply “It’s fake rocks, Dad!

Fig-2 continues until December at the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

AJ Dehany is blogging about every single week of Fig-2 at

I was bad & I bought a suit..

Week 5 – Rebecca Birch – February 2-9 – Lichen Hunting on the West Coast (2015)

In the Hebrides, lichen was used for dyeing tweed. Reindeer moss, old man’s beard, grew scarlet-tipped in heathland. Yellow Candles and Coral Crust grew among the heather.  To full the cloth and remove the oil, before ammonia came to be used the tweed was soaked in piss.  To shrink the tweed, men in Nova Scotia, and women in the Hebrides, rhythmically slapped the cloth, using it as percussion while singing songs in Gaelic: three songs would shrink it, and after twelve the work would be complete.

While the choruses of the women’s work songs are pure music, the verses tell of lost love, battles, and tales some gory, shocking, sad, or moving. Over the years these were written down and cleaned up. In Greenock, Inverclyde, a lady called Frances started a singing group, to try to bring back the songs’ original rawness. Gaelic hasn’t been spoken for years, except in Uist, and none of the other women know it. But they learn a song each, to keep it safe.  They’ve written new songs, but these are pastiche. There is no improvisation. They sing, they slap the tweed, they natter.


The group has started to perform beyond the sitting room too, at a women’s guild in Houston and in schools. While she was resident at the CCA in Glasgow, the artist Rebecca Birch was invited to make a project with the women. She went to make a film about them, the film not as the sole outcome of working with the women, but as part of an experimental and experiential journey. Now, in the ICA studio, she talks about them, making drawings to anchor the conversation, and projecting video of the women singing, and images of lichen, onto the walls and onto lichen-shaped plasterboard screens that are, over the week of the exhibition, disintegrating.


This is an attempt to spatialize the fragments of the narrative, to reenact and remember locations and people within a new space, constantly manipulating the surfaces and the atmosphere in order to creative an immersive but strange journey into the habitat of the women, and allowing visitors to the show to return and bring in their own memories and subjectivities. Think of an apple: yours might be green, mine might be red. Or a strawberry.

The biggest strawberry variety is the Happle. They don’t taste good. The best tasting is Elsanta. Rebecca Birch used to pick strawberries outside Birmingham. The owner of the strawberry field had a plan to surround Birmingham with them so that everyone would be in reach of strawberry fields, but his business declined over eight years, and he went into toffee apples instead. This became more mechanised each year, from a simple double dipping action to a hand crank machine to a huge mechanism. While she tells us all this, she draws.

Birch employs “an anecdotal avoidance of the thing that is at the centre of the work” and explains “I kept telling them about what I’d eaten, rather than the film; digression to package a narrative that people find a bit rubbish.” There is a studied unforcedness, a deliberate neutrality, and normalcy intended to draw people in. The ontological elements of the narrative are foregrounded, to draw the story out from a flat surface into an experience. But the lights are low to introduce a meditative feeling in the audience, to ritualize the experience, invoking a performance with a performance. The audience can move between different parts and levels of images; the screens break up and reconfigure the images. This is a continuation of a theme of Week 2 (Charles Avery): surfaces that make holes in the images behind, where 3-dimensional shapes interrupt the projection of images onto two-dimension space, interrogating the image spatially. These objects are delicate, and break, but achieve the paradoxical solidity of mirrors when projected onto.


The original choir in Greenock had disbanded because the men had gone away. The women were interested in songs about tweed, and in singing them. Their openness is remarkable, and after her week at the ICA, Rebecca Birch will return to them. Hers is Week 5 of the fig-2 series of 50 new exhibitions in 50 weeks, and shares with Week 1 (Laura Eldret) a deliberate ongoing-ness, a desire not to impose finality of form or content, but to see what happens. The week is a window on the work.  She also continues Laura Eldret’s interest in “women’s work” which Eldret documents in Mexico, and Birch in Scotland, and which will come into a more troubling focus in Week 6 (Young In Hong).

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