Chapter: Helen Frik

We went to check out the new Helen Frik exhibition at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff today. Frik was originally born in Worcester but now resides and works in Holland. This exhibition, ‘Difficult’, is her first solo exhibition in a public gallery in the UK and comprises three newly commissioned works which are supplemented by a number of works from the ‘Frik Collection’.

Upon entering the gallery space we were confronted by a rather surreal giant pink inflatable pink hand supporting cut out figure and protruding from a roughly made wooden passageway. This was the first of Frik’s new installations and to be totally honest we paid little attention to this bizarre housing as we were more intent on listening out for the noises that were being emitted through the passageway. The noises hissed and crackled occasionally building to a crescendo as they erupted into bursts of music. Meanwhile out of the other side of the passageway a large sculpture covered by a sheet of fabric was, every now and then, being de-robed by very sudden loud bursts of gas which would give the most prepared spectator a shock. The said fabric was left to fall to the floor exposing the garish, vaguely figurative, sculpture for all to see.

The final new work was tucked away behind a curtain in the furthest gallery space. The room was littered with hundreds of handmade toys all placed around a very oversized lamp in the middle of the room. This was actually the piece of work that brought us to the exhibition in the first place as all the toys had been handmade and donated by the public, including a couple of friends of Culture-Candy. Unfortunately it was a little underwhelming. Although there were apparently almost four hundred toys in the room, they failed to satisfactorily occupy the space and present us with a’ sea of toys’ as the exhibition information promised. The toys seemed to have been distributed throughout the space in a way which suggests the artist was trying to fill it rather than imbue the objects with any kind of energy. The accompanying literature talked of the toys escaping from something unknown to us and being drawn towards the light. The reality was however, that the toys felt static, more like they had been discarded and forgotten about rather than being full of a mysterious energy.

The most interesting piece we found on display as a part of ‘Difficult’ was an older work entitled Happy with Less Visits The Hard Worker (pictured above), in which an anonymous figure sits slumped at a desk under which there is the image of three woman on their knees. The contradiction between the lifeless form at the desk and the sexual energy with which the work is charged; implied by both the image of the women on their knees and the phallic object on the desktop; was discordant and unsettling. The suggestions of impotence and apathy towards life were clear and the realisation of how easily one can succumb to these afflictions was driven home by the clever combinations of very clearly recognisable imagery.

On the whole we felt that the older work displayed in Gallery Three, including Happy with Less Visits The Hard Worker and a number of drawings and collages such as those pictured at the top of this article, was certainly the most engaging part of the exhibition. The newly commissioned works seemed to lack the clear communication that was apparent in the earlier works and relied more upon a number of playful gimmicks to engage the audience. There is no doubt that the playfulness of these new works drew the attention of visitors to the gallery. However,we felt that the work did little more than this and did not give spectators any real cause to pause for thought. Even whilst reflecting upon the work we struggled to understand it’s purpose. Then again maybe we’re trying too hard to find a meaning, perhaps this is the difficulty that Frik talks of and we have been lured into this awkward debate about the work by the artist.

Despite our criticisms we would urge you to go and make your mind up for yourself. The exhibition is worth a visit just to experience Frik’s earlier work alone which, although displaying traits of the playfulness that is present in her new work, is also thought provoking and at times quite profound . The exhibition runs at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, until Sunday 9 May 2010.

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