Entering the Decipher exhibition at Surface Gallery is more like stepping into a landscape than a white cube gallery. The expansive space reveals a patchwork of environmental settings, with soil and sand filling the ground, an urban wall snaking through the space, and an imposing 7ft scarecrow watching gallery visitors mingle. The landscape is an intriguing mismatch, somewhat reflecting the diversity of artists and their cultural backgrounds being represented in the exhibition.
Decipher features artists from across the globe who all have links to Nottingham Trent University. The exhibition was conceived as a collaborative experiment where the five exhibiting artists exchanged texts belonging to their unique cultural backgrounds and then created an artwork to reflect their interpretation. Despite the vast array of subjects, approaches, and aesthetics, the exhibition is a thoughtful enquiry into the coexistence of landscape and identity. It urges visitors to decipher an unsolvable question; how can we relate to other cultures which are so unfamiliar to our own?
The most striking transformation of the gallery is Ellis Sharpe’s floor installation Two States. The gallery floor is filled with an even spread of soil and sand, which neatly divided into two equal parts at the beginning of the opening evening. Private views are catalysts for gathering and lingering, yet Two States physically splits the room and imposes itself upon the audience and their interactions. The visitors become divided, both physically by the artificial line, and behaviourally in terms of how they viewed and navigated the space; some lurked around edges trying to preserve the artwork in its original form, whilst others make their mark and give the artwork a new form. Sharpe is an Eastern European of Jewish descent, yet his installation was inspired by the text ‘Muslim Songs from the British Isles.’ The sand represents the landscape of the Middle East; the soil represents Britain. Although they have distinctions, the two groundings intermingle to become something different and new. On another level the artwork makes a statement about human interactions with environment; all actions have physical implications on the landscape either through ideas and aesthetics.
Situated upon the sandy portion of the room is a life-size scarecrow sculpture created by Israeli artist, Ela Ward. In the shadow of the scarecrow are scattered sunflower seeds relying upon the ragged figure for protection to grow. In this piece, Ward interprets the Chinese myth of Chang’e where ten suns rose in the sky and scorched the world. A mortal, Chang’e, was requested by the god’s to shoot down the suns with nine arrows and in return she became immortal. The scarecrow, once a staple of the British countryside, contrasts with Chinese beliefs that sun gods are disguised as crows and carry the sun through the sky. As the artist statement explains, Ward views the sculpture as a reflection of the circle of life and invests it with layers of religious symbolism: the scarecrow represents man’s role of protecting seeds, seeds represent thoughts and ideas, and sunflowers symbolise God’s devotion as they always face the sun.
Chinese artist Luya Wang’s approach to the ‘experiment’ differs from the other artists. Rather than reflecting the subject matter of the Israeli text, Wang contemplates her experience of decoding an unfamiliar culture. In the centre of the room hangs a horizontal L-shaped wooden structure with a gently flickering candle flame on the end. The artist gives the visitor the option of viewing it directly or indirectly through the periscope effect if the wooden tunnel. The interactive sculpture reflects the distance we feel when trying to connect to a foreign place, and no matter how hard we try, we only see an obscured reflection and not reality. For Wang, the candle represents Buddhist meditation, but in Israel candles are part of another ritual in Judaism.
The exhibition is a diverse, ambitious, thoughtful exploration into cultural identity and the notion of being a foreigner. The overall aesthetic of the space is inspiring, with all artworks complementing one another in their colours, texture, and the thoughtful spacial layout. In the same way as the artists deciphered the texts, the exhibition invites visitors to decode the multiple layers of cultural meanings through their own unique background.