All in a day's work

With a massive five gallery takeover of the Arnolfini in Bristol, Olivia Plender has certainly been industrious, but Tom Denbigh questions whether her message always comes across clearly

Tom Denbigh, 4 August 2012

Paul's penny.jpg

In Rise Early, Be Industrious, Olivia Plender has taken ideas from the British Empire right up to the present day, and looked at a variety of themes: games as teaching tools; the idealistic worker-based society; and the re-imagining of work within the modern googleplex office.

The start of the exhibition brings the visitor gently into Plender's work and features constructed propaganda-esque banners that I initially thought were pulled out of the past, and not constructed. An example of one of the slogan is: "How Paul's penny became a pound". On two tables in the room, Plender has mixed models of the World Trade Fair with locations straight out of A Pilgrim's Progress, which, as the accompanying literature reminds us, tells the tale of a good Protestant, travelling to paradise the only way possible: through hard work. Coupled with a hierarchical Monarchy topped mobile, these pieces set out the educational and hierarchical ideas of the next (and best) Gallery, but a London-shot video in the corner and a second model from the Progress add nothing clear to the message.

In the second gallery, Plender has placed two educational games, two model chickens and two satirical pieces. Board games and satire...I felt at home. Very promising.

The first to play with is a racing game, 'Set Sail to the Levant', taking you as a peasant from your land and forcing you into the city to seek a wage, where you can only 'win' by robbing and cheating the other players. Created and beautifully illustrated by Plender, the game puts me in mind of four hour games (or fights) of Monopoly, where the most ruthless player, usually the banker, wins.

It seems a little unfair to expect visitors to have to Google an explanation

The second interactive part of this gallery consists of architectural building blocks in the centre of the floor. Inspired by images of the same blocks in various shapes around the gallery, visitors are encouraged to build their own structures with them. The sense of construction and community provides a contrary message to the board game. A beehive in the corner reinforces the educational message of the blocks, representative of the coming together and sense of community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The other two pieces in this gallery are a horse and a very small ornate duckhouse. Their plaques state they are "proposed memorials" to "a loyal servant" and "parliamentary expenses" respectively. I, for one, would be more than happy for larger versions in Westminster. Two hens, innocuously entitled 'Pecking Order', hammer home the message and remind me of the hierarchy of today, though nowadays residents of Chipping Norton, rather than the monarch, stand at the top.

Playing with blocks.jpg
As the exhibition progresses, the scene is set - with a set. Plender has constructed a 1970s-style film studio, where TVs constantly show Open University lectures. This was the point where I started to lose enthusiasm. The accompanying gallery seems unfocused. A painted world map, peppered with phrases to which you can add your own words, is without title or explanation. If it wasn't for a YouTube video of Plender discussing the installation which I chanced upon in my research, I might have given up completely. Unfortunately, although this video reveals Plender's intention, it lies on the internet and not in the Arnolifini; it seems a little unfair to expect visitors to have to Google an explanation.

A tiny room is supposed to be the fifth gallery, but, sparsely furnished with three pieces portraying spiritualism, it seems inconsistent with the theme of the exhibition until I question Plender later. When we talked, Plender had much to say about the spiritualist movement, but once again, the lack of explanation (even using the glossary given upon entrance) was disappointing, and I felt that I was expected to have far too much prior knowledge.

I stopped in the reading room to sit down and chat to my partner after the odd jolt of the fifth gallery. Not noticing immediately how brightly-coloured everything was, reading through the guide, I realised I was in 'The Entrepreneurial Garden', a Google-like office space, where a notice on the wall informed me that, by reading it, I have agreed to give up my intellectual rights to any ideas formed in the playful environment. I liked the idea. Selling work as play doesn't stop it being work, profit-driven as ever. The 'Garden'-cum-reading room is the final section, and it brings together rules, interactivity, education and the worker - the key and most interesting themes in the exhibition.

If you have even a smattering of interest in how society has transmitted knowledge (you're reading a blog, aren't you?), it's worth seeing

Afterwards, I have the chance to chat to Olivia Plender briefly, which answers some of my questions. Speaking to Plender was certainly fascinating. I find out that the most strange object she has ever held was whilst researching suffragettes in the Women's Library Archives: the purse of Emily Davison, which she was carrying on one of the most famous days in women's suffrage, still holding her infamous return ticket. Plender described the experience as "very creepy and odd" as "you become very aware of the reality of it."

Duckhouse.jpgPlender also talked about her three main interests in historical research: Kibbo Kift, a liberal youth movement; Spiritualism; and the conveyance of information. Kibbo Kift and Spiritualism, it transpires, both had a lot of time for women: Kibbo Kift allowed women in (this alone revolutionary for the time), and even had a few notable suffragette members. Spiritualism, part founded by the Fox sisters, likewise was much better to women, partially due to the tight links with the liberal Quakers. In a time when university was prohibited for women, or restricted to art-based courses, the odd spiritualist education of trance-lecturing consisted of channelling the spirits to deliver a lecture, allowing long dead authorities on a subject to 'teach'. This type of learning would be accessible to all, explaining the appeal of the movement to those who couldn't gain access to education. Plender also talked about her love-hate relationship with archives: the tug of the past, balanced against the weight of it, making it tiring but rewarding to dig into and decide what to bring out.

Plender showed immersion, enthusiasm and detailed knowledge - it's just unfortunate that this hasn't translated completely to the exhibition. While some choice sections and pieces have clear messages, many of the pieces require either significant prior knowledge or some degree of explanation to interpret. Art can be open to interpretation without being entirely cryptic, and sometimes I felt that Plender's pieces were approaching the latter. My overall impression was positive, with interaction an essential part of the experience, but the lack of considered explanation or further pieces to clarify any ideas let the exhibition down somewhat.

The discussion wasn't able to answer all questions about the gallery, but it did leave me certain of Plender's enthusiasm and looking forward to seeing what she does next. The exhibition itself is certainly thought-provoking and entertaining; there is plenty to look at, think about, and even play with, and if you have even a smattering of interest in how society has transmitted knowledge (you're reading a blog, aren't you?), it's worth seeing.

Rise Early, Be industrious continues till the 9th of September in The Arnolfini, Bristol, and will conclude with the 3rd and final section in CCA Glasgow. Screenings of TV events in collaboration with the artist will be screened in the 3rd gallery Open Forum every Saturday at 3pm, and guided tours will be at 2pm on the same day.

Entrance, tours and viewings are all free.

Photos used with permission courtesy of the artist.

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Tom Denbigh

Tom Denbigh is studying biology at the University of Bristol. He has an unhealthy interest in baking and once worked in a lighthouse

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