During the hazy days of lockdown No 1, when standing still in the world was a novelty, the home took on a new fascination. The way light crept round the curtain rail, the slight dip in the entrance to the kitchen, the advance of ivy up the backyard fence – this all became mesmerising, endlessly shifting and changing under the intensity of my gaze. Perhaps this is what happened to the artist Nicolaas van de Lande when he was constructing miniature beds; or Shenece Oretha, when she was weaving two speaker stands together; or Tereza Červeňová, when she photographed a rotting apple spliced with a blade of grass.
In total, 10 artists make up Jerwood Arts’ touring exhibition Survey II, and it seems lockdown has had an unavoidable impact on all of the new commissions. Walking into its final stop at Site Gallery in Sheffield is like entering a Lynchian riff on my grandma’s lounge. Embroidered hankies glitter with the proclamation “There is Nowt so Queer as Folk”, pot plants creep menacingly around plywood structures of stereotypically beautiful women, three traditional straw dolls hide their eyes, cover their ears and shut their mouths. Spanning a whole breadth of disciplines, Survey II presents the work of early-career artists in the UK who have been nominated by established artists.
Aside from the cacophony of distorted homewares, there is also a general sense of unease with the outside world. “Outside is dangerous, inside is safe” announces Cinzia Mutigli over footage of her staring anxiously into the camera beneath several layers of thick white duvets. Dressed in shimmering party outfits and a monochrome headdress, the artist lays in bed obsessing over the social interactions she will have to encounter in public – sometimes her voice splits and echoes, making it even more consuming. Footage of Pan’s People preparing to dance on Top of the Pops is interspersed with Mutigli rehearsing. “How can they know all the steps?” she asks of both the dancers and those who appear at ease socialising.
Saelia Aparicio’s Three Dead Astronauts are “female” structures, entangled with plants that were once exotic in the UK but have learned to adapt and thrive in the climate. Oxalis, buddleia and mother of thousands seem like benign ornaments, but Aparicio reminds us that they have their own will to survive, dispelling the myth that it is humanity that controls nature. The sallow faces of her structures, with emojis for eyes and glowing glass towers in place of a life-giving bosom, paint a dystopian future where humans are outsiders or “astronauts” on the planet we once called home.
On the opposite wall, Rebecca Moss screens three short films that tiptoe along the fine line between hilarity and hysteria. In Pancake, she stands atop a concrete wall, holding a paving slab above a pristine, three-tiered cake. I grin and hold my breath, knowing what is about to come, but the delay in the drop creates an uncomfortable tension that makes me want to shield my eyes and turn away. Similarly, Home Improvement – which sees the artist construct a kinetic machine that uses coat hangers to pull her face into a smile – begins in a lightly amusing manner, but as the coat hangers pull up higher her body shifts in excruciating pain until the process becomes torturous. The threat of violence is everyday and mundane; it is a celebratory cake exploding with a guttural thud, it is wardrobe furniture becoming weaponised.
Van de Lande plays on the instability of life by manipulating materials, objects and scale. A tiny bed with miniature pillows sits on a stack of paint points that shrink and alter in size. Meanwhile, a door propped up on a work bench – on closer inspection – is furry, having been flocked. Laid out on a long strip of carpet in the centre of the exhibition, van de Lande’s installation demands the most attention. It is horrific and intriguing, tactile and repulsive, familiar and unfamiliar. A delicately crafted bed is infected with a collection of lumpy, wet and furry forms that – although static – seem to pulsate horribly. On a plush white cushion, a red painted ball appears to have been dropped from a height, splattering red specks in the process. Suddenly, the ball becomes a foetus and I desperately try to unsee it, hoping the longer I look the less like a baby it will be.
My brain struggles to digest Van de Lande’s work. It recognises it but can’t categorise it. This is its brilliance – its ability to invite us in and then keep challenging us to alter our perspective until we can capture a scrap of understanding. All of the works in Survey II – whether embroidered snippets of the body or poetry shrouded in textiles – encourage us to keep looking, searching, asking until we find a way through. Perhaps this endless curiosity is how the human race will continue to survive.