1 June 2011
a-n Magazine (p.9)
For her first solo show in London, at the Watermans in Brentford, Ellie Harrison has created an installation which seeks to re-enact the various oscillations in public service policy over the last century – through the medium of the electric massage chair. Upon entering the darkened exhibition space, visitors encounter a circle of six, inward-facing massage chairs, while on the wall directly behind them a projection gradually scrolls through the dates 1900 to 2011. Each date is illuminated in a neon colour: red, blue or yellow, which correlates to the colour of the political party that was in power at the time. A diagram on the wall near the entrance designates a service or industry to each chair, which at various points over the last century have been held in either public or private ownership. Each chair switches on when the service/industry that it represents is in public ownership, off when it becomes the private property of shareholders. It is through this simple mechanism that A Brief History of Privatisation seeks to demonstrate the rise and fall of nationalisation in a ‘fun’ and physically interactive way.
Harrison’s chosen format for the presentation of information carries a distant resemblance to the long-since-defunct original ‘interactive zone’ at the Science Museum in London, which as a child harboured the guilty pleasure of learning through doing. It also appears to make reference to the visual coding of certain television programmes, such as Top of the Pops (the neon countdown) and Mastermind (the chairs), which Harrison would first have encountered as a child in the 1980s. In her recent essay Trajectories: How to Reconcile the Careerist Mentality with Our Impending Doom, Harrison is quick to acknowledge the importance of the 1980s as central to her own biography, while reflecting on its wider socio-economic significance in marking the shift from Fordist (manufacturing) to post-Fordist (service) models of production. It is not surprising that signifiers from this period inflect the work; its very reason for existence is bound up in the socio-political landscape that the 1980s ushered into being.
Over recent years, Harrison has consciously shifted her practice away from the deliberately self-absorbed solipsism that characterised much of her previous work. Earlier projects, such as Eat 22 and Tea Blog, were typified by a narcissistic preoccupation with the self, in particular the act of collecting and displaying often extremely extensive self-referential data. While the departure from overt biography is welcome, deprived of her former favourite subject the work feels somewhat inchoate. Harrison’s performance of information is reductive rather than expansive; all the complexity, the real socio-political context of these changes, is reduced to a list of dates and colours. Crucially, there is no moment of poesies, as there is in, say, Cory Arcangel’s Beat the Champ, a video-game-bowling-as-meditation-on-failure installation currently on display at the Barbican, which is arrived at through similarly restricted means. In contrast, A Brief History of Privatisation seems unable to transcend its own self-imposed limitations and remains trapped by them, whilst being simultaneously divested of its potentially meaningful content.