Tamsyn Challenger’s ‘Monoculture’

It was while promoting her critically acclaimed work, 400 Women, a collaborative exhibition of portraits reacting to the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, that artist Tamsyn Challenger found her eyes opened to a strange culture developing on social media.

Noticing a likeness, sexualised identity and performativity in young women, Challenger drew comparisons between this damaging monoculture emerging online and similarly damaging agricultural practices. Admittedly an odd comparison on paper, but, sprawled throughout Beaconsfield’s three spaces, Monoculture implores exploration of the art itself and its overriding themes in a refreshingly affecting way.

Providing the context to the exhibition, a video work depicts a dying bumblebee and a Colombian farmer explains the natural damage caused by monoculture farming, while Noam Chomsky explores the quiet concerns lying behind the free, open platform of the Internet.

Can the Internet really be free? If not, what will the ultimate cost be? In an eerie actualisation of society’s need to replicate an ascribed image of beauty, a Californian scientist excitedly reveals technology that would allow us to change the colour of our eyes from brown to a more desirable blue – the colour of an open window. Apparently.

Upstairs in the main exhibition space, in the familiar blue and white that colours our days on favourite social networks, medieval torture mechanisms – chastity belt, breaking wheel, stocks and ‘scold’s bridle’ – are given a modern day makeover. In their original incarnations just given a lick of paint, these implements become a stark reminder of the ways our identities and voices are bridled by our digital society, whether it be knowingly or subliminally.

A familiar message of ‘Do not exceed 140 characters’ wraps itself around a breaking wheel – are we still talking about taps on a keyboard? As someone who spends a vast amount of time online for work (and play), thoughts like this lie heavy when forced to consider what kind of identity I am creating for myself through my online interactions.

Beneath the railway arches, Challenger installs a small farm: a plantation of oilseed rape, the notorious ‘cash crop’, renowned for its high yield but also the controversial use of damaging pesticides in its domination of the ecosystem.

Amidst the crops, discarded wet wipes – with red from lips and black from eyes smeared against the white – litter the floor beneath harsh blue UV light that fuels the perpetual growth of the aligned oilseed rape. It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the culture of  self-portraits or ‘selfies’ we’re encouraged to recreate by the vanity table. Long, dark bedraggled wigs – not too dissimilar to my own hair! – hang above the illuminated plant beds. It’s an almost violent scene.

With the white face, dark wig, rouged cheeks ‘identity’ firmly implanted in my consciousness, it was an image of a little girl in the visitor-contributed ‘selfies’ in the cafe that resonated. Make-up perfectly applied, according to the template, but that trademark sexualised pout not quite there. Not yet anyway.

Monoculture is open until Saturday 13 April at:

22 Newport Street
SE11 6AY

Image: Tamsyn Challenger, ‘Selfie Brank 1 (Facebook)’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Beaconsfield

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