As a life long resident of Milton Keynes, when ever anybody asks me where I live their response to my answer usually falls into three categories: 1) Roundabouts 2) the Snow Dome 3) Concrete Cows.
However, recently a fourth category has begun to emerge: The MK Gallery. The shopping centre maybe a soulless bastion of high street homogeny, the height of nightlife maybe Wetherspoons followed by Oceana, but the MK Gallery steers away from this, standing its ground at the far end of this spectrum representing something that Milton Keynes could be with a little more emphasis on individuality and culture.
Following on from some excellent exhibitions, most notably last years Anna Barriball survey, the current show features the work of San Francisco born artist Daria Martin, and it does not disappoint. The gallery space, usually large white and open, has been utterly transformed, darkened and split to create a space unrecognizable to regular visitors to the gallery.
The exhibition features four 16mm films projected onto the walls – all created over the last ten years, with the most recent being completed this year. Despite their contemporary standing, the 16mm format gives each film a nostalgic, uncanny feel, creating something that has an undeniable undercurrent of familiarity, which at times works to create an unsettling sensation.
And this is an exhibition with a great focus on sensation. Upon entering the first room, the Cube Gallery, you are greeted by pitch black room and are obliged to gradually feel your way to a bench in the middle of the room before the projector springs into action. This short film, Sensorium Tests (2012), focuses on the recently recognized neurological condition ‘mirror-touch synaesthesia’ a condition whereby people experience a physical sense of touch on their own bodies when they see other people, or sometime even objects, being touched. The second film Soft Materials (2004), is filmed in an Artificial Intelligence laboratory at the University of Zurich where scientists produce robots that learn by the experience of their physical ‘bodies’ rather than through being programmed by a computer. Two performers then in turn mimic the movements of these robotic contraptions. Machine mimics man, man mimics machine.
These two films work especially well with the 16mm format, as they become reminiscent of 1970s scientific experiments, bringing back memories of videos watched in science classes, and creating a certain distance between subjects and viewer, a sensation heightened by the constant whirring of the projectors.
The final space, the Long Gallery, screens the two films, and has been divided up by a cavernous architectural frame. The first film you encounter, Closeup Gallery (2003), shows a magician and his assistant performing card tricks and moving cards around on an intriguing spinning glass contraption. As the film progresses the cards become ever more mesmerizing, almost taking on the appearance of a Constructavist painting at times.
Harpstrings and Lava (2007) sets a scene resembling a dream, or perhaps nightmare, sequence with a surreal, and disturbing quality. Upon entering this final room, you receive a pair of dual-channel headphones (anyone familiar with the Silent Disco format will know the drill) which enables you to flip between channels and therefore flick between two soundtracks to accompany the films. One channel is reminiscent of a 70s sci-fi score, whilst the other is a more contemporary electronic driven number. Each sound track completely changes the sensations and effects of each film, having an overwhelming effect on how the viewer receives the film.
The four films invite us to challenge the way we view film, and also question sensations that we take for granted. This is an excellent exhibition and a true reminder of the power of art to transform. So next time, rather than just driving round roundabouts, or passing through on the train, go to the MK Gallery and see what Milton Keynes is really about.