The Bristol Magazine pays a visit to one of Spike Island’s current exhibitions, the intriguing Others and I by Hedwig Houben

We like to think of ourselves as having a reasonable grasp on art, able to spot a Monet or a Van Gogh with minimal head scratching and claims of the name being on the tip of the tongue. Impressionism, pointillism and every other -ism seem just about within reach of our artistic understanding. But walking into Dutch artist Hedwig Houben’s sparse, white exhibition at Spike Island, it becomes clear that our preconceived ideas are about to be challenged.

Others and IHouben performing Personal Matters and Public Affairs (2015) live at Spike Island on 30 September

In the centre of the room is a suited man, sitting calmly on a striped rug beside two angular sculptures, one black and one white. Shifting from side to side the man – whom we later discover to be artist and collector Rupert Bathurst – delivers a script punctuated by the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, as if evaluating itself in real-time. Unbeknownst to us, we have stumbled upon The Good, The Bad, The Happy, The Sad (2014), a title which encompasses the hand-woven carpet, the sculptures and, today, the performance before us. Bemused, we skirt the perimeter of the gallery to try to get a handle on what is actually going on.

However, listening to the meandering script, coloured by the torrential rain outside and scratching sounds emanating from a nearby video, the cogs are set whirring even further by a series of statements: horror films and romance films are altered in meaning by the viewer; camouflage loses its purpose once translated into fashion; good; bad; good. It’s rambling, it’s funny, and as Bathurst sets the sculptures aside and walks away in silence, the audience is left reeling.

Others and IForeground: The Good, The Bad, The Happy, The Sad (2014)

This mystifying experience sets the tone for the exhibition, which continues to bemuse and entertain with five years’ worth of Houben’s sculpture, drawing and contemplative, memorised performances. The Hand, The Eye, It and the Foot (2015) catches our eye, with a neon purple trainer set against a lump of homogenous flesh-like plasticine, from which hands and a leg have formed. In the accompanying video, a curiously deadpan Houben discusses the purpose of the foot, the way it interacts with the eye and its comparatively clunky existence in comparison to the agile hand; not something we can honestly say we’ve given much thought to.

Others and I

Others and IThe Hand, The Eye, It and the Foot (2015), sculpture (above) and performance (below)

Coming towards the end of the exhibition by way of a huge scale model of a Volkswagen hatchback and multifaceted sculpted head, we find that the way we think of individual objects, parts of the body, ourselves and our society has constantly been brought into question by Houben. By hosting conversations between herself, her past selves and the artworks she has created, issues of identity and existence begin to take shape. You may not quite understand what you’re seeing, but rest assured, once you get home and kick off your shoes, you might just find yourself looking at things a little differently…

Hedwig Houben’s exhibition runs at Spike Island until 11 December

All images © Stuart Whipps