Highly political, sometimes shocking and doubtlessly valuable, the ICA’s new exhibitions, Lis Rhodes: Dissonance and Disturbance and In Numbers, are worthy of a visit. 

The lesser-loved exhibition for me is In Numbers; it’s a collection of serial publications created by artists since 1955. For the most part these are zines that precisely capture the socio-economic contexts and cultural inspirations of their makers, more so than a stand-alone piece of art could have done. With sketches, copy, photography and sometimes even gift bags, artists or artistic collectives could introduce their aesthetic to the world using many mediums and with as many copies as desired. These publications were circulating attention, instead of merely asking for it. Artists exposed their work to the mainstream by leaving copies on trains, street corners and cafes to be picked up by Average Joes and who-knows-who.

Some specifically targeted the mainstream like File magazine, created in New York City in 1972, which mirrored the conglomerate publication Life Magazine, by using the same red and white boxed logo but with definitely “Other” imagery and deeply sarcastic content. Also featured in the exhibition was Vile magazine, which was created in New York two years later, and was the supposed evil twin of File, presenting contorted and pornographic images that toyed with human flesh and organs, blood and fecal matter. The black and white cover shot of a man ripping his still-beating heart out of his chest is one of the tamer editions. 

…your perception is continually questioned and distorted.

Such intense perverse imagery was rife in the exhibit, which begs the question: were these publications created to incite artistic interest and thought, or to simply shock city civilians using the most basic tactics? “The over-fed opinion” – a line splashed on one cover of Art Language – struck me as representative.

Dissonance and Disturbance, however, is the real reason to come. Since the 1970’s Lis Rhodes has been making radical and experimental film installations and this exhibition is an amalgamation of her more dated and current projects, reverberating common themes of injustice and subjectivity throughout.

The walls leading to the exhibition are lined with frames filled with geometric shapes sketched onto pieces of film; the patterns works of art themselves. It transpires that these sketches have a duality of use and meaning – they are actually sound drawings marked out on a celluloid stretch which when projected reads the optical soundtrack. So “what is heard is seen and what is seen is heard.” It is in Dresden Dynamo, created in 1972, that this is most impressive. The moving shapes accompanied by sound are interrupted, motioning like an indecisive wave of blue and red so that your perception is continually questioned and distorted.

…have a bit of a think and lose a good bit of faith in our government…

The subject and object are constantly in dispute in her films, a frame or a reference that is impossible to hold on to. Rhodes explores this, again, through sound and sight; jarring images with halted language. Over most of the films on show she provides a voiceover in her own strong RP, the script moving backwards and forewards, up and down, or standing icily still; “she hadn’t sneezed for centuries.”

As a woman of almost 70, Rhodes marries her lifework’s strongest political commentaries with 1988’s A Cold Draft and 2011’s Whitehall in a two screen installation and shared soundtrack. The 23 years difference between the “liberal” UK economics of the 1980’s and the conditions surrounding the education cuts of the Whitehall debate in 2010, are almost irrelevant as Rhodes draws chilling similarities of oppression, surveillance and identity; very human topics that are likely to hit home for any viewer.

Together, In Numbers and Dissonance and Disturbance make sense; both are collections of the circumstances that surround artistic expression (an aspect of creativity that is frequently ignored), instead of merely looking at art for the sake of art. Neither make for particularly easy-viewing, if you find yourself in central London wanting to kill some time you’re better off going to a Starbucks. However, if you’d rather have a bit of a think and lose a good amount of faith in our government and the society in which we live, then I’d head to the ICA. You won’t be disappointed.

Dissonance and Disturbance and In Numbers run at ICA until 25 March

Admission: free

3½ Stars


About The Author

Aspiring actress, freelance writer and dedicated food perve with an unabashed passion for everything arts & lifestyle.

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