A tendency toward homogenisation has always coloured definitions of the art ‘collective’. The term itself facilitates an impression of shared understanding, which often leads to the assumption that members of the collective are practicing on an equal platform. Historically the collective has been levelled and unified by the participants use of art to propagate a common agenda, which has regularly expanded into politics, social critique, cultural change and so on. Collectives have rarely openly exhibited as friends, or freely acknowledged the network of friendship that ultimately underpins their existence. Working with your mates because you like them has become a seedy art-taboo which is maintained by the supposition of ill advisement and biased selection. This interpretation of the traditional art collective is not intended to criticise such projects which mobilise art as a tool for change, but to provide a framework in which to discuss the Panj Piare: a group of five artists and friends who’s loose classification as a ‘collective’ re-evaluates the term’s utility as a descriptor of collaborative process.
Each of the Panj Piare’s exhibitions, of which there will be five in total, have been curated by one of the participating artists and only contain work of the ‘collective’. Harry Meadley’s installation, ’The Panj Piare Assemble’, in Grand Union’s Birmingham gallery was the third in the series. Each artist was invited to present work which responded to the subject of the Panj Piare, which translates as the five beloved ones in Punjabi. Meadley’s resulting group show navigated the individual practices of five artists who were not restricted by a concern to achieve a unified aesthetic.
The two hour assembly was more a performance punctuated by genre than an exhibition. The costume-based works worn by the five artists re-presented the idiosyncratic nature of the superhero brand, and encapsulated Meadley’s imagining of the event as a visual narrative in comic book style. Hardeep Pandhal’s ‘Sacred Cow’ (2014), a fluffy phallic headband wearing Virgin Mary; Meadley’s ‘Costume for the Panj Piare Assemble’ (2014), a custom-made green jump suit; David Steans’ ‘East Coast Trains’ (2014), a train conductor cradling a doppelgänger puppet; Joseph Lewis’ ‘Spire Mask No. 1’ (2014), a wooden Neo-gothic panelled mask and Joseph Buckley’s ‘Elegy Nine’ (2014), a pair of opaque blue and red contact lenses which resulted in the artist’s blindness all infused the space with an enjoyably insuppressible mania. These mismatched, wandering arts simultaneously fractured and reformed the notion of collective activity, which forms the generative heart of the entire Panj Piare project. They unified the artists as a distinct group yet simultaneously evoked an impression of the entire collective as individual practitioners. The works on show furthered this presentation of self conscious visual exchange, and covered video, text, drawing, sculpture, installation and performance. Buckley’s self-inflicted blindness, caused by his blue and red shift contact lenses was constantly problematised by his ‘Elegy Twelve’ (2014), a series of four large vinyl-covered cut-outs of triumphal arches and hillsides which dictated the gallery floor for visitors and restricted his own movement about the space. Pandhal’s ‘Sacred Cow’ with his/her DONASSIONS bowl allegorised his voyeuristic interest in the male gaze, which he has noticed hovering around the arses of Birmingham women. Steans’ ‘The Walls Move in to Glued House’ (2014) and ‘East Coast Trains’ (2014) simultaneously existed in a cyclic exchange between costume, text and drawn image. The short horror stories were transcribed onto the walls of the space and formed oversized pages which accompanied the monstrous drawings of Ex Libris doors plates. Lewis’ hurry-gurdy performance, played whilst his head was hidden inside the chamber of his faceless mask, made for a final unnerving visualisation of noise through the string’s heavy resonant throbs.
Meadley’s unusual mobilisation of the comic book genre made for a engaging insight into the Panj Piare project. The idiosyncrasies of the work on display acknowledged that the group’s collective common agenda is their friendship, which, even though it has influenced their art, does not define or bind its form. It only lasted for two hours, yet even the short, colourful injection of ‘The Panj Piare Assemble’ was enough to unravel preconceived ideas about the ‘proper’ operation of the collective in art.
Published online for thisistomorrow in May 2014.