Spence Messih’s THE LOOK BACK is an impeccably situated exhibition. ‘I’m thinking about structures that try to support us,’ Messih states through the room sheet (authored by Vincent Silk), and the ALASKA Project’s car park offers not only a deeply structured site, but a heightened awareness of the invisible systems at play in our city. Messih transposes these systems—social and structural—onto utilitarian materials that are at home alongside the bright yellow remnants of car spaces, and the oil-stained concrete floor.

Spence Messih, THE LOOK BACK (install), 2017. ALASKA Projects, Sydney, NSW, AU. Photography: Document Photography

Messih’s works are minimalist, yes, but saturated in loaded codes. The weight of our cultural obsession with gendering everything is something I often find suffocating, but here, the ‘insecurities’ of these structures are drawn out; what appears fixed is easily disrupted and made into an ambivalent form.

Affixed to two of the gallery’s walls, meeting in the corner, is Thinking of things I can’t remember (2017). A pair of hand railings coated with ceramic fragments, they appear adorned, fragile, and almost iridescent under the fluorescent light. In places, the fragments jut out, like tiny threats. Stripped of their utility-value, the railings have been made into an object that invites desire; an imagined staircase, leading down to a phantom space, or enticing something up from below.

Spence Messih, Thinking of things I can’t remember (detail), 2017. Ceramic tile mosaic, grout, steel
Dimensions variable. Photography: Fiona Susanto

On the opposite wall hangs a near-identical pair of cyanotype prints on heavy-toothed paper. River beneath the river (I & II) (2017) captures an exposed bruised neck, an indeterminate mark of intimacy or violence. The delicacy of the paper belies the promise of healing.

Spence Messih, River beneath the river (I & II), 2017. Cyanotype on 300gsm Arches coldpress watercolour paper
56 x 76 cm (framed). Photography: Document Photography

The final work, a set of precisely bent steel sheets, sits in the centre of the room. You move (on the other side of) (2017) is at home on the concrete slab. Messih’s emphasis on surface is nowhere more apparent than in these sculptures that are coated in testosterone gel, somewhere between matte and gloss.

Spence Messih, You move (on the other side of), 2017. Steel, testosterone gel, Dimensions variable. Photography: Document Photography

Does the steel bend in on itself, or is it pulling away? Is the neck exposed to a welcome touch, or flinching in pain? Will the railings guide me, or harm me? Messih effortlessly translates the experience of ‘the double take, the look back, not knowing if someone wants to fuck you or kill you’ throughout this show.

Presented alongside THE LOOK BACK is Vincent Silk’s pamphlet, THESE THINGS WE DO / LONG LIVE SNAILS. This textual contribution does more than accompany the show—it completes it. Not only for the ways the clipped corner of the page and the gradient deep blue ink draw a visual line to the geometry of the steel and richness of the cyanotype—Silk provides a personal body, ruminating and reckless, that elevates the impact of Messih’s work.

‘Do you think we don’t talk to each other?’ Silk writes, capturing the push and pull of this charged exhibition. The intimacy of the space, combined with the incredible cohesion of this body of work, make this show worth unpacking and worth discussing. Everything in THE LOOK BACK signals ‘both’, the joy of vulnerability, and the potential of exchange. The double remains but the binary is banished.

Emma Jenkins

Emma Jenkins is a Sydney-based PhD candidate interested in experimental writing, embodiment, and ‘I’.

Spence Messih’s THE LOOK BACK was exhibited April 26th to 10 May 20th 2017 at ALASKA Projects [carpark].

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