by Kostas Prapoglou
Prem Sahib is one of those young artists that since graduating have dynamically taken over the British capital by storm. His show Side On at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London is the latest of a series of shows since he graduated from the Royal Academy Schools in 2013.
Spanning the ICA’s lower and upper galleries, Sahib’s exhibition encompasses an assortment of mediums ranging from ceramic tiles and glass to wood, steel, jesmonite, and resin. At first glance, the works on display admittedly do not have a “wow factor,” and are certainly not made to visually dazzle the viewer. The lower gallery is occupied by Looking for One (2015), a 120 x 405 x 195 cm white ceramic tile intervention reminiscent of a toilet or shower area featuring a still life (comprising a polished steel laptop-shaped item, an ashtray with cast popcorn sprouting from it and a multi-purpose cleaner cast in resin) and Taken by Your Equivocal Stance I, II and III (2015), three metal and glass installations framing hoodies and puffer jackets, adorned with eggs balanced on the edges of the sculpture. Watch Queen, a pair of interwoven π-shaped structures (one standing and the other lying on the floor) dressed in pink ceramic tiles is stationed between the first two works. On a higher level, three abstract-formed suspended neon works (Breathing Neons) light up and dim on rotation, concurrently engaging in a dialogue with the discreet small window (After Hours, 2015) on the opposite wall.
On the way to the upper galleries, viewers go through a dark space encountering a series of posters all lit by torches. Outer Wear (2015) takes over the space of the bigger room, a sturdy double arched structure covered with glossy black tiles, while Tuesday (2015) forms a painted wood floor placed over the gallery surface floor with talcum powder spread all over it revealing foot prints. The adjacent space is occupied by three aluminium panels covered with countless droplets of resin (Beyond I, II, III, 2015) and a glass top table (Spread, 2015) supported by two feet wearing white socks.
Sahib’s visual practice renders notions of social circumstance. All of the works on display reference the human presence or absence depending on the way you look at it, not in a romantic domain but in an active participatory dimension. With autobiographical references, the artist’s body of work to date has been developed into a vocabulary of forms and objects that convey certain messages in an almost symbolic way. His tiled pieces (also seen at the FEEL UP collaboration with Eddie Peake at Lismore Castle in Ireland in early 2015 and his first solo show home from home at Arts & Jobs London in 2012) as well as the steam like aluminium panels (also shown at Jhaveri Contemporary in 2014 and Gwangju Biennale of the same year and at He Looked Me Up at Marian Cramer gallery in 2012) resemble the interior architecture of specific public spaces such as toilets, saunas and bathhouses. With remarks on spatial functionality, Sahib simultaneously unveils the meeting points and activities of particular social groups such as the gay community. He breaks the boundaries of the mundane in the objectivity of trivial architectural forms and saturates them with notions of social substance, codes of communication and interaction, while simultaneously commenting on the aesthetics of hygiene and sterility.
Dress code in a sense of social coding is also one of Sahib’s main points of interest for a few years now. Puffer jackets were also part of his solo show Night Flies at Southard Reid in September 2013. Surveying the psychological effect of dressing and the cross-influential impact of a mutual dress code within members of same social groups, play a pivotal role in Sahib’s body of work. He portrays them all packed up and framed, they all become part of the same package.
Going a step further, Sahib also activates the gallery space by creating club nights and thus transmitting further aspects of his community’s social behaviour and culture. His one-off club night at the ICA with a DJ set by Jeffrey Hinton and the posters from BUMP club night that he organized during the RA Schools Graduate Show in June 2013 recall memories from his interventions at Southard Reid gallery, which was transformed into a Soho club for a night in the same year.
Embodying a minimalist stance, Sahib also constructs neon works. His black dead neon pieces were also exhibited at Gwangju Biennale and Ronchini gallery in 2014 and Arts & Jobs in 2012. In a similar fashion, a fading neon work reading END UP was installed outside the gallery building in his second solo show at Southard Reid in October 2015. The abstract shapes of his neons are evocative of worms or micro-organisms as one sees them under the microscope; their modulated lighting accentuates their ability to breathe, live or expire.
Sahib’s exhibition does not attempt to impress, but is instead impregnated with a performativity and honesty that traces the different trajectories of society—a poetic manifestation of existence and personal expression of true identity.
Side On by Prem Sahib @ the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) runs through November 15, 2015.
Dr. Kostas Prapoglou is an archaeologist-architect, art writer, critic and curator based in London, UK and Athens, Greece.