Horror in the Modernist Block Explores Dystopian Brutalist Landscapes At Ikon Gallery – Running Until 01/05/23

Writer Sadie Barnett / Photographer Connor Pope

The atmosphere is one of excitement as photographer Connor and I arrive at the Horror in the Modernist Block press tour. This marks a new season for the Ikon, their first opening since director Jonathan Watkins stepped down. The exhibition aims to explore modernist architecture, starting with Birmingham and the city’s renowned Brutalist style buildings and as our tour guide explains, “expanding outwards globally”.

Continuing to describe the exhibition, she tells us how it aims to explore the implicit dystopian nature of the landscapes around us; “it’s important that the show is a provocation,” she says.

Thus we all enter, eager to be provoked.

The problem with architecture exhibitions is that at first glance it’s hard to tell if something is a part of the exhibition or the building. This is the case with one of the first pieces we see, Exit Sign (2021) by Abbas Zahedi.

I see the classic green and white design of a standard exit sign. However, on closer inspection we see that the running figures on either side of the arrow – which points to the ceiling rather than giving directions – are turned upside-down.

Zahedi tells how this work is inspired by his experience in Grenfell Tower. The crowd is silent as he describes, with contempt, watching an interview where politician Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “If I was in Grenfell I would have left, common sense,” showing us how an exit route can, at times, be a privilege.

Next, I enter a second floor room. On one side is Seher Shah’s Notes from a City Unknown (2021). This work is made up of black and white prints paired alongside short pieces of text. Through the geometric nature of these prints, with a clear dichotomy between the shaded and non-shaded segments of the shapes, we see a blueprint of Brutalist New Delhi.

A personal favourite of mine is a print entitled City of Privacy, a black backdrop with sharp white imagery layered over it and corresponding text reading: ‘To listen to a city / The sound is distant / Eyes open in the dark to a mouth with no teeth.’

Here, we see a major theme of the exhibition shine through: architecture creating a looming spectre, the horror of the everyday.

On the other side of this room is Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann’s Vanquished Space, Controlled Energy (2022), featuring a 3D structure that takes up half the room. It is a combination of screen-printing and painting that depicts a larger than life image of a room.

This ‘para-architecture’ (something that resembles architecture) is a style used in modernist horror film sets, and as I watch it blend almost seamlessly into the walls of the room it brings to mind the concept of the ‘uncanny’.

As I’m guided through the rest of the tour certain pieces catch my attention more than others. I enjoy Amba Sayal Bennett’s Carus pieces, showcasing hand-drawn blueprints so precise they seem almost digital. I am intrigued by Firenze Lai’s paintings, which depict brightly-coloured figures within tight spaces – exploring Hong Kong architecture and the effect that packed-in cities can have on human psychology.

I am stopped in my tracks by Ismael Monticelli’s Spaghetti Junction (2022), a new commission by Ikon. The piece takes up a wall; a blue triangle covered by ornate wooden and paper mâche symbols, gold and red standing out against the backdrop. English is not Brazilian artist Monticelli’s first language and so he employs a translation pre-recorded with a friend to describe his work.

The voice plays over the speakers and as the room listens in hushed awe, looking up at the triangle looming over us the air takes on an almost Ozymandias-esque worshipful silence.

“Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair!’”

Listening to the recording, it’s clear this homage to ancient Egypt is not an accidental one. It describes how Brazil’s retro-futurist architecture draws inspiration from ancient Egypt. This is clear in the work’s iconography, depicting various hieroglyphic-style figures. Though the scenes in the picture represent ancient conflicts, we are told how these conflicts are ones echoed in the political turmoil of modern-day Brazil.

In the same room is a bench. I am keen to sit down and am about to do so when the tour guide speaks again. She tells us that ‘This is a bench but it is also an artwork!’

And I realise I’ve stepped into every art enthusiast’s cliched worst nightmare. It’s an architecture exhibition, of course the bench is art. I make a mental note to keep my wits about me, and look mistrustfully at every other unassuming object in the room. The bench, by Simon and Tom Bloor, aims to explore the functionality of modernist architecture.

Moving forwards, I’m intrigued by Monika Sosnowksa’s dramatically spiky sculpture, Tower (2019). It draws inspiration from avant-garde Soviet architect Shukhov, with the sculpture particularly referencing his method of deliberately fatiguing steel.

This reference is one that taps into the exhibition’s core of ‘horror’ – as this same technique, the tour guide tells us, ended up being the cause of the death of several construction workers executing Shukhov’s vision when it did not work as intended.

I’m tickled by Richard Hughes’ Lithobolia Happy Meal (2022), it consists of several suspended chunks of rubble alongside an out-of-place and smiling Space Hopper. However, on further inspection I am thrilled to realise that this is his brutalist simulation of a happy meal.

Hughes balances a genuinely playful and nostalgic piece with a skillful commentary of the capitalist nature of demolition and rebuilding through both its materials and subject matter.

Finally, I end the press tour with the film screenings, which will be the exhibition’s start point for the visiting public. I sit on one of Simon and Tom’s helpful modernist benches as the show begins. Each short film is projected one at a time onto the different walls around us, so that we follow the videos around the room.

I’m particularly blown away by Kihlberg & Henry’s Slow Violence (2018-2022). It explores ever-encroaching man-made environmental changes through a fast-paced mix of spoken-word, text on screen, videos and images. It’s fascinatingly meta, with words flashed across the screen before being flashed across the actors’ screens.

There are too many memorable segments to choose from; a slideshow of cigarette packet images provides a damning commentary of an industry invented with an aim to limit smoking –  “It’s the one I ask for in the shop, you get to choose!”.

A prisoner who reflects on how brutalist architecture impacted his life: “I learned to love the cell”.

A slideshow of images switches from natural landscapes to building sites as a deadpan cast chants, “Mountain. Mountain. Mountain.”

It is a devastatingly clever representation of the exhibition’s core theme, horror.

Horror in the Modernist Block – official trailer

Horror in the Modernist Block runs at Ikon Gallery until 01.05.23 – entry is free. For more on the exhibition visit: www.ikon-gallery.org/exhibition/horror-in-the-modernist-block

For more from Abbas Zahedi go to: www.abbzah.com
For more from Seher Shah go to: www.sehershah.net
For more from Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann go to: www.laetitiabadauthaussmann.com
For more from Amba Sayal Bennett go to: www.ambasb.com
For more from Ismael Monticelli go to: www.ismaelmonticelli.com
For more from Simon and Tom Bloor go to: www.simonandtombloor.com
For more from Monika Sosnowksa go to: www.hauserwirth.com/artists/2824-monika-sosnowska
For more from Richard Hughes go to: www.richardahughes.com 
For more from Kihlberg & Henry go to: www.daniellearnaud.com/artists/artists-kihlberg-and-henry.html 

For more from Ikon Gallery go to: https://www.ikon-gallery.org