Re-imaging Donald Rodney at Vivid Projects, Birmingham

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Donald Rodney was known for making work that springs from identity politics. He was a leading figure in Britain’s BLK Art Group of the 1980s and became recognised as “one of the most innovative and versatile artists of his generation”, before his promising career was cut short in 1998, due to his untimely impairment-related death, aged only 37 years. A recent retrospective of his work at Vivid Projects in Birmingham was reviewed by Anna Smith.

This exhibition explored Donald Rodney’s socio-political artwork reflecting on his life as a young black male, living with sickle cell anaemia and exploring new technologies and media.

The first installation Autoicon (1998) – is a computer program designed to display Donald Rodney’s medical information via an interactive program, where the viewer is requested to type in questions and the computer searches its archive of information gathered by Rodney for an answer.

In a newly commissioned work, artists Antonio Roberts and Sam Wray ran workshops with members of the Wolverhampton Sickle Cell Care and Activity Centre to input information into a new version of the archive. However I found this work unclear due to the slowness of the program and little instruction in how to use it.

John Barnes (1991) and Mexico Olympics (1991) were photographic images shown on rudimentary light boxes. The John Barnes image shows Barnes kicking away a banana that had been thrown at him from the crowd. The Mexico Olympic image shows two black athletes raising their fists in the Black Power Salute.

Images of footballer John Barnes and two black athletes at the Mexico Olympics surrounded by a dark surround

John Barnes (left) and Mexico Olympics (right), lightbox and flouresent tube, 1991, installation view, Vivid Projects October 2016. Photo © Antonio Roberts

These are strong images of defiance and determination at a time when racism was rife in the media and black sports men were fighting to be seen as equals. There are links here between fear of the unknown due to race and disability, and like a disease, racism is a toxic battle that must be fought.

Truth Dare, Double Dare (first shown at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham in 1994) is a sound and light installation in which Rodney and Rose Finn-Kelcey chant personal and honest statements about each other. The emotionless tones of the voices and their chilling honesty become meditative and trance like. A change in tempo or voice brings you back into the harsh reality of the actual meaning of the words.

Photo of an electric wheelchair

Psalms, 1997, installation view, Vivid Projects October 2016. Photo © Antonio Roberts

Finally Psalms (1997) is a wheelchair fixed with a computer program designed to navigate an exhibition space in Rodney’s stead. Due to illness Rodney was often confined and unable to attend exhibitions. Psalms, fit with sensors and camera was created to take his bodily presence. This, I think is my favourite piece as it demonstrates how the simplest of navigations, for example moving around a table can for some become a complex problem to solve.

Throughout the exhibition Rodney questions the absence of body, mortality and identity through disability and race. On a personal level, as a hip amputee, the exhibition explored ideas of mobility and immobility that I relate to. I also now have a much better understanding of Sickle Cell Anaemia and for me the understanding of difference is an important first step to a more empathetic society.

Like most small independent curator/artist led exhibition spaces, Vivid Projects is located in an old factory works. There is little attention to accessibility and the manual goods lifts available would be impossible for me to use even if it were working.

That said, however the staff were extremely friendly and informative and once I had actually managed the stairs to the gallery space I was made to feel very welcome.

To find out more about Donald Rodney you can visit a page about the artist on Wikipedia