Shape Open 2017: ‘Power: The Politics of Disability’


This year’s Shape Open, takes Power: The Politics of Disability as its theme. It brings together work by both disabled and non-disabled artists, examining the theme from multiple perspectives. Following an open call, artworks were chosen by a panel including Yinka Shonibare, Tony Heaton and Isabella Tulloch, and previous Shape Open winner, Kate Murdoch. Review by Joe Turnbull

Red collecting can with the slogan 'help the normals' written across it.

Help The Normals. Image © Dolly Sen

The delight of an Open is you simply don’t know what you’ll get. Rather like a box of Forrest Gump’s chocolates. Only the Shape Open 2017 is far more tasteful, and lacks the saccharine sentimentality of that particular, irksome portrayal of disability.

The first thing that strikes you about the exhibition is its scale – there are no less than 45 exhibiting artists, some of them contributing multiple pieces. All sorts of mediums are represented from sculpture and installation, interactive works, video and sound pieces, paintings, photography and even a ‘Chornicillness’ zine.

Dolly Sen’s simple red collection tin, imploring you to ‘Help the Normals’ sends up the patronising, pitying pretence of the charity model imposed on disabled people for centuries – which still expects a grovelling, grateful response. It sets the tone for the show; irreverent, subversive, turning power politics on its head.

Inevitably, in an open call exhibition exploring disability, there is a fair amount of engagement with impairment issues, though it is, overall, in relation to wider discussions of power and disempowerment. However there was a little too much work on show and some of the fat could have been trimmed to give the exhibition more impact.

From the right distance, Michelle Anderson’s ‘She Wants to be Normal’ looks like an abstract expressionist piece in monochrome. On closer inspection, it is made up of a series of chest x-rays, and viewed from afar, it spells out ‘normal’. It speaks to the power of language and the imposition of a normal/abnormal dichotomy enforced by medicine.

monochrome print of a series of chest x-rays

‘She Wants To Be Normal’ by Michelle Andserson

Skye Shadowlight’s ‘Shade School’ is an imposing installation of Victorian school desks, filled with unusual objects, from multi-coloured, luminescent pills to a pair of bird wings; the latter perhaps alluding to a lack of freedom. It references the archaic attitudes of an education system, which cannot find a place for autistic children like Shadowlight’s daughter.

Drawing of US president Trump made up of heinous statements made by the politician

Trump 2016 by Conor Collins

Throughout the show, there are multiple references to some old enemies: charity, the education system, the medical profession. But also some new ones. Connor Collin’s ‘Trump’ is the most simple yet effective idea, presenting a portrait of the pariah of the hour through his own racist, sexist, bigoted bile.

It literally makes his form out of some of his most alarming quotes – Trump in his own words. On the eve of his inauguration this felt eerily prescient and equally foreboding.

The Department for Work and Pensions comes under the heaviest flak. In fact there are so many incendiary pieces on the subject it could have been its own exhibition. Anger, frustration, fear all ooze disconcertingly from a number of pieces. Paula De Santis Smith’s ‘Judgement Day (Work Capability Assessment) embodies the pain and terror caused by so-called welfare reform. It is comprised of a mannequin weighed down by heavy metal objects, pierced with jagged springs and all the while eerily staid and silent.

Aidan Moesby’s ‘Timed Out (ii)’ explores the alarming binary visited upon disabled people by DWP and media collusion as either heroes (Paralympians) or scroungers (benefit claimants). Referencing labour relations, it is a ‘clocking in’ stamper that records one of three words ‘Inspirer,’ ‘Hero’ or ‘Scrounger,’ when a blank piece of card is inserted.

Photo of a doll bound in blue wool beneath a concrete block

‘Under Pressure’ by Bob Spriggs

Lizz Brady’s frustration is palpable in ‘Hitting My Head Against a Brick Wall’ which is literally a print made by doing this dangerous act, which she has been driven to by the withdrawal of Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Bob Spriggs’ ‘Under Pressure/Crushed’ takes immediacy to new levels, presenting a doll mercilessly compounded between two breezeblocks. Whilst Justin Piccirilli’s newspaper on linoleum work simply exclaims ‘Fuck the DWP’. I suppose nuance is wasted on these bastards.

Whilst placing the larger installations and sculptural work in the centre of the room made the most of the impressive gallery setting, it might have been interesting from a curatorial perspective to see these works − so closely aligned thematically – have a dialogue with each other in the space.

In truth, the DWP was just one of many sub-plots in a sprawling exhibition that for the most part stayed on point. Compared to last year’s theme ‘My Life’ the works felt decidedly less disparate, despite arguably being more expansive.

To return to the chocolate metaphor of Forrest Gump, this exhibition is like life; painful, funny and at times inducing incandescent rage. In other words, it represents the whole mess of the human condition and posits disability and impairment – viewed through myriad prisms – as just a ‘normal’ facet of experience, albeit one that is subject to abnormal levels of power disparity.

The Shape Open 2017 – ‘Power: The Politics of Disability’ is on show at the Ecology Pavilion, London until 2 February 2017. Click on this link to DAO’s listings for further details.