The Gerbil’s Guide To The Galaxy - review

Tom Jennings enjoys Sally Madge's 2005 show; an art exhibition with real bite.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on January 16, 2008

Rodent’s Eye View

Who thinks postmodern art is so much smug pretentious vacuous wank? Not always. Here, a pet gerbil enthusiastically munched its way through The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book – recycling via its physical labour the arrogant presumption that collections of information can encompass history and teach anything worth knowing. Who controls what goes in; what’s left out; how it’s presented and used? This rodent representative of the teeming masses followed its own universal agenda to keep warm, comfortable and secure – with no respect for the supposed wisdom and disciplining power dispensed by elites (1).

Unfortunately far too many exponents of contemporary artistic practice prefer to pose in the safety of their self-important cliques, venturing out only occasionally to lick the recuperative arses of art’s institutional markets. However, its unique capacity to condense, explore and encapsulate ideas and feelings means that art can critique the intersections of life, culture and politics in such a way as to intrigue and affect us – rather than bludgeoning us with the preachy self-satisfied ideological bullying that politicos are occasionally (!) guilty of. In this case the deployment of ironic reflexivity also illustrates an understanding that aesthetic manipulation (as in other kinds) always entails a rhetoric of power. So, as a ‘pet’, the gerbil has no ultimate control over the contours of its lifeworld. Instead these are provided by an apparently omnipotent superior agency claiming to be well-meaning but serving its own interest … Remind you of anything?

Footnoting the artist’s marvellous Underdog (2), this exemplary and humble bookwork straddles and references conceptual art and popular culture with more biting political pertinence than Douglas Adams’ middle class dressing-gowned slacker tourist (3) ever dreamt. Beautiful. Go gerbil!

1. The gerbil gets a second bite at the cherry throughout July when the exhibit resumes at the Waygood Gallery, High Bridge Street, Newcastle.
2. a 1999 video installation remake, with Sam Hooper soundtrack, of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s classic surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.
3. in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 14, July 2005.
For other essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see: