The Birth Caul, at Vitrine Gallery

One Stop Arts magazine

An exhibition of work by Adam James and Miriam Austin.

The day I visited the exhibition Bermondsey Square, the public space which Vitrine faces, was hosting the weekly antiques market. The objects scattered across the assorted trestle tables, a mix of curios, kitch, classy and confusing and all for sale at bargainable prices, had a fascinating relationship to the pieces by Adam James and Miriam Austin arranged throughout the windows of Vitrine. Both the market and the window-gallery appeared as some kind of archive to memoria, redundant tools and constructions of unsure origin. All the objects in both repositories emitted a sense of memory and past lives, raising questions about the characters who once inhabited or possessed them and all had a surface of subtle decay and fading.

The artworks by Austin and James, however, have a sense of otherness about them which wasn't so present amongst the accumulated pieces in the market where the purpose of each object could more or less be determined. The gallery pieces possess an indeterminate meaning, appearing part-familiar and part-alien and the question of who, or what, had a use for these things before they ended up in this display case lingers.

This oblique reading of purpose and possibility is the territory both artists, brought together for the first time by co-curators Jordan McKenzie and Alys Williams, and the displayed work comprises objects and creations which have roles within the performative elements of each artists work. Austin opened the exhibition with the first of a two-part performance, using objects retrieved from the Vitrine window space two characters carried out curious and compelling rituals. These rituals and modes of activating the objects bore a similar sense of slight dislocation from the everyday and legible, just as with the visual appearance of the items on display there are feelings of uncanny and a sense of familiarity whilst at once also absurd and unrecognisable.

Once returned to the window space these objects carry with them a sense of function and meaning, but to the new visitor who did not witness the ritualistic enactments this meaning is distant and hinted at as a trace implied onto the materials through marks, stains and the detritus of the past event which surrounds them. Alongside these arranged items Austin has also presented a looping video, Blossom Collar (2012), which shows the artist's neck seemingly restricted by neck tie of blossom and apparent struggling for breath resulting in a sinister perception of a nature developing from the life-source which is slowly withering beneath.

The roots of James' work, which as well as coloured salt dough masks on display in the gallery windows encompasses performance and video, come from simple observations of small behaviours and gestures of people going about their everyday lives in the streets of Peckham. James then assumed the role of da-da-ethnographer and, working with costume designers and choreographers, extrapolated these perceived small movements and unconscious ways of being into characters – at once representing the individual, outsider, you and me – who carry out rituals and actions.

The artist carried out experimental studio based performances with actors taking the roles of these characters, constructed them into three distinct tribes and filmed the emergent individual and group responses. These recordings formed the material for a video work, Mudhead Dance(2013), which will be premièred in Shortwave Cinema, and the forged characters and tribes will enact a large-scale performance across Bermondsey Square.

The gallery is purely the windows of a ground floor unit in the square, so the works are best visited alongside the performative aspects of the artists' work, so plan a visit to see James' film and performance, taking place over the same afternoon as the second part of Austin's performance work, on 31 August. For more information please check