Review of Helen Dowling’s Stranger on Display at the GEM

Review of Helen Dowling’s Stranger on Display at the GEM
Still from "The Queen of Lemons"

British artist Helen Dowling (b. 1982) uses a multitude of images that she has found, downloaded or filmed herself to create video works that have a hallucinatory effect, taking the viewer on a visual trip that presents them with an alienating view of existence. At the same time, the works reference philosophy and poetry – from poet Kate Tempest to feminist thinker Hélène Cixous – and universal themes like the landscape and humankind’s impact on nature. Stranger on Display at GEM,  museum of contemporary art, is Dowling’s first museum solo exhibition, which brings together several films and sculptures to create a site specific installation.

From celestial bodies to wandering humans, images appear in apparently random succession, forming stories with no linear plot. Dowling combines her own footage with existing material, including digitalised images from magazines and stock videos. In the editing process, she creates an interplay of colour, movement, rhythm and sound, as an associative visual narrative with several layers of meaning emerges.

Dowling will be showing new and existing work in an installation filling up GEM’s entire space. In this universe, the boundary between real and artificial is blurred. Some elements are recognisable: a piece of land or a starry sky, a young woman, a car window. Without entirely abandoning figuration, Dowling approaches abstraction in an almost painterly fashion. With their penetrating soundscapes the works are an immersive experience.

Stranger on Display- Review by Cybil Scott

Upon entering the space I immediately thought of the movie Under the Skin, where Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who picks up her unsuspecting victims before draining their bodies in her glossy spaceship. I say this because Dowling’s floor was a similar slick black, absorbing and reflecting only the lights and images from the video projections, making every installation exist in it’s own pocket of space.

Dotted throughout this dark room are small, softly illuminated jesmonite sculptures, a mini-museum display of objects reminiscent of plumpish archaeological fragments from prehistory; their shapes worn down and mysterious, allowing only a guess to what they could have been used for. Somehow their low placement to the floor is reminiscent of how the history of the feminine is underviewed and largely unassessed in many institutional settings.  

“The Queen of Lemons” is a poetic and incongruous video composed of many different kinds of footage. At one point we’re given screen recordings of space exploration from the comfort of your own computer to the tune of 50 cent’s P.I.M.P.  Transposed on top are words like jealousy, curses and gifts rendered in a weighted cursive font like that found on girlish gold “name” necklaces. These words somehow expose a kind of historically weighted fecundity of the feminine. There are feminine images gyrating like an amoeba under a microscope as well as wobbly hand cam footage inside a unknown museum or gallery of Egyptian antiquities. It ends with a spinning 3d rendered flattened Egyptian goddess figure against a cooing warble from Kate Bush’s A Woman’s Work.

There’s something contained here in this space which seems mundane, yet at the same same cosmic, mysterious and historical. It feels like viewers are confronted with the alien as well as the feminine, and maybe that’s the point. We don’t know things as well as we think we do; we’re all “Strangers on Display”. By using motifs like illumination, alien-like film filters and stock footage of women in front of green screens, it seems like Dowling is asking us to see things differently by using a separate set of eyes or vision once we enter her world of dark matter.


About Helen Dowling

Helen Dowling studied at Goldsmith’s College and The Slade School of Fine Art in London, and was artist in residence at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam in 2010/2011.

Follow the event on Facebook for the latest updates to the programme. The exhibition goes from 02/03/2019 – 02/06/2019.