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Saucy Sez And The Poetics Of Hope

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

by Josh Mcloughlin

"Make enemies with who you think you should become"

Reviewed exhibition: Saucy Sez, when everything has gone to shit (Outpost, Norwich, 2020, 16 October - 1 November / 3 - 20 December)

How do you make a success of failure? How do you stay centred and solid when the world is radiant with the triumph of calamity, suffering, and despair?

Nearly a year ago, when Saucy Sez was preparing for this show, the answers may have been different. But those questions— and how we respond to them — are far more urgent now. It is fitting, then, that an exhibition obsessed with kindling fortune from failure, was postponed twice due to Covid-19 and teetered on the cliff-edge of cancellation before emerging finally, defiantly, like a torch from the hibernal depths of this darkest year.

Sez Smith, aka Saucy Sez

Whatever might have been, it is now impossible, perhaps irresponsible, to examine this powerful and moving exhibition outside of the devastating context of the pandemic. when everything has gone to shit is a deeply personal, intimate, and confessional event. But time and circumstance have alchemised it into a wellspring of collective consolation, solidarity, and above all, hope. Sez’s work is a scornful and truculent middle finger raised in the face of terrible odds; a bathetic aside puncturing a global scene of irredeemable pathos; a Davidian bulwark against the Goliath of despair.

Two sets of speakers parenthesise a small, sparse gallery space, taking it in turns to broadcast their half of Sez’s poem. She begins with a question: ‘Trying to remain centred still / Is that what it is?’ This note to self, address to the nation, statement to the world, sets the tone, delivered with commanding poise and rhythm in a Lancashire lilt but with valences of vulnerability, empathy, and stinging honesty. This soliloquy vacillates between admonishment and encouragement: mourning and melancholia jostle with inspiration and motivation. ‘They want you believing / You are mostly made up of stark harshness, hollowed-out concrete’, she warns, before urging: ‘learn to glide, capsize’, take your ‘beliefs’, ‘blow them sky high’, and ‘plant the seeds and watch them grow / bloom and burst into all of your favourite colours’.

The four-minute aural-verbal back and forth of the poem, repetitious but hypnotic, establishes the rhythm of the exhibition. Lines from the poem are extracted and published onto objects clustered into scenes arranged in the room’s corners, creating a tetrad of dioramas that render, elaborate, and develop key ideas in the text.

Photo: Andrew Gooding

To the right of the entrance, a large chipboard is painted roughly with a view out of a window onto clear blue skies and blazing sunshine. ‘Don’t let it fool you’, Sez warns. This moment introduces a group of important thematic concerns: vision, sight, appearance, semblance; belief versus reality. Reflective, transparent and translucent materials and objects—a sheer drape, coloured mirrors, a gently gyrating disco ball, a painted viewpoint—invoke lines of sight that are always refracted, distorted, or coloured.

These ways of seeing are never clear or unbroken but draw attention to perspective as perspective. As you navigate the show, you continually confront imperfect reflections and altered images of yourself. These are reminders of the insuperable aperture separating the self and the other, the ego and the world. But they are also bold assertions of the possibility and urgency of self-scrutiny, of seeing things differently, of new visions and reinvention.

This profusion of perspectives is given gravity as you orbit the room via a central island. This bucolic scene comprises a fake-fur, velour grass meadow bisected by a riverine blue painted strip, a Rubicon you must cross to pass from one side of the show to the other, from the darkness into the light. The first half of the show, in time and space, grabs you by the scruff of the neck, shakes you from your torpor: ‘The taste will never be as sweet as the scent’, Sez reminds us, ‘We all want what we don’t have until we get it’ so ‘do not let the sunshine fool you’. We are given a lesson in failure with the pedagogy straddling humour, severity and conciliation:

Kill your complacency

Welcome failure along for the ride.

Bring it to the dinner

And introduce it to those acquaintances

You worked so hard for. In fact, fuck it, make failure your new best friend.

Crucially, however, we are reminded not to wallow in these failures: ‘Make sure they do not squeeze too tight’.

A soiled sheet hastily hung and lashed with thick daubs and splashes of blue paint announces ‘Down into the depths of that rage / Is where you find true kindness’ as the poem and our tour enters a final straight. The concluding scene, in the far corner, is slightly set off from the room with a boudoir-red drape. As the poem concludes ‘And when everything has gone to shit don’t forget to remember’, a scarlet mirror, tilted up towards the sky, carries an evocative, final message of hope scrawled in lipstick: ‘You are an ever growing, ever blooming force of nature’.