by Josh Mcloughlin
"Make enemies with who you think you should become"
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.
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.
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’.
Sez works in the rich text-art tradition, particularly in the vein of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Kruger and Holzer’s messages radiate ironic anger and sardonic bitterness to the extent that nihilism and despair are always insinuated; always threatening possibilities. Sez, however, manages to revivify a form of personal and communitarian optimism. when everything has gone to shit refuses to allow depression and despondency to have the last laugh. Instead it forges a poetics of hope from the ashes of contemporary dread.
The overall achievement is a temporal and multi-sensory, as well as verbal-intellectual, experience. In this way, the show marks an important development in Sez’s practice. Although trained in Fine Art at Chelsea College, Sez’s previous work has been more at home in the domains of print and language. She is known for her feminist text art and composing deeply confessional poetry, for page and performance, that excoriates injustices, elegises personal and collective trauma, and plumbs the depths of depression. Her book-length zine, Posh Kids Wear Trackies (2019), records the politics and anxieties of 'social mobility’ for a working-class girl from Blackburn trying to navigate the overwhelmingly middle- and upper-middle-class London art world.
Sez’s 2019 show at Pie Factory, Margate, There Are Structures To This Love, demonstrated a powerful command of short and long-form page poetry but in spatial terms the work was confined to two dimensions: print outs of verse were bull-clipped to the walls and floors and lines of carefully crafted typography printed on raw chipboard. It was an assured show, perfectly couched for its industrial context, but it was above all painterly in its use of space.
By contrast, when everything has gone to shit reaches out into the room and, as a result, reaches out to us more directly and deeply. The poems are freed from paper and inscribed on a selection of bright, demotic materials, textures, and shapes, arranged with architectural care on the floor and walls. The resulting installation retains the verbal backbone of Sez’s practice but fleshes it out by engaging seriously with materiality, time, movement, colour, and space.
The objects all seem to present a brief moment of social and political critique refracted through the confessional poem. Breezeblocks dot the room, spray painted shocking pink, winking defiantly at the material oppressions of the contemporary built environment; the city-as-prison dolled up to the nines. The central island, hung with thick industrial plastic blinds, invokes the disturbing image of the abattoir: of slaughter, sacrifice and unconscionable greed and consumption. This dark vignette is overcome and lightened by a triptych of peripeteias: bright orange sheeting, a lurid green velour meadow, and an azure painted river. These cartoonish choices illuminate a gloomy socio-political commentary and guard against quietism with a mature and fully realised ironic laughter.
If There Are Structures To This Love was still beholden to a painterly conception of space and a static, verbal encounter between audience and work, when everything has gone to shit succeeds in producing something altogether more immersive, more sculptural, and perhaps more enduring as a result. As Sez explained in an Instagram post on December 1:
"This show ended up being in the making for over 9 months. I scrapped so many ideas and almost gave up on it completely. Half way through the year I thought I was done with art altogether, nearly deleted this account & said adios to the whole lot! But here we are, and I’m really fucking proud of myself for making it happen."
when everything has gone to shit celebrates that defiant, triumphant sentiment, an articulation of ferocious optimism laced with courage, empathy, and shared laughter. After this brilliant, poetic exhibition of hope, it would be remiss not to give Sez the final words:
Make enemies with who you think you should become.
You are more powerful than you would ever allow yourself to know,
So tread lightly with that load
And when everything has gone to shit
Don’t forget to remember:
You are an ever growing, ever blooming force of nature.
Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside, UK. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize 2019. His work is published in The Times, The London Magazine, The Fence, Review 31, and elsewhere.