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Hell's Half Acre

Frieze meets hell in a theatrically re-imagined Dante's Inferno

by Leonora Oppenheim in Culture on 18 October 2010

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There was a lot of competition for the artistic limelight during London's recent Frieze Art Fair 2010. Each year the art festival throws up more and more peripheral shows that vie for attention with the great art behemoth, but this year the greatest creative noise was generated by the outsiders who went underground.

An impromptu reconstruction of Dante's Inferno, "Hell's Half Acre" took place deep in the bowels of London under Waterloo Station, in the dark and musty labyrinthine space that is The Old Vic Tunnels (adjoining the underpass where Banksy held his Cans Festival). Curated by Steve Lazarides—the outsider and street art specialist behind Lazarides Gallery—"Hell's Half Acre" showed extraordinary work that at times surprised, shocked, and spooked its audience.

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The show was a truly thrilling and visceral experience that made Frieze seem boring, staid and stuffy. Tunnels were filled with an eclectic mix of projected films, sculptures, paintings and installations, each artist interpreting hell with the freedom to reference both Purgatory and Paradise from Dante's "Divine Comedy."

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As we entered the first of the nine circles of hell, we were greeted by a deafening sound which quickly became the frightening sight of a massive projected barking dog, clearly referencing Cerberus, the multi-headed hound that guards the gates of Hades.

Alternating between delightful and disgusting, it was one visual assault after another as we navigated our way through Conor Harrington's floating golden galleons and Mark Jenkins' bodies suspended in saran wrap chrysalises, averting our eyes from George Osodi's slideshow of bloody car crashes and Christian Lemmerz's disturbing video triptych of copulating, dying and decaying bodies.

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Rooting us to the ground was Doug Foster's powerful projection "Heretic's Gate," which included the flames of hell perfectly reflected in a pool of water representing the River Styx. The images were created by filming gold leaf and suspended particles in water for an astonishing and hypnotically magical effect.

Other highlights were Jonathan Yeo's 3D installation "For What We Are About to Receive," a multi-layered image of praying nudes that only came into focus from one point in the room, Paul Insect's syringe glitter ball, frighteningly named "Object Desire" and his "Appetite For Colour," an almost invisible mist from one angle that created a beautiful rainbow from another.

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A literal white light at the end of the tunnel, Tokujin Yoshioka's "Stellar" was the celestial finale, including another suspended glitter ball, this time made of white crystals wreathed in the mist of dry ice.

Every piece was a wonder to be discovered from multiple angles, slowly revealing aspects of itself as we moved through the space. All together as one body, "Hell's Half Acre" was one of the most exciting art shows this decade. Certainly rivaling, if not surpassing the Wooster Collective's 11 Spring Project that took place in New York several years ago (although without the poetry of forever being entombed in the building).

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