REVIEW: Chicken Show, Roman Road Gallery, Bethnal Green

Chicken Show

London’s Roman Road runs from Bethnal Green tube station all the way up to Bow. It has a Costcutter on one corner, a Hallmark-style greetings card shop that’s been there for years, and several shops selling fried chicken and various kinds of takeaway – much of it the sort of food people grab on their way home from the pub, throwing greasy bones and empty boxes back into the street.

The gallery in Roman Road – also called Roman Road – is itself an unimposing former shop, managed and directed by Marisa Bellani. But recently, passers-by have been drawn to look through the window at three new occupants: a tan chicken, a black chicken and a white chicken, apparently quite content in a room full of hay. This is part of the group exhibition Chicken Show; the chickens themselves are unknowing participants in Chicken Museum, an installation by the French multimedia artist Thomas Mailaender (first exhibited at the Rencontres d’Arles in 2011).

Inside, on the white walls (at chicken-head-height) hang various Buzzfeed-style images, carelessly assembled on the white walls. It’s all the sort of content we are surrounded with every day: amateur photographs, disposable, and often humorous or grotesque. One shows a group of dead chickens plucked and arranged as in a hot tub, the kind of crude surrealism typical of the internet meme. Indeed, Mailaender’s ironic inversion of the reverent museum hang here invites comparisons between these images and the kinds of ‘fine art’ we expect to see in a white walled gallery. After all, Buzzfeed images, not Britain’s ‘art treasures’, are the visual works many of us probably spend most of our time with. Indeed, while there was an obvious challenge to the ethics of fast food chicken here, I also found myself wondering whether the calm non-interaction of the birds with the images on the walls in fact said more about our own relation to art and the museum than about humans’ relation to chickens; like the chicken shop visitor, the birds were constantly grazing.

"Buzzfeed images, not Britain's 'art treasures', are the visual works many of us probably spend most of our time with.'

The chicken debris from this room – not bones and boxes, but hay and caked earth – surrounds the plastic chairs in the adjacent installation. Chicken Shop, by the London-based artists Tom Esam and Josh Whitaker, is a kind of postmodern fusion of the high street chicken shop with the excesses of the middle-class museum gift shop: visitors can buy iPhone cases, t-shirts, egg cups and mugs, alongside the brief, but full-colour catalogue for the exhibition as a whole. Everything is festooned with the ubiquitous Brush Script font beloved of fried chicken shops, with the red, white and blue that bespeaks their obsession with a kind of fake Americana – usually generically Southern – as begun by Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 1960s.

Outside, Esam and Whitaker’s lightbox chicken shop signs rework the Roman Road gallery branding as a stars-and-stripes logo, or present a minimalist rendition of a chicken comb, a cubist rendition of a chicken. Some have been specially created, others recycled from earlier works. Like the hot-tub chickens inside, there seems to be a kind of mass-culture reworking of established art history movements, and indeed the essay that accompanies the exhibition speaks of the formal constrictions of the traditional chicken shop sign in general ‘having a kind of comedic mirroring with the formal restrictions used in Modernist painting movements’.

"A satiric trinity of physical, monetary and cultural consumption."

All together, the ‘Museum’, ‘Shop’ and ‘Signs’ offer a kind of satiric trinity of physical, monetary and cultural consumption: the contemporary museum visitor, the late capitalist shopper, the late-night chicken shop visitor. But it actually feels more concerned with time – which, like money, is there to be spent. In the hay-room in Roman Road, the three chickens seem to exist in a world apart, perhaps because their presence here seems so unlikely. There is a kind of hypnotic rhythm to their movements in the hay that creates a kind of calm; the noise of the hay, and the distant noise of the street outside, becomes as much part of the artwork as the images on the walls. Unlike those images, and the identikit aims of the processed fried chicken, this artwork of living beings changes for every visitor.

Chicken Show ran from 31 May - 5 July 2014