“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference–those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older–know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths,” wrote Audre Lorde. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

In the present, we’re persuaded that it’s the contrary which speaks with more resonance, society cajoles us to believe that we do in some way, shape or form, ‘fit’ by presenting us with one passport, ID and bank card at any given time, most of which we have to hastily scrawl a signature for, before sliding it across an authoritarian-looking bureau in yet another performance of affirmation which screams that yes, we may recognise our identity, but society irrevocably possesses it, regardless of whether we want it to or not. Hauser & Wirth’s ongoing Present Tense introspective on the other hand, by navigating both the past and present and therefore solely belonging to neither, creates a community that merely fits into a more multidimensional macrocosm on its own. Where works by multidisciplinary originators, including Victoria Cantons, Ebun Sodipo and Sang Woo Kim, reflect the experiences of their creators, their expressions convey their isolation but more significantly, reformation and reclamation.

Victoria Cantons, ‘A Transgender Girl’, 2023, Oil on linen, 170 x 150 cm / 66 7/8 x 59 x 1 3/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Damian Griffiths

Victoria Cantons, in particular, breathes a lungful of oxygen into this through an evocative exploration of the self and the realisation of this on her part through her autobiographical Good Fortune, or An October Flush (2022) and Transgender Girl (2023) projects, which muse on the restrictive, gendered perspective society gazes upon herself and others through, whilst the latter’s embraces the way in which he perceives himself whilst rejecting the colonial perspective others do so from. Simultaneously, Ebun Sodipo’s presence within the space has made itself known, one would even say deliberately unignorable, through There’s a powerful niggardry at work [even] here (2023) which bares itself through its declaration of being catalysed by Tumblr accounts that the artist sought solace in by using them to reinforce her black self.

Ebun Sodipo, ‘There’s powerful niggardy at work [even] here’, 2023, Mylar, digital paper print, epoxy resin and mirror, 83 x 43 x 5.5 cm / 32 5/8 x 16 7/8 x 2 1/8 in (framed). Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Damian Griffiths

It’s the cultural milieu by which it’s surrounded, one would say even oppressively, that brings this ignis fatuus cocooned within the gallery’s industrial-esque interior crashing down to earth, particularly as reports of bias-influenced crimes against transgender individuals in England and Wales reached an unprecedented number in the year ending March 2023. Whilst a two-year survey undertaken by a research project discovered “strikingly high” levels of subjection to abuse across a wide range of ethnic minority communities, over and above a substantial prevalence of racial discrimination and inequality of outcomes in the workplace, education, interactions with the police and housing. Numerous facets of this are confronted, not contended with in their entirety by this showcase which promises through its press release to spotlight artists “responding to the cultural climate of the UK right now” by “testing the boundaries of their mediums to address and confront notions of identity, consciousness, humanity and representation.”

For Cantons, this has meant a reckoning of the self as much as with others, the artist speaking to émergent says, “I liken my process to being like archaeology and going into the back garden to dig in the dirt. Making the art is a way to make sense of my history and process it. Additionally painting, video, performance, text, spoken word… these mediums are all languages… It’s a form of communication, first to myself and then to the audience. And generally, the work is about asking questions, not about giving myself answers. Whilst in the first place I make work for myself, I also want to engage with an audience. I want to have a conversation with the audience, I want to ask them: does this question have the same trigger for you as it has for me… have you thought about this before? Each language offers a different way to do this.”

Victoria Cantons, ‘Good Fortune or An October Flush’, 2022, Oil on linen, 170 x 150 cm / 66 7/8 x 59 x 1 3/8 inches. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Damian Griffiths

“The history of the challenges we’ve had, it seemed for a while, from about 2010 to perhaps 2019, that life was really improving, but there were a series of knock-backs. I think it began with Brexit and Trump-ism, the way that the response to Covid unfolded, all of these things created cracks and allowed malice and hostility to seep through and over other issues,” she continues, particularly referencing those endured by minority communities, some of which she’s encountered herself. “So much of what has been achieved is done so by the most heroic and generally at great cost to themselves, but that’s also in the past. Now we’re here in the present and if we are going to continue making positive strides for improved rights and equality then we have to be brave like our predecessors were. So that positive change can occur or continue to occur, the issues that have been apparently forgotten or dismissed have to be brought back to attention. They need to be spoken about. It is a war, but it’s not a war that can be fought with anger, and violence and fear-mongering, but with tenderness, forgiveness. It’s not about being sympathetic but rather loving. This is the action of the present tense; love. I have created a number of works around “love,” it is both a verb and a noun, and I believe it is only through actioning love that we might feel love and its power to transform the past, present and future.”

Sang Woo Kim, ‘You’re looking at me’, 2023, Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 x 2 cm / 51.5 x 41.5 x 3 cm / 19 5/8 x 15 3/4 x 3/4 in / 20 1/4 x 16 3/8 x 1 1/8 in (framed). Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Damian Griffiths

Amongst others, this perspective continues to pronounce disillusion as the central instigator of illusion, particularly within the creative space, whose various performances over the years have seized spectral beliefs of the self on the parts of BAME along with LGBTQIA+ individuals as bodies of the present to be gazed upon and more pertinently understood by observers, whether they took the form of Quil Lemons’ Quiladelphia or materialise through Leslie-Lohman’s forthcoming I’m a thousand different people–Every one is real. But rather than asking to be seen, as those before them have done, Present Tense (and its artists) give their visitors no other choice by indirectly or directly declaring it’s belief that, “the artist is the art, and the artworks are the by-product of the artist,” as Sang Woo Kim has voiced. On The slit you made (2023) and You're looking at me (2023), the artist reveals that self-portraits such as these, “are somewhat provocative – they are ‘in your face.’ The juxtaposition this carries, of the act of being ‘in your face’ to the viewer, is visceral in facing myself as well; I also become the viewer of myself. Focusing on my eyes – the very feature that has been the locus of discrimination is what I am painting and therefore owning, overcoming and in turn, celebrating and reclaiming.” Similarly, his Blindspot (2023) project serves to connote the notion of looking outwards whilst also doing so inwards. The indecipherable figure in the individual bodies of work appears as a beam of light, before solidifying through the artist’s belief that it’s instead, portrayed as such to be understood by the viewer as “all of us, you and me, angel and a ghost.”

Installation view of Sang Woo Kim’s ‘Blindspot’ (2023) series included in ‘Present Tense’. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Damian Griffiths