No Photos Please: John Knight’s Secrets at Final Hot Desert

BEN FRITH gives an experiential account of an off-beat ‘photography’ opening from enigmatic American artist, John Knight.

At 10 PM last Friday night, outside the artist-run warehouse gallery in 10 Greatorex Street, London was full of rain and flooded streets. The weather forecast said it was going to be torrential well into the night, and everyone around was drenched in reflected streetlight. Inside the venue a man with a painted Kiss mask on his face was screaming. The audience around him, filling the space with the damp smell of a wet crowd, was nodding politely. I’d come to Whitechapel to see the opening night of the first solo show of the US based photographer and curator John Knight, taking advice from a friend that his work, which features photographs of disfigured plant and animal still lifes, accompanied by passages of poetically suggestive text, was not something to be missed. John however was nowhere to be seen. Neither (as I registered at a shamefully slow pace) was his work.

Performance from Wounder, images by Daniel Browne and Jacob Sirkin via knightjohn.com

Instead of Knight’s pieces, a table lay in the middle of the former industrial unit with a drum machine placed on it and a man (heavy metal artist/ambient rock producer Wounder (Aka Crimson // chaos ?) ) performing an ambient-heavy metal-noise solo set for the mass of UAL types in attendance. I noticed on the wall across from me that a poster was hung with John Knight: Secrets printed on it and that, next to that, a large square canvas of plain red was hanging, counterposing the binary colours of the poster. I was not then, in the wrong place, nor at the wrong time; John Knight had been here, had skilfully, tastefully curated that wall space and poster layout. So where had he and his work gone?

Performance from Wounder, images by Daniel Browne and Jacob Sirkin via knightjohn.com

The crowd around me was still nodding as the man with the drum machine and painted face transitioned flawlessly between soft ambience and guttural screams, whilst in the corner of the venue a group of Metallica haircuts were headbanging. Exhibition spaces are fluid environments these days. Artist run venues are still common in areas where access to empty industrial spaces is still (just about) affordable. The freedom this can give to artists whose interests lie not just in the presentation but in the curation and physical experience of their work is enormous. Too often the layout of an artist’s work is curated by an inflexible, well-established gallery in order to aid the ease and palatability of it and thus their ability to sell it. Knight’s work, I knew, dealt with the offsetting of these environments– with the use of strange objects and materials, and his own photographs to disrupt the comfortable experience of an art space. Often these disruptions come from the absence of those familiar items that stabilise the space– that give an aesthetic form to the room that we can recognise and thus feel comfortable within. But an absence of everything, including the very work that constituted the exhibition, seemed a bit left field, even for this post-irony age. I spoke to the group next to me in between the shocks of pure ambient rock noise and found them as uncertain as I was, they too had come on the promise of photographs.

Secrets at 10 Greatorex, images by Daniel Browne and Jacob Sirkin
Installation details, photography by Daniel Browne and Jacob Sirkin, via knightjohn.com

As the set came to an end, I moved to the back of the venue to see if I’d missed any micro-pieces: any subtle, integrated work that Knight might have laced into the space around us as a way of commenting on the problematic assumptions that lie behind our notions of scale and value, or the laziness of the modern art consumer. At one point I got a rush thinking I’d discovered one behind the toilet door but, alas, it was just a fire safety notice; there was no work to be found.

I write this now with the gift of hindsight. As it turns out I, and a healthy number of other people at that event, had got the wrong half of the John Knight X Final Hot Desert solo show. 10 Greatorex Street was only showing a small selection of flat, gymnasium style boards that Knight had installed (and which I had blindly assumed were part of the general décor), whilst the main body of photographs were being shown half an hour away in Islington. The disappointment (and deep shame) was gently soothed however with the thought that I had, in fact, had the most singularly John Knight exhibition experience I could have dreamed of. A mixture of confusion, disorientation, and fearful alienation from the environment around me had been more than enough to raise some serious questions about the state of art spaces today and the role they should play in the representation of an artist’s work. Why should art be presented in a comfortable, straightforward manner? What does it do to the consumption of artwork if the works are always manipulated and pushed into spaces that are designed for ease, comfort, and a gentle distancing from their visceral nature? Far away, at the Islington show, Knight’s photographs were prompting the very same questions. They are placed behind a laid, model dining table, masking his work as numb, suburban wall hangings, until one focuses in on them and the whole space, kitsch furniture and all, becomes mischievously disrupted by their unsettling, dismembered inversions of still life photography and their invasive, disembodied lines of poetry. 

These questions all sprang to my mind whilst the fury of the drum machine rained down upon me. Although I hadn’t actually seen any of John Knight’s photographs in the end, I felt like I had experienced the essence of what his work tries to communicate: what his photographs whisper to us and his installations quietly imply. In other words I had, if a bit unwittingly, been witness to John Knight’s Secrets

‘Secrets’ ran from October 13 – October 18, 2023. The exhibition was accompanied by ‘A Stage in November‘, an essay by Kaivalya Brewerton.