Text to accompany the group exhibition ex at Leeds College of Art, Spetember 2010
A turtle on its back, legs wagging in the air. Trapped by nature and further trapped by technology, the turtle lives upside down in a world of slow-motion. I’m never sure where to begin, but slowly is a start.
This is the first time all of these works have been seen together. Most were made with the intention of being seen in some kind of isolation. Or at least they were created in some kind of isolation and without thought to any of the specific works they are now accompanied by. None were made for this show in particular, though their presentation may have been adapted. ex is an exhibition without a linear conceptual programme. This essay, therefore, must follow such a lead, winding with the turns so as to ride the thing out. I have clumsily divided the works into three vague sections: SURFACE, INTERIOR, and, most clumsily vague of all, ETHER. There are no claims to truth here, nothing is properly correct. I aim only to nab a needle from the patchwork and thread a narrative through the exhibition as a whole.
The turtle video, The Tortoise is on its Back, is by Arron Sands. And depending on your constitution, it is either funny, sad, agonising, or annoying. The point, I think, is to try generate all four, leaving the viewer dazed, perplexed and perhaps even angry. As he says on his website, “What is going on here? My practice is one of plastic ideology . . . The drawings, sculptures, videos, poems etc. hold a straightforwardly backwards mirror to the world, proclaiming ‘What the fuck’ in an attempt to situate myself among the domestic abominations that taunt me . . . Through dysfunctional family ensembles of intentionally confrontational one-liners, I hope to create work that creates an abiding sentiment, be it a sore head in the morning, a physical revolt on my person or a dialogue through which sub rosa can be excavated. ” If you couldn’t already tell, Sands writes also, and with wild temperament too. His Bad Poetry reads like a dissected dictionary. I hear the acid victim photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, emphatically played by the late Dennis Hopper. I hear Roberto Benigni caffeined to the extreme (as if he needed it) in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. Puddle Fuck recalls a blasé Kerouac, or a drug-addled Dr. Seuss (as if he needed it.) Weihnachten Baum (Christmas Tree) is Dan Graham’s Scheme reimagined in viral form; systematic, but apparently nonsensical, thoroughness driven by whimsy. The words fall from elsewhere, a multitude of voices proliferate. The text feels snatched and stolen, then resold on the cheap.
Josh Whitaker‘s Useful Work vs. Useless Toil (Banner For The Outside Of An Institution) takes its title and immediate message from the 19th Century socialist William Morris. Morris used the phrase in a speech to some London workers, and then again, later, as the title of an essay. It sits somewhat uncomfortably within an art context. ‘Useful’ is an obsolete word in art. Usefulness is never questioned, never expected or anticipated. As a condition it is irrelevant. But ‘Useless Toil’ fits the other hand like a glove. In The Unknown Masterpiece Balzac has the lead character Frenhofer – a painter, the greatest of his time, now old and seemingly of little output – toil for ten years in the production of a single portrait. When the portrait is revealed to his young protégées, they recoil at seeing “nothing but colours piled one upon another in confusion, and held in restraint by a multitude of curious lines which form a wall of a painting.” They presume his madness and taunt him, laughing as they leave while he weeps and threatens them. The morning after, feeling somewhat anxious, they return to Frenhofer’s studio only to find he has “died during the night after burning his pictures.” Picasso claimed to have been haunted by Frenhofer’s fate, and in order to wrestle that particular demon, moved his own studio to the same Paris street where much of the story takes place. More recently, on the BBC’s The Culture Show, Martin Creed joyously declared his entire practice as a “collection of failures”. In da Vinci’s words, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Morris was himself an artist, a craftsman working with textiles and also a painter and poet. Where he saw art in “Useful Work” remains unclear, though he lists “works of art – the beauty which man creates when he is most a man, most aspiring and thoughtful” amongst things “which serve the pleasures of people, free, manly, and uncorrupted”, things which he sees as important and good. But those words and sentiments have long since drifted into obscurity. Much contemporary art rejoices in corruption. And beauty is as redundant a concept as usefulness. Whitaker is more than aware of this redundancy, stating his interest in “what could be viewed as failed or historicised ideologies.” The key gesture of the work is its banner form, the disguise which reinserts the Morris phrase into modern life via, in Whitaker’s words, ” the aesthetics of the Situationists in Paris 1968 and industrial action of the 1970s and 80s” and even, I should say, of today. He continues, “The piece is intended to go on the outside of buildings where people meet . . . galleries, schools etc.” and he even specifies as much in the title of the work. Attached to an “institution”, the ambiguity of the phrase remains, but the subjects it is ambiguous toward have shifted. Who decides for us what is useful and what is not? And who decides on who decides? Whitaker seizes on these conjectures and sends them out to do battle in public space; to battle, in fact, over public space.
Eleanor Hutchinson‘s sculptures also confront the public through a stance of disguise; though here the veil is slipping and the terrain, at first, appears more familiar. Initially, Back-to-back chair for two people looks like two separate chairs welded together, but Hutchinson designed the work herself and used a variety of technical methods in its construction. As she explains, “Lengths of ash wood were steam bended to create the armrests. The frame was made by cutting, bending and welding metal piping to the shape I wanted. It was then sanded, polished, cleaned and sprayed with a clear varnish. The seats are a wooden base, foam, and then material, cut and sewn into the right shape and stretched over each base.” This thoroughness in regards to material and design are what make Back-to-back… such an intriguing sight. It looks legitimate, like a design prototype or a showroom model. And it looks fun too, like a party game or perverted speed-dating prop; and with two people sat upon it, like a feat of domestic engineering, spurning gravity, social convention, and easy artistic classification. “The planning and execution of my work draws on methods used in design, yet it firmly remains as a dialogue with it,” she asserts. “I feel the ‘designed’ appearance of some of my work can give the viewer a route into it, yet its form and context as artwork stops it directly mimicking everyday products.” The gallery environment is essential then, in defining this object as art. “I made it as a piece of art, not a piece of design, and want it to be seen in that context, yet I’m also aware that it will be seen as other things as well. ” In that context, as art, Back-to-back… continues interventionist lines of inquiry, with interest on subversive anthropological, rather than outright political, issues. “I am interested in how the arrangement and manipulation of different components within space can influence behaviour . . . The encounter between the two people that sit on it is crucial. Their forced physical contact and the exclusion of eye contact is an important part of the work.” For Hutchinson the mutation of design results in the mutation of experience. The mutation is what signifies the art, and only art could offer such a beast sweet asylum.
All the works in Rachel Westerman‘s Replacement series, as well as a table is a table is a table, are too in search of such asylum, but outside of art, out in the everyday. Westerman’s sculptures are created to be identical in appearance to pre-existing objects; they are clones rather than mutants. Disguised as such, she intends her works to, in her words, “induce in the viewer a reflexive moment of realisation and, ultimately, reconsideration . . . to alter the viewer’s perception of the object in question.” This is most successfully achieved in a table is a table is a table, where Westerman matches not only the dimensions and materials of an apparently average table, but also the marks of misuse and decay, which are local to just one table in particular. “What makes this table a table?” she writes on her website, “Is it the method of production that is undertaken in the name of art and its label as a sculpture of a table as opposed to a real table? Or is it merely its ability to carry out the same functions as a ‘real’ table, which it is undoubtedly able to do.” We are almost one hundred years post-Duchamp and his first readymade. So it is almost without question that the original table, the table on which Westerman’s sculptural table is based, could, through various processes of acquisition and redeployment, attain some kind of art status. What Westerman wants to know is, can this transformation go in the other direction, can an art object ever be emptied of whatever makes it art, and exist only as the object it most resembles? This operation does happen, and it happens remarkably often. Think of the paintings found in secondhand shops around the country, few of these could or would be classified as art, despite their resemblance to it. These objects have lost their art status over time; although some, it must be said, have always been without it. Now, leant against the wall or piled high amongst bric-a-brac, they seem so removed from what we think art is, what art should be, that they are transformed back into paintings as paintings only: “A picture or design executed with paint” as the dictionary has it. Westerman explains that “the work is predominantly site specific and I choose to replicate and repeat objects within a given space . . . [then place the objects] back within the original environment.” This method of creation and deployment – unfortunately unrealisable for ex – allows her cloned objects to become indeterminable from their authentic predecessors, providing an easier route for her works as they seek to defect from their art state.
“I’m interested in the value of materials and how they can bestow value onto the worthless, or lose their value if they are disguised as something worthless.” Not Westerman’s words, but those of Tom Cookson. Cookson sculpts, what he terms, “throwaway objects” out of traditionally high-value materials, like gold or silver. These are often then positioned in a space to resemble the debris they descend from. So a sterling silver staple is forced into a wall – as in Staple Practice – and a 9ct gold match is left casually askew upon a plinth – as in Reclining Alchemist. Cookson sees the latter work anthropomorphically, “as a portrait of an alchemist burnt out in the pursuit of gold.” The gold match, denied its function as a match, brought to life already in a state of death, is a memorial to that human pursuit and endeavour, where science could lead to riches, but came with a potentially high price. Cookson’s minute monument burns only in the mind, and therefore forever. Cookson continues, “Giving value to a throwaway object questions why we put value on materials at all, especially when they have no function . . . Also, by carving away at the gold and silver, it is diminishing their weight and therefore their material worth. Yet,” and here the paradox is laid bare, “another value is being invested through making.” Cookson attempts to question which value is the most important, the most true, if such a thing can be said – Use value? Material value? Labour? History? – reigniting the disorientation at the heart of much political thought.
“An unfocused gaze takes in a passing landscape, unfolding in a slow impression of land, sea and sky. Greys and blues are punctuated by intense, jewel like, kaleidoscopic greens and yellows. A low drone accompanies these images, placing the viewer within the private space of the car.” That description, by Alice Brook, of her own work, passengering, is as good as any I would want to write. Brook’s notion of ‘passengering’ has come from her reading of Feminist writers such as Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray. As she says, “A passenger is submissive and has little or no control over their own destiny, which appeared to resonate with the perceptions of women that Irigaray and Cixous were keen to counter.” Indeed, the viewer, who sees with eyes from behind the camera, has no control over their destiny and is forced through the images that appear on screen; beautiful images, “kaleidoscopic” the ideal word. But the engine drone creates menace, as most drones do. It recalls the work of Angelo Badalamenti, David Lynch’s go-to composer. Badalamenti has become known for his use of harmonic suspension, whereby a series of unfinished cadences are used to create musical tension, the listener left searching for resolution. In passengering, the drone is both expectant and claustrophobic, a reminder that one is being driven, that the destination is another’s will. As viewers we must adhere to someone else’s idea of freedom, follow their desires, with the lights and colours out of reach, though only a mere window’s width away. We long for freedom but also enjoy the ride, aware of the pressures that come with being a driver. Often in fiction, the pressure of freedom leads to oblivion. Or perhaps freedom, the freedom to drive, to pursue one’s desires, arrives only when “destiny” has become pure oblivion. Through coercion and perversion, the lead in David Peace’s novel 1974, Eddie Dunford, is led into a torrid and terrible conspiracy. When all is lost and almost everyone is dead, Dunford is finally in the driving seat, the police not far behind. The book ends with the single line, “Ninety miles an hour.” Going back to David Lynch, the film Lost Highway sees Bill Pullman as a passenger in his own life. Constantly submitting to the needs of others, his fears consume him, driving him into darkness. He kills his own wife and is then put on death row. Only after killing the darkness inside him can he sit in the driver’s seat. Only when death can be his sole destination, his sole destiny, is he allowed to take the wheel and tear out into the night. The fate of the passenger in Brook’s video may not be so grand, or so undeniably male, it remains in the unknown. Watching the water droplets on the window makes me think of fresh falling rains, cleansing waters straight from the skies.
From there to here – And as Ruth Campbell‘s wonderfully Gothic title tells us, Filthy water can’t be washed. “I wanted to highlight qualities such as flatness of plane, flatness of colour, the geometric layout of objects, and scale,” she says about her photographs. Taken with a medium format camera, edited, and then printed onto high grain matte paper, the resulting images, of the London Regent’s Canal, are painterly and rich. The water seems to stretch out much further than it should, more like a celestial sky than the muddied inland waterway that stretches across North London. The colours swill and change, the water seems alive. The occasional floating debris brings one back down, makes one aware of the water’s surface, aware that there is a top, and, therefore, a below. For the artist too, the water is almost alive, “Our society throws and dumps anything into the waters, and assumes our rubbish, troubles, and sins, will disappear or wash away. However the water will retain these stories forever.” Campbell reimagines these public waterways as a holding place for shared memories, a landfill for bad thoughts and unwanted dreams. The water holds them in abstract and replays them as a projection onto its surface. To return to David Lynch for the last time, and again to Lost Highway, the writer Greil Marcus has said that, “The key to Lost Highway is not to look beneath its surface for any kind of secret, but to find its surface, which is almost impossible to do.” A photograph can grab at a surface, seeming to provide everything that we need. Then the more one looks, the surface going in and out of focus, disappearing then reappearing in perpetual tide, the less familiar it all begins to seem.
“The advertising images of hotels and resorts that we see in holiday brochures propagate an aesthetically heightened image of the ideal leisure time experience. The space that the hotel inhabits in cinema, however, more often than not projects a less innocent side to the fantasy of release in escape. It is the scene of the crime; of sex and drugs and death,” writes Eleanor Purseglove. Purseglove’s Hotel paintings – (Hotel) At the Door, (Hotel) Windows and Swimmers – are doused in cinematic deja-vu. They evoke memories that feel close but are never quite within reach, scenes from films that might never have actually been made. They match the images inside one’s head – the ones lacking full form, lacking a geography or a history – the images that flicker, agitate, and ultimately haunt; not because they are now dead, but because they were never alive to begin with. “Film is death, because it is a shadow, and a mock version-of the truth of light,” as one character says in Richard Foreman’s 1987 play Film is Evil: Radio is Good. Shadows play tricks with the eye, presenting shapes that morph and move and become other things and of other times. And intense light can play much the same tricks. Purseglove’s starched-Earth policy with Swimmers has left tangible reality beyond repair. It is, in the artist’s term, “aesthetically heightened” to the point where Foreman’s “a mock version-of the truth of light” has been literalised, smothering the canvas in a realness of paint and presence that does not allow the scene to form with any fullness. The landscape depicted in Swimmers is a dead weight dipped into the ether, then tossed into the sun to burn.
Lucy Crouch and Katherine Payne grab that sun and let it burn and burn and burn. It Is Always Now, Somewhere sees them stretch, as they call it, “a period of becoming” until becoming is all that is there. To see the work as a whole one must stand back and between and for hours, letting the work happen around us. The sun sets and rises perpetually, but imperceptibly, in front of our eyes; time’s arrow having been harnessed and slowed through technology. “We are interested in marking moments in space and time, with a wish to embody distance and duration,” say Crouch and Payne. “Through simple gestures we look to explore the potential of the in-between moment, to exist within and make visible this liminal interface . . . We utilize film, photography and other means, to deal with such distance and proximity.” In his book The Eyes of the Skin, architect and writer Juhani Pallasma states, “Architecture is our primary tool in relating us with space and time . . . It domesticates limitless space and endless time to be tolerated, inhabited and understood by humankind.” Film and video, I would say, can do much the same. Crouch and Payne have physicalised time’s awesome circulatory movement by presenting a video that is simultaneously of somewhere, a particular place – look at that boat in the distance! – and of everywhere also. It flits from local to national to international and then cosmic. One goes up, the other comes down, the movement repeated so as to never remain still. The action is similar to the Graham Gussin video Beginning and Ending at the Same Time (Horizontal Movie). But where the push and pull of that work relates to the act of looking and the reflexes which accompany it, It Is Always Now, Somewhere lingers on a more conceptual plane, exploring the passage of time as an idea over an event.
Timothy Pulleyn performs momentary events that are discarded and thrown out into time; as in Unit 12 – 43m. He gathers his material, short wooden beams of various size, all painted red, into a self-made hod, and then walks from his studio to a predetermined location, with the hod on his back. Upon arrival, he uses the wood to make a sculptural form, which again, was predetermined prior to the event. After a time, the work is then removed. As he says, “The work only exists for the one or two hours I set myself as a limit. Once the two hours are up the wood is put back in the hod and taken back to my studio.” He continues, “I am interested in the strict, the continuous, and the improvised developments of rhythm. My work derives from music in its simplest and most primitive form.” Visually, the sculptures are true to this musical interest. The wooden beams are often set in repetitive linear patterns, denoting forms of time and measure, rhythm and beat. The process of the making mirrors that of a musical performance also: take your equipment to the venue, set-up, perform, and then leave. All that physically remains of Pulleyn’s sculptures are photographs, which are typically posted on his blog, like a travelogue or diary. But the work really exists in the mind of those few who, by chance, saw him strolling through the city – Glasgow usually, but now Leeds for the first time – hod on back, red wood protruding. Those people were ‘there’, as audience and as witnesses of the work. The sculptures allow Pulleyn the means to perform, but it is the performance, the activity, that lies at the heart of his practice. The work is the working, all else is else.
When asked by Willoughby Sharp, “What is your art for?” the American artist Bruce Nauman replied simply, “To keep me busy.” That has been, and always will be, plenty reason enough.