Harry Bensley was an English rake and adventurer who in 1908 set out to circumnavigate the world on foot pushing a pram and wearing an iron mask.
A surreal successor to Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg, it’s said that he did it because he lost his whole fortune in a card game and accepted the extravagant wager of £21,000 as a forfeit, along with fifteen bizarre conditions including having to find a wife in spite of being married already.
These indecorous but hilarious terms suggest he did it not entirely for the money: the whole venture smacks of the most gamesome English eccentricity.
Nobody goes around the world in a metal mask like Harry Bensley, or in eighty days like Phileas Fogg, for anything so un-Romantic as a wager. An adventure must have drama, ambition, grandiosity, all for their own sake. There has to be a grand challenge to stir the senses. There has to be the strong likelihood of a spectacular and embarrassing failure.
I am pleased to announce that I am on the brink of a glorious, glittering, sensational failure!
Fifty weeks ago on the 8th of January, one boring winter Thursday I messaged a friend saying I was going to swing by the ICA to check out this new project called Fig-2 that was going to put on a new art exhibition every week for fifty weeks:
“50 weeks. I’m going to *try* to go every week. I may even notate my thorts.”
The blog started off innocently, even hesitantly, with short-ish quite technical pieces in which I teased out the meanings of each week’s exhibition.
Contemporary art often presents you with a box of parts and no assembly manual. Whether you build a car or a sex sling says as much about you as it does about the work itself.
The blog rapidly got out of hand as my historical and theoretical sweep broadened, with the intellectual breadth of the exhibitions requiring hours of extra study in esoteric fields from anthropology to crypto-zoology.
I’ve covered thirty-eight weeks (three ably helmed by Alix Mortimer) and four ancillary seminars, and today it’s Tuesday in the last week of Fig-2. I have twelve write-ups to finish by Sunday. This is of course impossible. It was impossible from the start. Fig-2 is an intellectual banquet, and writing about each week takes weeks of research, thought and experiment.
I’m working on these last pieces all at the same time as if they were one monstrous dissertation, the last chapter in a terrible anti-thesis on Fig-2, the universe and everything. It’s taking up all my time, and I’m not even getting anywhere. People keep asking me if I’m going to things at the London Contemporary Music Festival but I just can’t.
I’ve got the usual chronic FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) but recently this has turned into a sanity-preserving energy-retaining JOMO — Joy Of Missing Overtiredness. JOMO is gonna be the big thing of 2016.
At the end of every version of Verne’s Eighty Days there is a now ubiquitous cinematic trope. The heroes think they’ve won, everything seems brilliant, but then, no! It’s all gone wrong! There’s nothing that can be done, nothing. At least they tried. Everyone starts to disperse, but then, what’s this, wait! From the jaws of defeat is snatched the, I dunno, the salmon of victory. Joy, elation, and a happy ending for some reason.
It’s by no means certain whether this salmon will be forthcoming.
What is certain is that I have visited all fifty weeks. This blog is named after the Fig-2 loyalty card, which is a sheet of paper (pictured below) bearing the promise “Visit all 50 projects and endorse this loyalty card by each week’s unique artist’s stamp. Upon completion, you will be granted a copy of the fig-2 publication.”
There’s a small bunch of us with all fifty of these stamps, winners of the Fig-2 wager, each due one of these documentary books that will commemorate the year.
The publication is currently being crowdfunded (check it out!) with rewards including personalised postcards, posters, VIP drinks, prints, tea with Bruce McLean, and the apotheotic grand prize of a box containing all fifty of the actual loyalty card stamps (pictured). The crowdfunder is unlikely to achieve great failure. The team already pulled off the fifty weeks with only mild onset chronic alcoholism and then only toward the end, and I imagine the book will fly (if books could fly).
The £995 box of stamps is obviously beyond my means but I have never wanted it so much as now, now that I’ve found out that someone else has actually gone ahead and bought it.
Perhaps we could discuss some kind of deal, maybe some arrangement by way of a wager…
With special thanks to Fatoş Üstek, Jessica Temple, Irene Altaió, Yves Blais, Alix Mortimer, Huston Gilmore, Adam and the other loyalty card heroes.
One cold October day a bunch of journalists and I and the whole of Gaggle were shipped off to the Baudrillardian Bicester Village where ’tis forever Christmas . . .
Fig-2 is a great project taking place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA). For fifty weeks in 2015 an artist is selected each week to create a new exhibition that is only in place for seven days. It’s a curatorial ultramarathon that has seen the ICA studio transformed into a dizzying range of different uses and appearances from a paint-splattered art studio to a gleaming white cube.
One of Fig-2’s sponsors is Bicester Village, and part of the deal was that four ‘Fig-2 artists’ would be asked to respond to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and produce site-specific work there. From the forty-some Fig-2 artists so far the four commissions were a performance on October 29 by Deborah Coughlin and Gaggle (from Week 9 of Fig-2), a film by Annika Ström (Week 10), an immersive animation by Shezad Dawood (Week 13) and a sound and light installation by Vesna Petresin (forthcoming Week 46).
Bicester Village is a kind of open air shopping mall in the visual style of a village in a Christmas movie. When we arrived it was even snowing! (Courtesy of a snow machine). Regular villages have post-offices and pubs, or used to, but Bicester sells luxury goods, mainly designer clothes. Each of the major fashion brands has a house in the village but you can’t get a drink anywhere. It’s busy too. Aspirant Brits and affluent tourists flood in via the purposely built station, getting their Christmas shopping done early. They’re served by staff dressed like bellhops to mimic the American retail experience’s visual class distinctions. At 4pm the bellhops entertain the village in a dance performance.
Dancing and shopping have been paired before in art. In Gillian Wearing’s classic video “Dancing in Peckham” the Turner Prize winner dances uninhibitedly by herself without music in a London shopping precinct. It’s hilarious, but very few of the shoppers walking past even turn their head to look. Noone points and laughs. Everyone is very British about it and ignores her. Presumably they think she is a crazy lady. There is a disparity between the unabashedness of the dancing and the refusal of the shoppers to step away from their purposive walking and shopping. The video is from 1994 so perhaps today everyone would be filming her with their smartphones, as they were the bellhops at Bicester.
Fashion and shopping have been a source of fascination for artists, as you can see at the current blockbuster show ‘The World Goes Pop’ at Tate Modern where pop artists like Andy Warhol both celebrate and satirize modern consumerism and its obsession with the latest thing. Art itself is subject to the vicissitudes of fashion and the reputations of artists often rise or fall in parallel with the prices their works command at the auction house.
Annika Ström’s work explores encounters between people. Just as Gillian Wearing’s video worked by dropping her into a public space, Annika Strom likes to set actors out into public spaces to interact with people. For Week 10 of Fig-2 she directed six actors to act in a lovely manner toward everyone they came into contact with. Her friendly film ‘Changing Rooms’ depicts two women who only meet at Bicester Village. Their friendship is in a sense based on the act of shopping, which you might see as a devaluation of their friendship or as an ennoblement of shopping!
Shezad Dawood created an animation that you view through eyeholes in a colourful shed-like circular structure in the centre of the Village. It depicts digitally generated characters from the animation he made during Week 13 of Fig-2 and in watching it the viewer enters a kind of virtual reality. Is shopping also a virtual reality?
We are looking forward to Vesna Petresin’s week at Fig-2 (from 16-22 November). Her sound and light installation at Bicester is playful and challenging. You enter a white phone box and are immersed in pink light with flashing lights running up and down like Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, soundtracked by a female voice sexily whispering. It was too much for a couple I saw who emerged after barely seconds slightly perplexed. Art can take you to another (virtual) world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like that world.
Deborah Coughlin’s work with her all-female choir GAGGLE is also challenging, with an explicit feminist purpose of female empowerment. In Week 9 of Fig-2 they performed in between readings of classic speeches by great women including Virginia Woolf. In Bicester each member of the choir carried a rock made out of paper and wire and sang ringing harmonies to her source of burden, “I wish my rock.. were you!” The choir carried their rocks through the crowds along the whole length of Bicester Village.
We fell about when we saw a dad successfully goading his children. “Those women must be so strong!” he said, provoking their incredulous reply “It’s fake rocks, Dad!”
Fig-2 continues until December at the Institute for Contemporary Arts.
“Sit on the carpet!” Yves ordered me in a stage whisper. The crowd at the gallery opening was pressed along the walls in a thick uncomfortable crust around a carpet in the middle of the space, breathing in and watching a blue film.
“Oh thank God for that,” I broke for the breathing space of the carpet and sat down with my bags and my gin cocktail. Other people followed, but more stayed. This is crowd dynamics.
It was busy and the sound of the microphone overloading wasn’t conventionally pretty but for me being in a wholly aesthetic intellectualised environment is a good relief of or distraction from stress. I feel I can breathe easier in these places.
Karin Kihlberg & Reuben Henry’s “This Building, This Breath” is a new film-stroke-performance, which they presented for Week 43 of Fig-2.
You don’t know when you go in that the voiceover is being performed live. It sounds a bit distorted and unpolished because it hasn’t been filtered or produced. Watching the film as just a film is enjoyable in itself. It is a wide-ranging meditation on breathing referring to culture, biology and martial arts and it develops through an engagement with the buildings and spaces we inhabit to establish a poetic proposition that the room itself is breathing.
You might notice after a few times through the film that the sound seems to be changing, or that some of the utterances don’t seem to come from the speakers but a cappella, or someone might just tell you. I was astonished, and had a cheeky peek round the corner of the back of the screen that delineated the viewing room, and there he was, Reuben Henry hidden away behind a computer and microphones, performing in camera. It was a Wizard of Oz moment. The curtain drops away and ecce homo. More Latin, sorry! I only used in camera (‘in private’) because I enjoy the fact that in camera means off camera.
It seems relevant here, because another clue would have been that above the screen was a camera pointed at us through which Reuben could view us and sometimes respond to us. When the studio space was empty in the week he would be able to see, and rest until someone came in, but he essentially performed the film all day every day for the whole of Kihlberg & Henry’s week at Fig-2. This makes it a durational performance, like Marina Abramovic or sitting through The Hobbit.
It’s especially extraordinary given many viewers would not have known it was a live performance at all. There are of course other instances of performances taking place in camera or unbeknownst to an audience. Examples of the latter usually have an element of anthropological study, such as when Leah Capaldi doused herself in strong perfumes and took herself onto the tube at rush hour, recording the reactions of the other people to the whiff.
The classic example of invisible performance is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed(1972) in which a ramp was installed in the gallery underneath which Acconci reputedly lay masturbating for eight hours a day. The work is simultaneously private and public. I also recall reading that there is an ambiguity as to what he was really doing down there, about the truth value of it. Reuben Henry could have set a backing tape off and sat back and we’d have been for the most part none the wiser.
We have to accept that the piss in Andras Serrano’s photo Piss Christ is piss when it could be lemonade, and some still believe that Piero Manzoni (I seem to be really into Latin and Italians today), that Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit actually contain gummi bears rather than the artist’s waste. This reveals that there is a contract that occurs between the artist and the viewer when they come in contact, an element of trust, faith in the work, like the suspension of disbelief you experience while watching a story. In a sense, the Wizard of Oz moment is a disruption of that. You thought this was a film? It’s a man!
The exhibition will be touring to Plymouth Arts Centre and Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool in 2016. These spaces are totally different to the ICA Studio. Even if the script and images remain largely the same, the work will be different, both because of the nature of live performance as unrepeatable and because the film draws attention to rooms and spaces so the viewer will be more aware of the space they’re in, which will be different in each case. I wonder what the Wizard of Oz moment will be like elsewhere.
The voiceover begins soothingly explaining what is about to happen: “The images will cease. There will be blackness. Like the room, you will be weightless. In ten minutes there will be nothing but images.”
We are encouraged to “Breathe deeper, breathe slower.”
“The breath you took – did you mean it?” This is a interesting little kōan. How can you ‘mean’ a breath? We think of breath as involuntary and don’t notice it until we choke on a pretzel and momentarily lose the knack. Learning to control our breath can have a real effect on our wellbeing. In a moment of stress, you take a deep breath to calm down. In exercises like yoga and meditation breathing is one of the basic techniques you use to improve all-round physical and mental health.
The film lists symptoms of unbalanced deep breathing (UDB) patterns that can lead to “almost all maladies including excessive stress, anxiety, panic, phobias, depression, high blood pressure, allergy, fatigue, poor sleep, speech or singing issues, emotional imbalances, personality distortions, excessive body weight, heart problems and may forms of cancer.”
In my yoga session in Fig-2 Week 27 Siri Sadhana Kaur told us “Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom.” The breath is the key unit. A breath is to yoga what a word is to a poem. Though you haven’t heard me wheezing at night. Not quite what Graham Coxon said about Pete Doherty’s lungs, “they sound like a bag of crisps” (what with all the crack) which isn’t that great for a happy meditation experience, but then neither is being on crack. Crack just makes you want to make loads of phone calls.
“Breath cleans the mind of images,” said Reuben’s voiceover, “Think of nothing..” This is not at all what meditation is about, as I learned at a meditation session here during Fig-2 Week 38 when the instructor explained that meditation is not about emptying the mind: “You wouldn’t want to encourage your mind to be blank, because your mind is designed in a way that is supposed to connect you with the world around you. So why would you ask your heart to stop beating, why would you ask your digestive system to stop working? If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”
“What does nothing look like?” asks the voice, another kōanto accompany the one about the meaning of breath. I’m reminded of a Prince song except I remember the lyric wrong; it’s similar but actually it’s “We’ll try to imagine what silence looks like,” which seems even harder than imagining nothing. To me nothing looks like an eye (a camera is a pale imitation) and silence would have been preferable to Prince’s records after 1994.
While Week 38 explored how if you better inhabit and use your own body you will benefit – through breathing and exercise – this week explored some of the same themes by thinking about the buildings we inhabit, imagining that the building itself is breathing. The film describes “a room with an unbalanced breathing pattern” while we view film of buildings being earthquake tested. “The room expands” making the proposition that the room itself is breathing.
Sick Building Syndrome is an acknowledged condition that affects the health and comfort of building occupants that appears linked to time spent in the building but without identifying a specific illness or cause. Most of the suggested causes are interestingly linked to breathing: poor indoor air quality, poor heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, contaminants such as aerosols and gases, molds, ozone exhaust and poor air filtration.
These are all how a building ‘breathes’. It sounds odd to say a building breathes, but think of it in the way we describe how a food tastes. The food isn’t doing the tasting, it’s being tasted. A book might read well, but it can’t itself read (unless Google has already invented some kind of self-reading book, which wouldn’t surprise me). A building might breathe well.. or ill.
I hope this feat of linguistics doesn’t spoil the poetry of imagining a building breathing. Truth is beauty and all that. Speaking of linguistics . .
At one point in the voiceover Reuben read the textual punctuation, the way you would if you were dictating to an amanuensis. Full stop. New sentence. A text’s punctuation indicates when you’re supposed to breathe. I don’t mean that you’re at risk of dying if you read the unpunctuated text of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses or took a gamble on Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable, though the film does state “Breath is the punctuation of your death.”You’ll still breathe, though there are those suspenseful Silence of the Lambs moments when you suddenly become aware you haven’t breathed for the past two minutes.
If written punctuation is there to tell us when to breathe, the opposite is true in speech, where our breathing may be one of the ways in which we punctuate our speech to clarify what we’re saying. In Fig-2 Week 30 we discussed punctuation in Anna Barham’s work with voice transcription software.
When we listen to someone speaking we hear a stream of unpunctuated syllables to which we have to apply our own punctuation to understand, deciding between whether we hear ‘four candles’ or ‘fork handles’. If you wanted to be really clear you might take a little breath between four and candles to spell it out. So breathing can be a kind of punctuation, making it in the context of speaking a linguistic act, which is another way of answering the question “The breath you took – did you mean it?”
The room becomes a living thing, a character. We say that something – an environment, a person, an expression, an idea – ‘takes on a certain character’ sometimes when it comes into contact with a new thing or when we think of it in a new way. This curiously points toward a notion that these things are not discrete entities that are complete and immutable but are in fact a sum of sensations and definitions subject to change when their context alters.
The film concludes with these words “Do you feel C-A-L-M? Breathe this breath. 30 seconds. This building.” then he whistles, and concludes with the injunction “Hold your breath indefinitely, room.” Roy Orbison’s song “House Without Windows” strikes up and we see a slideshow of buildings whose windows have been covered up in diverse ways. These are choked buildings that can no longer breathe.
“He’ll have it memorised by the end of the week” said Fatoş at the Monday opening. Reading it all day for a week, that’s what you’d expect, but by the end of Sunday Reuben hadn’t memorised it. He still had to read the words. After a few days mistakes had started to creep in. In the last performance on Sunday he stumbled over a “comma” (luckily he didn’t fall into a coma, ahaha).
Everyone is familiar with having a job that they soon learn how to do perfectly and which they subsequently start doing perfectly badly.
There should be a name for that. There’s the Peter principle, but that’s a bit different, that’s when people are promoted for their competence in their current role rather than the intended role, so they stop rising when they can no longer perform effectively, having risen to the level of their incompetence. This is why you always think you can do your boss’s job better than them.
It’s different to the Peter Principle though: it’s about repetition, in a job, or a performance, or making a film. It’s not even boredom, it’s just entropy. Seeing or doing the same identical thing a hundred times makes you notice the tiny details of difference between these supposedly identical things, and they become destabilised.
As Stanley Kubrick’s endless takes of a scene progressed, film would spool out of cameras, actors would forget lines they had said a hundred times. It’s a curious quirk of repetition. Maybe it makes our brains unravel, sometimes in a good way. During the yoga weeks ago Siri Sadhana Kaur said “Through repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space.”
Essentially, during the week while Reuben had been hidden away in a tiny cell behind a screen he had been exploring space. Far out.
Anoxide are heavy as fuck and bringing it in this weird garage down a ramp at the top of an art gallery. The drinks are free but it’s neat gin, fuck that. We’re all screaming and throwing each other about. It’s dark, it’s green light, it’s your elbow in my eye. Everyone’s screaming and whirling about, the guys are making a circle pit while the band tear it. It’s not loud enough, it’s bad, the singer is screaming and growling, hands in the air and everyone is jumping and headbanging and moshing out.
The guys are throwing each other around. They push into each other but never fall over. There’s the kid who was outside earlier playing this weird flute or something. He’d set out some kind of hamper and he was wearing Brighton-issue crusty crap. Here he’s the alpha dog of the pack, the one who starts and directs the trouble. He’s tossing rolls of blue cleaning paper across the space, up and across they go in bluegreen flames. Anoxide are heavy and crunchy as fuck. The low riffs turn into double time drums into screeching guitar solos into growling and chanting and djunt. Kill everyone and fuck every hole.
Then the lights go on, and it’s blinding. A door opens, and a couple of girls wearing red dresses are dragging poles through the crowd. Everyone’s still screaming and there is piercing electronic noise from the speakers. Performance duo New Noveta, the two girls in the sexy red, are panting and sweating and they look distressed as they fuck about with this bucket of fish and these long white poles that they’re trying to move in the bright white garage light. The crowd opens as they move through it and they take ages to move along. The fire doors open and they go up out of it. The faces in the queue outside gape in at us. Did this really happen? The fire doors shut.
Four snare hits and Anoxide are back. The lights drop to darkness again. Listening at home to this shit gives me a fucking headache and racing pulse, which is what it’s supposed to do. I’ve left it way too long to write this fucking thing. And I cannot read the fucking logos of metal bands. Are they deliberately unreadable? Look at this, their bandcamp says “lyrics written by anoxide” so it’s not just all growling but fuck me it has in fact literary qualities.
“Shout out to Stitches” he says, “Shout out to Stitches.” Stitches must be the one with the stupid flute who’s naked with a scarf round his neck. Everyone’s mates, we’re all having sex in the circle pit and sweating and dripping. We’re covered in sweat. Drenched. Wet. Wringing. Saturated. Fucking soaking. The band play an older one, it launches out then goes into a solo then a serious head banging riff and then the verse with the ride cymbal going over a chromatic descending riff. The guys are soaking, the roof is dripping, everyone is crazy, the garage is smashed up but sexy and beautiful. The riff opens up, we’re drunk and we’re dead.
This is exactly a year after I saw another death metal band do an art show. Unfathomable Ruination played a full set inside a soundproofed metal box containing no oxygen. I say ‘saw’, once the door shut you couldn’t hear or see anything. It was amazing. I really wanted them to die in that box. You’d be able to sense them all pass out as they used up all the oxygen and then the door would be opened and there would be a dead metal band.
Unfathomable Ruination played three days a week for a month in this box under the Gherkin in the shit City of London for ‘Box Sized Die’ as part of João Onofre’s “Sculpture in the City” project. On the last night of their residency they were allowed an extended set of 31 minutes and the bastards still didn’t fucking die. There are photos and there is a sound recording of this performance in the soundproofed metal box that you couldn’t see and couldn’t hear. Naturally the gig is edited down to a length of 4’33”.
Anoxide and New Noveta performed on the opening night of Fig-2 Week 32/50 in which Oreet Ashery installed a beautiful white space and explored notions surrounding death and dying as part of her ongoing project Revisiting Genesis.
I used to know an artist who only worked in yellow. Yellow paintings and yellow sculptures, all in grades of yellow and made in a yellow studio.
One yellow day a critic came along and said ‘This is not yellow work. This is really about black and white. It uses colour as a dialectic of shade. This work is not yellow. This work is black and white!’
Everyone heard this, especially the artist, who carried on making the yellow works.
Some years later I went back to the yellow studio, and was surprised to see no yellow works anywhere.
‘What happened to yellow?’ I asked. ‘All these works are black and white.’
‘You’re wrong,’ said the artist, ‘the works that I used to make were black and white. These ones are yellow!’
“I left my heart in San Francisco,” crooned Tony Bennett. I once left my cashcard in Llandudno. There is also an artistic tradition of people deliberately leaving things in art galleries.
Duchamp perfected theobjet trouvé, inventing the “ready-made” by exhibiting unaltered everyday objects designated as art. It’s less clear who if anyone invented the objet déposé, or objet abandonné, or whatever you might choose to call those works that are left in a gallery as a comment or as an intervention.
Banksy has crept into the Tate and National Gallery in disguise and covertly stuck to the walls a number ofsatirical works. Another kind of intervention foundBrian Eno peeing into Duchamp’s urinal, which seems much more sympathetic than the idiot who went to jail fordefacing a Rothko in the name of his own ‘artistic movement’ Yellowism. Curiously, of these three instances it is Banksy’s that isn’t vandalistic, in spite of the larger part of his canonical stencil works being strictly speakingacts of vandalism.
During Week 35 of Fig-2 someone left a postcard depicting “The Falls of Leny, Callander” though I’m still can’t quite convince myself it wasn’t actually part of the show. The rock formation within rushing water and an external overlaid shape left by a sticker perfectly matched the themes and techniques of the exhibition around it.
Amy Stephens uses sculpture, drawing and photography to explore relations between geological, architectonic and sculpted forms. She plays with the intersections between objects and how we represent objects. In her show two-dimensional representations turn into three-dimensional objects and vice versa via interventions in the forms by introducing synthetic elements to organic forms and organic elements to synthetic objects.
The room had been split into two exhibition spaces: one large and a smaller one in the corner which at first I missed. It was lucky they told me it was there because without the second room the show didn’t seem to work. Together the whole show suddenly came to life as the totality of the pieces resonated. The two-dimensional forms first encountered in the large space suddenly spring off the wall into full sculptural form in this second semi-hidden room. Considering all the works together let them ring out together like an orchestra. It was literally an object lesson in curation, and proof that the ‘art of curation’ isn’t just an amusing turn of phrase.
I loved the slippage between media, the way that a geometric shape would be presented in the big space on a photographic surface and then you’d find yourself confronting the same shape turned into a sculpture, the way the colours yellow, cyan and red would pass between sculptural objects, photographs and across the walls of the room.
Solid and outline shapes in yellow overlaid the two silkscreens “Freeze-Thaw I & II”. A yellow line led along the length of a wall and continued inside a picture frame as if it had thrown itself off the wall, and finally found itself embodied in the yellow perspex lozenge of the spindly-legged sculpture teasingly entitled Silence.
The same thing happened with the blue waterfall roll of heat transfer foil “The First Dive” spilling back into the blue shape digitally overlaid over the rock form photography in the c-prints “Rock-fall I & II”.
The digitally overlaid blue shape then turns white and emerges as the flock-covered lozenge-on-legs sculpture “Tethered Object”, and the heat transfer foil reminds us through artificial means of the great violence of slow geological processes to shape valleys and mountains from solid rock.
The rocks emerge from the flat plane of photography into the gallery in the form of “something. anything. everything. I, II & III” in which there are three rocks. I tell a lie, they’re minerals. Jesus, Marie! They’re minerals! Specifically the mineral ilmenite, a weakly magnetic black and grey ore of titanium. These minerals have been wrapped in red tape: line interacting with shape, then the line wanders off and finds itself as a red flocked fabric line going up through clear Perspex in the large sculpture “Unicorn”, where it looks like either the broadly ascending line of a rising company or the descending fortunes of a failing one. What it is in fact is not dissimilar: it is a representation of the Palio horse race in Siena, Italy created through extreme simplification of a horse or a person stripped to essential forms and motifs.
“Unicorn” seems at first a curious title for it. Just like “Tethered Object”, it isn’t tethered, just as a unicorn can’t be tethered. Being mythical it either doesn’t exist or it exists as an absence (like silence, maybe even the yellow lozenge sculpture “Silence”). A unicorn is strong, being a beast, and fragile, in terms of its mythical rarity. Similarly the sculptures all possess this simultaneous stability and fragility. Untethered, you could knock them over easily, and people always walk into things.
Unicorn (Leocarno) is actually one of the seventeen contrade (city wards) that compete in the Palio di Siena, so we even find here slippage between language and form: the name unicorn becomes a thing unicorn (just as James Joyce had made a cork frame for a photo of Cork city). The emblems of the district are the same reddy-orange as the lines of “Unicorn” and “something. anything. everything”.
Mention of Palio reminds me of a point raised by Douglas Hofstadter: Chi dice Siena dice Palio — to mention Siena is to bring up its famous horse race. Which would go for Wimbledon too: you think of tennis (or wombles?). In any word, many concepts are sous-entendus: there, but whispered. Inherent. A tethered object.
Even the striking rock and mineral forms in the photographs have been created by the eroding action of water: stable and fragile, hard and soft. “Tethered Object” looks inscrutable and monolithic, but its hardness is balanced by its spindly legs and its covering of flock, the lustrous velvety fabric that is Amy Stephens’s signature material. Flock draws the eye and light in: it’s soft but it’s also highly synthetic. Black flock is used like bark to wrap a piece of wood, giving it a synthetic but somehow warm edge.
In “Birch In Space” we encounter a branch of Icelandic birch wood that has been cast in eight pieces and welded together and suspended from the ceiling: the shape is organic and natural but the material is metallic and synthetic and the suspension gives it a lightness that offsets the weight of the metal. The pitching of the one against the other characterises all of the work. The shape of the cast birch also echoes “Unicorn”.
“Pulpit” shows a photo of a clifftop, a famous Norwegian tourist destination formed of ilmenite and rock. You can imagine Moses standing at the top and declaiming hisfifteenten commandments, telling us how to live our lives. The Tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh) is derived from the verb that means “to be”, “exist”, “become” or “come to pass”: another slippage between language and form, another unicorn: words cast in stone.
“The First Dive” is inspired by David Lynch’s book “Catching the big fish: meditation, consciousness and creativity” and the idea of diving in when creativity takes over: jumping in at the deep end and submerging oneself in that danger rather than remaining sat in the shallow end. You need to take risks to move on. Any act of life worth living is a naturally occurring artificial intervention.
I found Amy Stephens’s work thrilling in the way it exchanged colours and shapes between natural and synthetic forms and between two- and three-dimensional realms. It’s like a daytime Nights At The Museum, as if the non-living things all come out and cause trouble in real life.
Causing trouble in real life is what artists tend to be good at, from Banksy’s interventions to Stephens’s more personal artistic challenges in developing her play with forms and materials, and so on to that troubling and mysterious postcard “The Falls of Leny, Callander” . . .