South London Gallery, London, UK
Brian Catling’s work has developed from ‘making rooms’ under the auspices of sculpture to a flexible mode in which performance, speaking and reading aloud have been used to stave off encroaching literalism; what he calls in Cyclops (1996) ‘the relentless dumbness of the world’. Writing has been one of the implements of Catling’s tirade against the ossification of practises and actions into roles and careers, of objects into tokens of value or consistency rather than lures by which the senses might re-apprehend themselves. The serenity of the resulting works, most of them temporary, has a remarkable obstinacy and tenacity.
Cyclops drew attention explicitly to the awkwardness and cussedness of the bargain Catling would strike with his audience. A work that announced it was ‘designed to be seen over a seven-hour period’ as the light changed, was a command that would be disobeyed, that would anticipate and claim even your refusal to co-operate as part of its plan. In form, the work was a repeating device. A video projector in the corridor by which you enter the gallery, played onto a free-standing wall, the surface of which was coated with salmon-pink plaster. A sequence of tapes (kept in a locked box on one wall) were each marked with the hours of the day they were to be projected. As the light in the gallery changed, so the projected image slowly became clearer. Catling’s face, bisected by a mirror, was monstered into a single eye and a speaking orifice. The Cyclops spoke of its own conditions of possibility: of the technology that produced it, of the hours of the day in which the gallery was ‘let’ to visitors to see the ball of a head. Oracular and bragging (‘I am the Christ of Vanity’), the text was a taunt not a chant. Despite its wish like a sentimental monk to hoard loneliness for itself, the voice continually entertained the presence of an audience, which it renamed ‘witness’. ‘What else can I cast between us?’ it asked, imagining a pool as a barrier between ‘I’ and ‘you’. Projecting a curious, in some ways Crusoe-esque imagination, the voice spoke of a raft of planked wood it built for itself, and of its urine, imagined as stacked in glass jars behind the gallery wall to function as lanterns or the cells to fuel a light. ‘I have kept it all’, the voice announced gruffly, as if anticipating contradiction.
At a certain point the tape ends and the hour of the day chimes. (A clock, muffled in plaster, was attached to another wall: a miniature Rachel Whiteread). The text was repeated, but its performance varied by the hour, getting wilder as the day wore on. There was amplitude about Catling’s performance, like Charles Laughton in the title role of Rembrandt. Not having to perform the part of Brian Catling, poet, but of a monster, he spoke easily. In one part he sang, making the words ring like an exhilarating threat: ‘Once you have found them, never let them go/ once you have found them, never let them go’. South Pacific was never like this. And in the devastating recourse to popular song, the violence of Catling’s wish to sear the memory emerged; because to make a work that disallows you to forget it is distinct from the making of something memorable. Force has been used. However, the work contained its own memories, while quizzing ours. Buried in the text was a partial local history and genealogy, laments for this part of London, where Catling grew up, and a folklore of family: ‘I have a horror of milk. It never smoothed my way into the world, I sucked my Father’s gum of ground pearls and saline…’
There seemed to be confidences divulged here, though there wasn’t, as the voice made clear, a confession based on guilt (an emotion foreign to Cyclops). The use of first person speech is a device, and to hear it used with some poetic perplexity was a pleasure. It was also a pleasure that the modernist determination to heed the means of production prevailed. For videotape is but a repeating device, and yet it is precisely this condition of its possibility that much video work, whether spectacle or something more intimate, cannot acknowledge in the way in which the work is presented. (Is a catharsis playing every half hour truly cathartic?) In Cyclops, technical processes of repetition existed hard and fast against psychological ones, obsessions endlessly returned to and cranked out by each hearing and each performance. ‘Some enchanted evening/You may see a stranger/You may see a stranger, across a crowded room/and somehow you know/You know even then/that you will see them again and again’.