ICA, London, UK
My name is not Enrico David and I was not born in Ancona, Italy in 1966. I did not move to England in the late 1980s, nor did I study at Central Saint Martin’s in the early ‘90s. I have never been celebrated for a series of large-scale embroidered canvases, and never had a solo exhibition at The Approach in 1999. I certainly did not go anywhere near the group exhibition ‘New Labour’ at the Saatchi Gallery in 2001, let alone – heaven forbid – take part in it. Subsequently, I have not given Cabinet Gallery, London, Galerie Daniel Buchholz in Cologne, Project Art Centre Dublin, Transmission in Glasgow, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, and Tate Britain the pleasure of a solo exhibition by me. As far as I am concerned, 2001 was not a particularly special year. It marked no significant shift in my practice and I have never since to date employed a wide range of media, even though I am arguably the employee of one. I do not include a significant sculptural component.
As such, some of you – only some, mind – may be forgiven for mistaking me, stood here dressed in the finery of my profession, as an advocate for Enrico. A barrister for the defence, perhaps. Or some kind of legal secretary who, like the lawyer in the photographs we can see in one corner of this room, arranges for a couple to recodify their legal status as mother and adopted daughter, someone given the responsibility of being Official Keeper of the Rubber Stamps and charged with being able to say: ‘yes, you can.’ I myself have wondered whether in these kinds of situations I am delivering best man speeches; a little biography and background for friends and family, the occasional ticklish anecdote (nothing too vulgar for granny might get upset), but ultimately insight and warm confirmation of my ceaseless admiration for the subject in question. (I mean, why else would I be here?) Don’t these afternoon talks at a venerable London cultural institution so often suffer ghost pregnancies, heavy with hope for questions answered, veils lifted, and scales fallen from shuttered eyes?
Well, I’m sorry, but I am nothing of the sort. As B.S. Johnson wrote in his novel Albert Angelo, ‘whats the point in covering up covering up covering over pretending pretending I can say anything through him that is anything that I would be interesting in saying.’ I’m not tour guide, toastmaster, apologist or surrogate. If you are after meaning of fixed value, then you’re in the wrong shop. Meaning is a proposition, not an assurance. Meaning is also the name of a nomadic tribe who offer wares to anyone open to conversation. Enrico tells me their sales catchphrase is ‘I can only trade one opacity of experience with another’, which might not roll off the tongue so smoothly, but if you think about it is much the same as ‘never knowingly undersold’, which is what Peter Jones department store will tell you. However, the cultural climate in which the nomads trade is at present swept by the dry winds of reductive explication – squalls of explanatory notes, breezy synopses, gusts of interpretative signage, eddying wall labels, backdrafts of contextualizing essays. This decade is the windy season for art criticism (a brief aside: how come the rest of the family – our musical cousins, dancing brothers, literary sisters and theatrical uncles and aunts – get to live in more temperate climes where their activities do not get pissed down on by doubt and suspicion?). As such, this mistral – the wind that makes men mad – drives us to shelter and settle down in the first pub or café we come to; obedient customers who will pay what we’re asked to pay for meaning, and like what we’re given. But we have forgotten the first rule of shopping: that the customer is always right. Meaning is welded to understanding, yet understanding has been blown loose from creativity.
In short then, no – I am not here to speak on Enrico’s behalf. As the writer Stuart Morgan put it, ‘the critic is on nobody’s side but their own.’ I am not prepared to talk over Enrico; to describe to you what you can plainly see with your own eyes. These works are descriptions of the creative act – of its difficulties, contradictions and confusions – and I don’t know about you – I really do not know about you – but I don’t see the point of describing a description. Enrico’s work suggests to me an act of sovereign indifference to the demands for explication. Instead, I am standing next to the artist and speaking to one side. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m a translator, but I do concede that I’m ingesting his language, the digestive juices and acids of my trade breaking it down then reconstituting it within me into a form I can exfoliate into a sheen across the skin of my own language which – if you catch it in the right light – might give off a dim firefly glow that brightens the dark corners you want illuminating. In the preface to his novel The Immoralists, André Gide had something to say about this. But I prefer Enrico’s take on Gide, in his text ‘Shitty Tantrum: The squelching of the slipper’:
‘The public nowadays will not forgive an author who, after relating an action does not declare himself either for or against it […] I do not indeed claim that neutrality (I was going to say ‘indecision’) is the certain mark of a great mind; but I believe that great minds have been very loathe to conclude – and that to state a problem clearly is not to state it in advance […] To tell the truth, in art there are no problems – that are not sufficiently solved by the work of art itself. If by ‘’problem’ one means ‘drama’ shall I say that the one recounted in this play, though the scenes are laid in the heroes soul, is nevertheless too general to remain circumscribed in their own individual adventures.’
Thank you, Enrico.
Enrico: why the first name chumminess Fox, you might ask yourself, rather than the old school military formalities of surname only discussion? Thought you said you were on nobody’s side but your own?
Well, yes and no. I’ll tell you why I say Enrico and not David; because this work comes first and foremost from Enrico grappling with himself. Enrico on Enrico – this show is predicated on first name terms:
-Co for coding
Co for covert
Co for co-efficient
Co for coercivity
Co for cohesion
Co for cohorts
Co for co-operation
Co for cologne
Co for Cole Porter (as in ‘Don’t Fence Me In’, I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘After You, Who?’ and ‘Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please’)
Co for coping
Co for comedy of manners,
Upstairs is Ultra Paste, a version of a bedroom designed for Enrico by his father in the early 1970s, and which the artist occupied between the ages of five and 14. It also bears resemblance to the environment depicted in a 1935 photo-collage made by Henrietta Theodora Markovitch, aka the Franco-Croatian artist and photographer Dora Maar. The floor of the paneled room is covered in sewage. The figure of a young boy – aged around 11 – can be seen, rubbing himself against an older woman. Ultra Paste looks like a memory – our mind’s method of redescribing events to us – and despite the autobiographical content with which Enrico has given volume to and refurnished Dora Maar’s collage of trauma, the room is somewhat placeless, rattling in its time like a loose cog in a carriage clock. Ultra Paste has not been decorated in the confessional style; a narcissistic celebration of the artist’s own dysfunction. Rather, it’s lack of time or place specificity allows it to be reciprocal – it invites us in. Perhaps this is because the ages five to 14 bracket for so many of us the point in our lives at which we cease to act instinctively, when we stopping playing with innocent disregard for ‘proper’ modes of behaviour. The bedroom marks one of the sites where we begin the adaptive mode of behaviour of adulthood; adapting instinct into propriety, adapting honesty into ‘best keep that to yourself’, wonder into studied disinterest, pressing excitement into a bell jar like the Victorian India Rubber Man, and cleanly bisecting the liminal, fluid space between imagination and play, and public behaviour. The result of this process is shame, and Ultra Paste reminds us of the first moment we are introduced to it. To paraphrase one famous Mancunian hysteric: ‘Shame, shame, fatal shame; it can play hideous tricks on the brain’.
(Another aside: if you Google Dora Maar you’ll see that her other name most commonly appears to be ‘Dora-Maar-the-famous-muse-of-Pablo-Picasso’, or, to her friends, ‘Pablo Picasso’s Muse’: Christ can you imagine? You spend decades upon this planet only to be remembered as someone appendaged and adapted to the life of another! But maybe that’s a useful mask to hide behind, and masks are everywhere in this exhibition)
It is the moment at which we cease functioning as a unitary being as split into many departments: co-workers carrying out the tasks of the fragmented self. These are the Spring Session Men, who sit in conference next to Ultra Paste. It is the period in which our mental boardroom is constructed: on the walls we craft neat mahogany, cedarwood, ebony and ivory marquetry murals that remind us to keep telling ourselves we are engaged in serious, rational endeavour. Our co-workers sit in administration of shame and discuss the agenda distributed around the boardroom table. You might think that, amongst other subjects tabled for the meeting, are:
(a) your composure in public,
(b) the conventions you must follow in order to interact with others,
(c) the tasks you would like to be seen doing by others.
However, what you would really like to discuss, is more along the lines of the items Enrico has tabled:
‘The molten brown nylon poured into my hellmouth. Also for discussion:
1. An architecture of rounded greasy pellets fired at high frequency down Oxford Street
2. One massive boulder of pate rolled across London Bridge, with Miss Madam balancing herself on it as she blows a golden trumpet
3. My new job as head of tukwear at Frenzy
4. The approval of planning application submitted by Jennie Richee for the conversion of the House of Fraser into Paris Dupree’s tomb
5. The gathering of shitty chiffon at the back, with an all-over brown handprint by Gandalfini
6. The launch of issue 0 of Lalakay Internazionale (featuring Miss Manning) to be held at Spazio Leena Horne
7. Letting all the turds back in, and all the flies out
8. Decide what we are going to do with my ungracious, boundary scrunching, narcissitagorika, self-obsessed, advantage/piss-taking, enough about you now back to me for 50, 000 centuries, racket running, brown leaking, chock chock coatin, skank ass?’
Guilt and shame are the final frontiers for the confessional society: a trauma for discussion that has not been suffered at the hands of others but wrought from within. Maybe it’s why we love the theatre: it’s the place where – in the most highly codified terms – we can try and talk about the ill-fittedness of the individual in the world, to have a Shitty Tantrum, to let scatology get a word in edgeways (or get words in through orifices it shouldn’t): a theatre of the tolerated; a space for us to speculate on just what it might look like to see Mudhippy turn Mother and two daughters into mature cheddar. Creativity is a shameful act, because it is an act of exposure; but conversely and positively this exposure can reinforce belief in the redemptive act of making images or objects. Why do you think for so many centuries we have remained patient with art? It is not because it’s leading us into the bright spotlights of transcendence but rather into the cool shade of redemptive reflection. These images or objects we make – these lewd acts of self-exposure in public – are useful tools; they make us feel better; they come in handy when, to pluck any old example from the air, on the eve of your Kabuki play, you need to console your boyfriend for running out of ideas.
In this sense, then, given the opportunity for a solo exhibition at the ICA, Enrico could have become hysterically incontinent in terms of his creativity, his exposure: employing dry ice, expensive lights, spectacular visual effects, legions of invigilators, complex health and safety issues, all in order for this coming to terms with shame – his own shame at… well, that’s not for me to say. Rather, in this room (a room the artist tells me he imagined as an enormous museum vitrine housing objects and figures for a giant, towering above the ICA, to peer into) Enrico appeals to a minimal set of means – simple gouaches, photographs, murals or totemic objects. He tries to depict the costumes and make-up needed to be creative; the look of theatre rather than theatre, acting at being an actor, craft and design degraded in order that we might see their role as props. Downstairs in this gargantuan display case that is the lower gallery, the introduction of dirt and grime, marks of manufacture, mistakes, celebrates and shows these objects for the scarred, war-wounded effigies of anxiety that they might well be. Upstairs – in rooms bisected from this vitrine by the adaptive adult-behavioural world of bar, café and toilet – we can see how the trauma, the doubt, the insecurity, the confusion, gets pressed beneath highly-coded veneers, that distort behaviour into shame like a face pressed up against a glass window and laughed at from the other side. I think Enrico has created a user’s guide to his own self, in order that we might see a way of contrasting the fragmented nature of art and ourselves with some sense of unity again.
But this is a private matter. So for once enjoy the fact that you should be ashamed.
Dan Fox is associate editor of frieze.
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