BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

Brian Griffiths

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

There's something of the fin-de-siècle artist about Gene Wilder's title role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). It's there in his mad hair and practised eccentricity, in his orchidacious language and his casual cruelty. This gangly candy man shrugs off the banalities of the contemporary world, explaining to the golden ticket holders as they tour his workshops that 'inside this room, all of my dreams become realities, and some of my realities become dreams'. Willy Wonka comes on like Whistler delivering his Ten O'Clock Lecture (1885), a dandified sweet-maker in his top hat and tail-coat. The factory becomes an artist's studio, where a palette of pasteurized milk and cocoa solids is worked into something wonderful.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a movie that Brian Griffiths cites as an influence, what he calls a 'created world where everything made sense'. Thirty years down the line, though, Willy Wonka's material world has started to erode. In our age of polygon monsters and bomb's-eye camerawork, there's a dissonance between the fantastical ideas that drive Willy Wonka's narrative and the outmoded special effects and Archigram-lite sets that give them visual shape. Right now the sleek lines and green tones of The Matrix (1999) seem the perfect visualization of the paranoia tinged with mysticism with which we greet new technology. But will we still feel the same way when tech moves on, and realize that The Matrix's aesthetic is based on the bleeping emerald screen of a matt-black Nokia? Griffiths' well-known sculptures of supercomputers - all sink plungers, cardboard and fizzy drink bottles - explore the visual rot that sets in when Sci-fi imagery suddenly feels old-fashioned.

When Few Were Charmed (2001) sees Griffiths' attention shift from Sci-fi to Fighting Fantasy. A band of human-size figures crocodile through the gallery, their pot-bellied general accompanied by a two-legged pack mule swaddled in gaffer tape. A dynamic little dwarf brings up the rear, a standard strapped to his thick-set shoulders. He huffs and puffs behind a skinny figure straight out of Gormenghast (1950) and his squat, cone-headed familiar. Next in line is a white-shrouded ghoul, its head a corner-shop carrier bag, halfway between Halloween ghost and Klansman. The general, his epaulettes fashioned from sun-bleached brocaded curtains, is preceded by a lanky Gandalf draped in wizard's robes. What appear to be two prisoners lead the procession, their hands bound behind their backs, a cheap up-turned urn dotted with faux-Arabian filigree work giving the second captive a vaguely Moorish air. Some of them bear an insignia on their chests, a plastic plumber's gizmo transformed into a morning star. Like a crude precursor of the gleaming chevrons pinned to the chests of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, it gives this motley group a sense of common purpose. We might imagine them as a group of desperadoes united for one final mission, or the wet and winded shreds of a routed army.

That Griffiths' figures buzz with references to a glut of Sword and Sorcery sources owes something to the cross-referencing of the genre. The oddly circumscribed bestiary of elves, Orcs, dwarves and Paladins that have dominated Fantasy culture since Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) give the movement a visual coherence and quasi-mythological weight missing from Sci-fi, which can only show us today's best picture of the future. Both Sci-fi and Fantasy imagery are underpinned by their similarity to the known world of cod-Medievalism, proliferating eyeballs and massive scalings up or down, but Fantasy's lack of concern with technology gives its motifs the appearance of Ur-images. Griffiths' trash-can parade nods slyly at Brancusi's Bird in Space (1925), acknowledging that the 20th century was as much about distilling narrative as refining form.

The lo-fi materials of Griffiths' early spaceship terminals play with the tiny production budgets of 1970s TV series such as Blake's 7 and The Tomorrow People. With When Few Were Charmed he's more concerned with just how far the grotty stuff of real life has to be pushed before it becomes magical. Here a dusty roll of green felt must only be unfurled to be transformed into a wind-whipped banner; a carpet square taped end to end to become a knightly helmet. They still look like junked off-cuts in their new guises, and there's something a bit baleful, but a bit hopeful too, in the way our own world lingers in these imaginary beings. The painterly passages of electrician's tape rioting across the figures' torsos have a manic over-enthusiasm. The artist wants this funny string of creatures to come to life, but it's as if he wants it too much. Like Willy Wonka shut up in his dream laboratory or Whistler imagining London's smoke-stacks as campinili, there's a melancholy edge to Griffiths' half-charmed world.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.