BY Craigie Horsfield in Frieze | 06 JAN 95
Featured in
Issue 20

The Continuing Saga of an Amateur Photographer

Steven Pippin

BY Craigie Horsfield in Frieze | 06 JAN 95

Steven Pippin's earliest work already has about it the patina of lost time and a slightly disquieting nostalgia. One photograph from the Beach Bath project of 1983 shows the artist pushing a bath on wheels along the seafront at Brighton. In another, the bath, sealed and modified to function as a camera, is positioned above the recumbent figure of the artist on the shingle of the beach. Another project involves a wardrobe transformed into a camera, the door attached by bellows to a decrepit cabinet. The object is ominous in its sense of time and place: like Marcel Broodthaers' sculptures, it is both innocent and controlled, instantly historical and meaningless if separated from its past.

Pippin's Brighton is one of damp bedsits and sputtering gas fires: an oddly literary England. The town of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, it is a bus ride from V.S. Naipaul's interminable terraces beneath leaden skies, if also the resort for weekend holiday-makers. The fabric of these cramped and run down rooms, a sense of the presence of former inhabitants, of lost lives and stunted histories recurs again and again through British art in this century, from Frank Auerbach to Rachel Whiteread. With it there is an ambiguity, compassion for people living in cruel constraint and the apprehension that the lives of these others may be more authentic than the artists' own. The strength of Whiteread's work, for example, lies in the way in which her structures, unexceptionally modernist in form, are invested with an excessive history and the marks of lives having been lived. These are the ghosts of her objects. When she has moved away from this project to build generic objects unattached to place and time, the work slides into anonymous strategy. Their loss is then no longer the pathos of abandonment but the faithlessness of formalism. Hers is the same country Pippin inhabits: the topography of his work, the machines, the converted-into-a-camera wardrobe, bath, photo booths and launderettes are all a part of a landscape worn and inauthentic, tired and ill at ease. Pippin's work is an anthropology of a recent past. It is like watching Monty Python or Steptoe and Son recycled on television today: the fascination is in the clothes, the set, the curious and archaic customs.

Beach Bath's evocation of a past of youthful escapades is intended to bruise the certainty of high art with playful satire. The bath on a beach characterises a whole tradition of confusion over art's seriousness and adversity. It's impossible to take very seriously the actor who sits in the bath, who stands disconsolately before a photo booth. This intention is also apparent in the intricacy of the machine's construction, its studious resolution of an engineering problem antithetical to the immateriality of high art. These strategies continue in the scatological fascination of the lavatory camera. In Follies of an Amateur Photographer (1987) and its sequel, The Continued Saga of an Amateur Photographer (1993), the humour is that of generations of English comedians, but seems curiously innocent in an age familiar with the convolutions of excretion in art. The mildest of provocations, while intended to prick the balloon of art's pretension, it (perhaps unintentionally) records a humour with its own culture and way of life that is fast disappearing.

The photographs produced with these eccentric cameras appear, at first, to be highly personal, even autobiographical. But as self-portraits, the images are stubbornly opaque. They seem to complete the machines rather than attempt to describe a world beyond the object. The figures are always shadowy and incomplete, without distinctive features or personality, almost as if in time, they will be absorbed into the machines. But only almost: for, while the machines, having lost their former function take on a 'personality' of alienation and containment, they are never entirely self-sufficient, though always threatening to be. The role of the figure is unresolved: ghostly and substantial; fleeting and yet depicted standing stoically for hours; a pantomime figure of curious activity yet with a melancholy presence; and finally, fading and indistinct but never quite disappearing. There is always, in one form or another, the trace of a world outside the machines. The containment is never quite complete.

Pippin's idea of the self-sufficient machine is developed in the construction of objects that whirl and whir, emitting muted sound. The machine whose only purpose is to infinitely repeat actions that serve to confirm its being, over and over again, is a familiar myth recurring throughout the modern age. The final horror of the machine was that it would no longer have need of its maker, or a purpose that might serve him. Its perpetual repetition was the sign of its indifference to his fate. It would scratch and scour like Kafka's infernal machine at the penal colony. Whether or not Steven Pippin was influenced by Rebecca Horn or Jean Tinguely, the genesis of his inventions probably owes most to his apprenticeship as an engineer. His works do have something of the serendipitous delight of Tinguely, but very little of Horn's vengeful fairground. Each, however, anthropomorphises the machine.

Unlike the earlier objects made in Brighton, which relied on the authentication of time and context, the most recent pieces openly declare their careful manufacture. Hardly a trace of those idiosyncratic constructions of the past remain. These objects look like art, and, calculated in their poignancy, they are both physically and metaphorically hermetic, closed in on themselves. In Vacuum (1994), a television is placed inside a plastic vacuum bubble on a tripod, the 'rabbit's ears' of the aerial (disconcertingly reminiscent of Jeff Koons' silver rabbit) contained by the capsule. The volume is turned up, but the vacuum allows only muffled sound to be heard. The Wow and Flutter works are made up of cones that rotate whilst record styli pick up a signal from the single grooves of a vinyl disc attached at the open end. The sound from the grooves, although amplified by the cones, is indecipherable because of the speed of the machine's revolution and the degradation of the vinyl. (It is the artist speaking the words 'wow and flutter', measurements of imprecise sound reproduction.) In Flat Field (1993), a series of discs circle around a tiny television monitor set into an aluminium table top. The rotations of the wheels conspire to keep the image on the screen, a spinning world, completely still. Ironically, the playful strategies used here to deflate the serious intent are the product of increasingly sophisticated calculation. It is the very ingenuity of these mechanisms that contains their pathos.

The revolving of these sculptures is in the space of history, carrying the remains of other worlds. The tick tock trace, the scratchings and mutterings of the TV screen inside its bubble and the slurred voice are like capsules sent spinning into space to circle the universe, to be dredged from their orbit millennia hence. They bear only the record of a world having been, each one a Marie Celeste of dreams and terrors, but their oblivion is of memory, not of space.

For the moment, these sculptures are the only works Pippin has made that exist as permanent objects. The rooms, the buildings, even the photo booth are returned to other uses while the documentation remains. Photography and film become the authentication of performances, temporary installations and other ephemeral artworks. In Pippin's work, and in the work of others, documentation gains meaning utterly beyond the artists' intentions. The evidence becomes monument and the most determined strategies to escape the confirmation of institutional history are frustrated. The works inhabit the very museum halls and corridors their makers claimed to reject and the only human agency now is in the works' repair and conservation, controlling the humidity, sweeping the dust, replacing the worn down mechanisms of repetition.

In the closed-in self-absorption of Pippin's machines, with their private obsessions and rituals, outsiders simply disappear, none staying long enough to be recorded. The functioning of these machines reflects the dichotomy of private and public that has been a constant of British culture and society in the 20th century. The effect of Britain's class structure has been to allow a retreat into private space, unmatched in other Western societies. Behind closed doors can be heard only the murmurings and scufflings of lives lived apart. The space of the Laundromat in Pippin's work is one of isolation, not of socialising. The photo booth which usually functions as a convenient means of documenting social identity, is used here to record an arcane personal ritual. The train, lavatory, buildings and galleries all are public spaces made private. The gallery picture projects, made by dividing the space so that one half acts as a camera, recording the other as its subject, recall the famous early structures of Dan Graham in which he divided a room with one-way mirror glass, wall to wall, floor to ceiling. The viewers entered through doors on either side of the glass, and for a stipulated period, were shut into whichever of the two halves they had chosen. Yet, whatever the similarity of structure, the differences of context and meaning are telling. Where Graham's work engages didactically with ideas of alienation within the public space, for Pippin the gallery becomes both actor and an area of containment.

In Britain, the meaning of an artwork has a subsidiary, residual and frequently almost incidental attachment to the object, a product of the 'background' or biography of the artist. Class is the matrix and defining identity of the individual, as well as the condition of individual expression. Meaning is generated and described within the 'formalising' relationships of class. The effect is that the 'social' permits the possibility of art's functioning as a criticism or an apparent opposition even within a period of turbulent history in which culture is increasingly traumatised and uncertain. Its paradox is that of an art of resistance, of satirical jokes, of knowing rebellion or of righteous indignation; in other words, the familiar expressions of British refusal, remaining utterly contained, the rebellious strain, cultured and absorbed, only confirming the persistence of the structure. There is no need for some over-arching class consciousness or a conspiracy of institutional power to sustain this containment. The individual acts within what is only a conditionally heterogeneous society. Most acquiesce, being confirmed and reassured by this conferring of identity. Class struggle as a process of fabricating identity is, of course, one of many alongside anthropological difference, the differences of intellectual and manual work and so on. However class as a determinant of identity has a tenacious hold.

This isn't to say that society isn't subject to doubt and uncertainty or to the wider flux of history and the contingency of events both internal and external: a foreign war, plague, catastrophic disaster and so on. Class struggle never disappears but the positions always change. Parts of British society currently feel adrift, but then if class had ever been monolithic it would have crumbled long ago. The occasion of general civil disturbance in Britain has been rare although there has frequently been widespread disaffection. This is not a matter of there being a democratic government accountable to the people so lauded today in a Europe 'freed from tyranny' (the tyranny, that is of another, less authentic, democracy). This fluency, this resilience and shifting of ground has no very 'democratic' principle. It predates universal suffrage and its tenacity owes little to benign intent. Within the aegis of the State many feel, or have felt, powerless and ineffectual in their dealings with one another.

Lindsay Anderson's film If... (1967), admired by Steven Pippin, is a wonderful illustration of the malign consequences of the frustration of possibility, both for the artist and the community. Set in a public school, the film is a diatribe against the injustice of the class system and its corrosive impact on the moral life of the community. Widely seen as prefiguring the events of 1968, its purpose was more concerned with British society and class, which Anderson viewed as despicable and tenacious. The film's dream-like finale was the realisation of the profoundly romantic hope of many who perceived themselves as subject to cruel authority. In retrospect the film's sense of anger and its indignation is run through with the absolute certainty of its continuation, a recognition that only heightens its rage. In Britain, the film changed nothing; the embarrassment and cynicism with which it was mildly lauded left Anderson bloodied and bowed. He retreated into the theatre, a medium more used to the embattled polemic but just as deeply incapable of effective action.

The negotiation of the public and private space of British art is one of constant modification. The hope of effecting change in the complex web of containment and permission is small. It may only exist in the possibility of transformation akin to Anderson's leap of faith or it may take the contingency of history in which all are taken up. We live in a time when the peculiarities of British class and culture are not isolated from the great events of the world, if they ever were. Class will remain but it is not the only determinant of the human condition. History has thrown us into a changing world.

The background is one of extraordinary changes of ideology and politics throughout Europe. For many people, the generation of British artists to which Pippin belongs seems not to be shackled to the paraphernalia of a traditional faith in the value of art and culture that remains throughout most of Europe. Nor is it tied to the obsessive culture of self and identity that wraps so much American art in a straitjacket of shrill accusation and frustrated demand for restitution. The sense of a crisis of identities and a general millennial malaise appears (but only appears) to be the currency of arts exchange. This British art looks political but actually only reflects a general feeling of traumatised liberal goodwill: the art practice has not undergone the rupture claimed for it anymore than has the society as a whole. Outside Britain, such an art comfortingly corresponds to the image of Britain as a nation in decline, in which artists are given to non-conformity however easily assimilable. To the unsympathetic, it is uncomfortably like the return of British Pop Art and the strategies of Surrealism.

Of course it may turn out to be the same old same old. But it is no longer simply a matter of one set of differences replacing another or of eclectic strategies. It is an extraordinary moment. Whether artists acknowledge it or not, all are taken up in a vast transformation. This is serious and its moment only comes once. Whatever happens nothing will remain the same. Steven Pippin speaks in his work of the confusions and dilemmas of the age. The strategies and provocations are finally unimportant. Intimate and sometimes touching, his is an art of stubborn possibility: the possibility of imaginative transformation within history.