BY Tom Morton in Features | 12 NOV 03
Featured in
Issue 79

Dark matter

Claire Barclay

BY Tom Morton in Features | 12 NOV 03

'The fun part about primitive crafts is that they're so easy to make while you watch TV'
Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby, 2002

In the photograph Claire Barclay sits atop a balding, sunny hillock, framed by a blue sky. Beside her stands a wolf, its flat, padding paws as white as her trainers. Long-legged, long-muzzled, it listens with ears pricked to a whisper on the breeze. The pair stare into the distance, looking alert, a little worried, as though they suspect some mistake, some terrible category error, has been made.

Featured in Barclay's installation Out of the Woods (1997), this image - like many of the artist's works - is concerned with the brambly concept of nature. At first viewing the photo is almost too multivalent. Possible interpretations circle it like a flock of lost birds, never quite coming home to roost. Barclay, with her lupine sidekick, resembles the hunter goddess Diana, but also Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, St Francis of Assisi, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves (1990), a Joseph Beuys-type shaman, a witch with her familiar and, crucially, an ordinary woman out walking her dog. Perhaps she is an amalgam of these figures, of their different takes on the non-human world. Perhaps we all are. Nature is something we simultaneously exploit, domesticate and totemize. We use it as a moral trump card. We use it to sell shampoo. Nature is our own creation - it is something we make.

Making and what making means are at the slightly uncanny core of Barclay's art. Compile a list of the materials she uses in a typical installation and it reads like the contents of a craft kit sold in a heritage or head shop - a create-your-own tapestry, divining rod or Tibetan prayer wheel. Take Some Reddish Work Done at Night (2002), a hybrid sculptural terrain fabricated from wood, fur, leather, crystals, ceramics, anodized steel and rope. The title of the piece indicates a primeval, ritual-heavy hunt, the meeting of culture and nature at the point of a sharp blade. Despite this promise, its constituent parts feel oddly undetermined - a collection of clean, clearly newly made objects (patina, here, is conspicuous by its absence) that hover halfway between hunting paraphernalia and chi-chi home furnishings. The fused cluster of steel spikes, for example, looks like both an underfoot trap and a Philippe Starck-like lemon juicer, while the bulb-ended length of pine could be either a cudgel or a curtain rail. It's as though Barclay has set out to recreate primitive crafts from a pattern book, has confused the instructions with a copy of Elle Decoration, has slotted tab 'A' not into hole 'B' but into hole 'C' or even 'Z' and ended up with a collection of objects that, while not orthodox reproductions, have their own biting poetry. Sexy, fetishistic and wonderfully 'off', the sculptural forms in Some Reddish Work Done at Night seem to delight in their own (political) contrariness. They invoke the visual culture both of hunter-gatherers and of high capitalism, of the eco-friendly subsistence economies of the past and our own fatted, over-consuming present. Style, here, is a suspicious thing. It seduces. It speaks, like the snake, with a long, forked tongue.

There's a passage in William Morris' The Decorative Arts: Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress (1877) that reads like a prayer, or perhaps an incantation: 'Let the arts which we are talking of beautify our labour, and be widely spread, intelligent, well understood by both maker and user [...] there is nothing that will aid the world's progress so much as this.' Craft today is no longer a byword for labour, but it is still a powerful idea - a form of sympathetic magic practised by nostalgics, New-Agers and self-improving hobbyists.

Such sorcery threads through Barclay's Homemaking (2000), an installation first made for the project space of Stockholm's Moderna Museet. A pinewood structure stands on the gallery floor, resembling an early-period Anthony Caro sculpture fabricated from an IKEA flat-pack. Hundreds of lengths of brown and yellow yarn connect two of its vertical beams, creating a loom that seems to await a weaver of flying carpets or generic 'ethnic' rugs. On the floor a pristine MDF board is befouled by smears of raw clay - thick, earthy matter that bears the impress of a pair of mad hands. This organic messiness is relieved by the clear plastic sheeting tacked across the structure's far end, a note of material transparency that's answered by the hippy-ish crystals, steeped in thick white emulsion, that occupy a nearby horizontal beam. By painting these gemstones Barclay seems to ask whether their vaunted power can survive aesthetic corruption. Her answer comes in the form of an aluminium dream-catcher, hung from the structure's top-most strut. Devoid of the usual beads and feathers, its Modernist simplicity feels ill fitted to its purpose - the only dreams it might catch, I suspect, are the tense nightmares of slumbering machines. Bolted to the pinewood like newspapers in a reading-room, several copies of Playboy also provide a site for the transformation of meaning and form. Barclay has gone to work on their pages with a hole-punch, turning them into wispy cobwebs composed of half-glimpsed nipples and pubic hair. She has said that these swatches of dysfunctional soft-core refer to ergot, a hallucinogenic rye fungus now thought to be the root cause of episodes of 'witchcraft' throughout history. Slightly apart from the pine structure, a piece of black leather lies on the floor, its centre slit into tendrils, then arranged into an ever decreasing whorl, like long hair disappearing into a dark ducking pool. One of its corners is pierced by a tapering metal spike, recalling a line from The Crucible (1955), Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials: 'I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.' These words provide a neat coda to Homemaking, an installation that turns on the unexpected, the identification of women with (witch)craft, and the fatal consequences of confusing what something appears to be with what it really is.

Thinking about Barclay's installations means muddling through why you feel the way you do about a particular material or shape. In her recent gallery-spanning installation Ideal Pursuits (2003) at Dundee Contemporary Arts she hung a stretch of green spinnaker material across the entrance of a small, cramped room. Sagging on its ceiling supports, the crunchy fabric formed a range of tiny mountains, their peaks at a 90-degree angle to the floor, each one topped by a drooping, snowy white thread. Looking at the piece, I got to thinking about spray-wet sails and feeling the coolness of damp earth through the ground sheet of a tent, about the faulty prophylactic qualities of shelter. In the main exhibition space Barclay garlanded a geometric pine frame with ceramics, slabs of unfired clay and delicately knotted hawsers. A length of fabric was doubled over its highest beam, one side marked with Daniel Buren-style stripes, the other with blacked-out images of dead fowl - an all too literal murder of crows. It's a witty, utterly unexpected juxtaposition, hinting at deckchairs, beach screens and birds crashing into closed windows, at the ways we articulate or impact on our environment. At the show's entrance stood a number of spindly steel tripods, their pointed extremities pricking the floor and walls, their limbs sheathed in leather armbands or else bizarrely enhanced by pieces of antler, seemingly ripped from the handle of a walking-stick. They resembled odd, cyborg ramblers, perfectly evolved to practise their favourite hobby. This evolution - the dehumanizing collapse of nature into culture - is at the heart of Barclay's installation. It is its tongue-in-cheek 'Ideal Pursuit'.

Playful, often improvised, and possessed of a deep-tissue visual allure, Barclay's art tests the ties that bind craft, commodity fetishism, culture, nature and belief. At its base is the realization that what objects mean is shifting, a little untrustworthy and liable to mutate. For all that it is confusing, this mutation has a hopeful aspect. As Barclay's work demonstrates, the most important thing about meaning is that it is something we make ourselves.

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