Folly is a pertinent notion when considered in relation to art. Etymologically speaking, it is closely related to madness, while in common parlance an act of folly is more a matter of rashness, bawdiness or some other form of mild, self-delusional activity. An architectural folly is as technologically involved as any other building – it is the relationship to utility and degree of aesthetic indulgence that sets it apart. Look at it in the context of contemporary gallery-based practice, and you return to discussions of skill and technique diverted into aesthetic service, of art as self-indulgent opting out or unfettered creativity, as entertainment or educative social programme.
Curated by Dale McFarland, ‘Eccentric Spaces’, if not actually discussing these issues, glances at the prevalence of folly-like structures throughout culture and history. The most direct exploration is Volker Eichelmann’s video Follies and Grottoes (2003–5), a near-exhaustive collection of fixed-camera footage of architectural anomalies around Britain. Unlike his series of eccentricities, which investigates the boundaries of definition (with the grass wavering in the wind or a dog trotting into frame), John Riddy’s odd isolation of architecture from its immediate society gives it an other-worldly, or rather ‘other-timely’, presence. His black and white photographs of Rome – a hunkering, rough pyramid, the first-century tomb of Caius Cestius Epulone and a view across the ruins of Piazza Argentina, where a peculiarly illuminated hoarding advertising an airline looms like a window into a parallel world – seem more from the past than of the past, a visitation rather than a remnant.
A contrast in scale of ambition can be drawn between Kenneth Anger’s 16mm film Eaux d’Artifice (1953) and Thomas Schütte’s Ikea House (2003). Anger’s camera sweeps through the gardens at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, tracking the movements of a woman dressed as an 18th-century courtesan as she trots past fountains, cascades and water-spouting gargoyles. Here, giddy coquetry accords with the artifice of the landscaping and the sumptuousness of old film, creating a multi-layered lustre. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum, far from the superfluity of the Italian court, Schütte’s squat totem pole of DIY materials speaks more of vain and cursory attempts at contemporary life improvement. The bowdlerizing of folding chairs, Perspex sheeting and fibreglass moulds suggests a confusion of Modernism’s reductivism in the decorator’s impulse.
Edwina Ashton’s anthropomorphic watercolours and drawings of animals – an elephant in a boat, beaverish pigs canoodling or chattering monkeys – populate the walls, huddled against the electric sockets or filling the awkward arched wall under the stairs. They are markedly different from the rest of the work here in the immediacy of their making and the analogous nature of their folly. They are more like little ruins of life, degraded moments left unchecked. Bridget Smith, on the other hand, has thrown a cold, dark building into an irreproachable fantasy. A large glossy photograph of Ludwig II’s castle at night, lit up like a spectral palace against the deep, featureless black of its forested outcrop, describes an elevation from the everyday – an important aspect of folly, as its impracticalities must be obscured by distance or meditation on surface.
The folly and the ruin are closely aligned in our imagination; both are time-soaked and redundant, whether through neglect or inappropriateness. ‘Eccentric Spaces’ explores some avenues along which decay and allure might co-operate, but one reflexive route seems uncharted. Erasmus, in the satirical text In Praise of Folly (1511), represents folly as a woman of Dionysian lineage: ‘I was suckled by two nymphs, to wit, Drunkenness, the daughter of Bacchus, and Ignorance, of Pan. And as for such of my companions and followers as you perceive about me […] this is Philautia, Self-love; she with the smiling countenance, that is ever and anon clapping her hands, is Kolokia, Flattery; she that looks as if she were half asleep is Lethe, Oblivion; she that sits leaning on both elbows with her hands clutched together is Misoponia, Laziness; she with the garland on her head, and that smells so strong of perfumes, is Hedone, Pleasure; she with those staring eyes, moving here and there, is Anoia, Madness; she with the smooth skin and full pampered body is Tryphe, Wantonness; and, as to the two gods that you see with them, the one is Komos, Intemperance, the other Eegretos hypnos, Dead Sleep.’ The work of ‘Eccentric Spaces’, however, is sober and far-sighted. Perhaps it is no bad thing, though, that the artist has outgrown the romantic image of the philandering drunk or irrepressible oddball.