BY Kobena Mercer in Reviews | 10 OCT 02
Featured in
Issue 70

Hew Locke

Chisenhale Gallery, London, UK

BY Kobena Mercer in Reviews | 10 OCT 02

Swallowing up the gallery space, Hew Locke's Cardboard Palace (2002) drew on the language of pavilion architecture to create a vast maze-like installation, with exhilarating results. After entering the structure through one of its archways, you were led into a series of curved bays and alcoves enclosed in semi-darkness beneath a canopy of stars. Backlighting behind large cut-out portraits of Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II threw streaks of light and shadow on to the floor.

As you left the work through another arch which allowed you to see the exterior walls of the structure in the light coming from the rest of the gallery, there was a portrait of the Queen Mother. Like the others, the face was formed by a lattice of tiny excisions, cut into the cardboard by the contours of every crease and wrinkle. Each tiny serration was lined with a strip of white paint and black marker pen and, placed on the wall, one could plainly see that these, along with scissors and glue, were the bare materials out of which the whole structure was built. There was also something tender and poignant in the way the Queen Mum was rendered from an intricate array of holes and drips.

Locke's previous sculpture has made much out of the malleability of his primary material, seeing how far cardboard bends and buckles in the construction of the elaborate volume and mass that characterizes pieces such as Hemmed in Two (2000). In that work a giant ship bulged and slumped between two columns in the Victoria and Albert Museum as Locke explored voids and spaces. Here the waist-high cladding that encircled the various alcoves in Cardboard Palace formed a continuous bulk that was topped with an undulating plane like a shop counter and reminiscent of a stall at a fun-fair. Cone-shaped columns sprouted at various points, holding up the wafting, carousel-like ceiling, whose decorative awning carried inscriptions relating to the Dieu et Mon Droit imprimatur of the royal household and to the protective packaging of durable goods. Where the shadowy lighting played on the intrigue of partially hidden spaces, the festive feeling of being transported into a strangely tropical grotto was offset by the more contemporary association of cardboard with the survival skills of the homeless, who also make inventive use of the material's malleable qualities.

Taking popular feeling about the royal family as his subject matter, in the context of the Golden Jubilee year the mood created by Locke's grotto rested on the wobbly combination of fragile shell and sturdy skeleton that underpinned the pavilion's modular construction. A floral trellis connected the various segments built up out of wavy and spiky fishbone-shaped modules, and in the midst of this coral reef of cardboard it felt like being inside the belly of a whale. Although the wide range of cultural influences in Locke's work included Rajput architecture, Rococo embellishment and popular Victoriana, the key strand in Cardboard Palace was the Spanish Baroque style transplanted from Europe to Latin America in the 17th century. The accumulation of eye-catching surfaces encrusted with ornament was at every point pulled in another direction by the sagging weight of volume and mass. Where Baroque bodies are constantly falling away from the heavens, being pulled back down to earth by the gravity of the material world, Locke's pavilion played with this dynamic contrast between upper and lower planes. The cardboard that served as a key medium of exchange in the import and export trade connecting the various countries of the empire comes to convey the present-day entanglement of nations and identities.

If there is something a little scary in the shadows thrown by the royal portraits, there is also compassion in Locke's approach, as he has shown in a series of drawings entitled 'The House of Windsor' (2002). There is an element of surprise too, not at the fact that a contemporary black artist might choose to express himself with such warmth on the subject of the British monarchy, but at the way Locke has implicitly mined the etymology of the 'grotesque'. In the decorative drawings discovered in subterranean Roman vaults, produced long before the Enlightenment reduced it to the merely ugly, the grotesque involved an entire cosmology of life and death. Cardboard Palace touches on this by transplanting its mood of 'Diaspora Baroque' into post-imperial Britain.

Kobena Mercer is professor of history of art and African American studies at Yale University, New Haven, USA.