BY Michelle Cotton in Reviews | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

Peter Coffin

The Curve, Barbican Centre, London, UK

BY Michelle Cotton in Reviews | 05 MAY 09

Peter Coffin, 2009, installation view

There is a concept in Japanese garden design that is referred to as ‘hide or reveal’. Stone paths guide the way for contemplative strolling, weaving intricate routes that shake off any sense of orientation. The stones direct how the garden is viewed; uneven surfaces and irregularly spaced sections draw eyes to the ground and easier terrain prompts walkers to look up at the best vantage points.

Peter Coffin’s untitled installation for The Curve has something of this ‘hide or reveal’ principle about it. The architecture of the space is exaggerated by a 16-channel, panoramic video projection showing a 360-degree aerial view of Japanese gardens. The film occupies the 90-metre outer arc of the gallery, but the continuity of the image is disrupted by dark seams between each projection and sharp variations in colour. The view pivots, dips and rises, panning across the landscape at a changeable rate, occasionally dissolving from one scene to the next. Clumps of foliage map out a fluffy topography with winding stone paths and arched wooden bridges. Trees and shrubs become mirrored by pond water, the ground appears to rise and fall, and the horizon slips in and out of view, making it difficult to gain perspective. Directional speakers are positioned about the space so that sounds are encountered suddenly. Thirteen pairs of spot-lit plinths punctuate the darkness. Sound and image seem vaguely, atmospherically, compatible but there is nothing to tie the two together. Coffin seems intent on disorientating, distracting and diverting. The work alternates between eliciting concentration and confusion.

Coffin worked with the mathematician Philip Ording to render three-dimensional prototypes of objects that have been scanned and distorted according to geometrical or optical fancy. On the plinths there are familiar objects and their mathematically altered counterparts. A piece of driftwood is mirrored, a human skull is turned inside out, a scholar’s stone has its formal idiosyncracies averaged out and a bunch of plastic flowers is inflated by offsetting its points with a sequence of half millimetre intervals until it reaches the ‘twentieth parallel’. These dull, stone-coloured articles look like designs from a science fiction film. The mathematical law exercised on the objects, the coupling of industrial design with natural material and the aesthetic quality of the sculptures draw associations with the influence of biomechanics on modernist art and architecture.

Some of Coffin’s objects – the starfish, pine cone and conch shell, for instance – look as if they could have been chosen with images from D’arcy Wentworth Thompson’s book On Growth and Form (1917) in mind. Thompson’s analyses of organic matter, his dissection of structural and mechanical efficiency in cellular organisms or the shapes of bone or shell were invoked as universal truths of nature made manifest in modern engineering and design. Literature such as Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) and the 1937 International Constructivist publication Circle (edited by Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and the architect Leslie Martin) included imagery that resembled the diagrams in Thompson’s book.

Coffin turns scientific intelligence and technology not towards efficiency and utility but to invent a series of impressive follies. Numeric patterns that might have once been seen to contain the code for evolutionary progress are made animate by a digital process that seems hell-bent on novelty. There is a counter-enlightenment preoccupation with distorting the facts; applying reason in its purest form to indulge a winsome curiosity. He chooses objects that are vaguely symbolic of a dysfunctional slacker persuasion (a crumpled beer can), Zen identification (the scholar’s stone) or Gothic romance (the skull or a candle dripping with wax). Similarly there are objects that refer to mathematics (a compass) and optics (a Polaroid camera) in a distinctly unscientific, low-tech way. In fact, everything looks as if it could have been comfortably sourced at a suburban garage sale. It’s a fairly comprehensive array of bric-a-brac, from bookcase memento mori to the more random loot from a walk in the countryside.

At the periphery of Coffin’s work, there are abstract concepts belonging to both rational and irrational thought. They are kicked from dormancy, loosed from familiar, domestic objects and experiences to be ‘revealed’ one at a time. He is able to make the unbelievably naff appear fantastically profound. Above the ambient soundtrack, at certain dark points along The Curve, an eerie whistling can be heard, as if some strange melody is heralding an Elysian fantasy unfolding ahead. Nothing quite so baroque occurs within Coffin’s work, but the disembodied sound falls out at intervals like something exhumed from the Victorian supernatural. His work suggests an unrelenting enthusiasm for a timeworn concept of wonder and a will to pursue it in all manner of ways.