BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 05 MAY 08
Featured in
Issue 115

Second Life

Brian Griffiths’ installations and sculptures drag their historical baggage towards an imaginary future

BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 05 MAY 08

Life is a Laugh, 2007, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy: Vilma Gold, London

A carriage, a boat, a rider astride a leaping horse: the sculptures and installations of Brian Griffiths frequently appear to be on the move or, if not already in motion, ready to go. Even an improvised obstacle course stretching the length of a train platform seems ready to be packed up and moved on as quickly as it was pitched. This particular work, Life is a Laugh (2007) – a 70-metre sculptural installation that includes a giant panda’s head, a caravan, a lamppost rescued from a motorway, corrugated iron and a pile of mattresses – currently occupies a disused platform at London’s Gloucester Road underground station and is itself a rumination on travel. While passengers wait for the next train, they can observe the route that a mysterious daredevil seems to have taken up a ramp, through a ring, down a pile of sand, across ladders and over oil drums. At its conclusion they find only another ramp facing the opposite direction. Perhaps the course should be tackled from the other end? Back we go again, perhaps pausing this time to wonder who might be living in the caravan parked beneath one ramp, or whether the flimsy racing bike propped nearby is really the most suitable vehicle for the ride.

The fact is that all Griffiths’ sculptures are on a journey. They have been shepherded together by the artist, who has led them to exhibitions from auctions, car boot sales and junkyards and, occasionally, from the fabricator’s workshop or his own studio. Sometimes, as with the giant plaster face of a panda bear in Life is a Laugh, copied from a biscuit jar, the object has shifted from an imagined image to a mass-produced product to a version made by the artist in different materials or to a wildly different scale. Quite often, as with the banks of spaceship computers in Osaka (2004), for instance, or the airborne horseman in The Earnest Harbinger (2001), they don’t even try to disguise their cardboard and household-plastic components. Now they exist as art, coerced into new allegiances and new purposes, and dragging their historical baggage towards an imaginary future.

Despite their eclecticism, all these objects exist in quite a specific cultural realm, if not one particular era. They are somehow antiquated but not quite antique; they belong in a curiosity shop, a place that does not fuss over historical provenance or authenticity, but whose stock is selected by the magpie enthusiasms of its proprietors. To the Wonder and Satisfaction of All People (2005) is a motley arrangement of objects, including a painted figurine of a pirate placed on top of a biscuit tin, which in turn sits on a wooden stool. The pirate is missing one hand and one leg, the biscuit tin is painted to resemble a marching drum and the stool lists to one side. Close by hangs a vacated parrot’s perch, with only the carved wooden feet of its former occupant gripping the bar. Beneath it, a prosthetic leg is gaffer-taped to the floor. On the wall a rectangular oak panel bears two metal drawer-pulls, which, with the addition of red-painted circles, acquire the uncanny and hilarious air of a burlesque dancer’s tasselled nipples.

While seeming desperate to entertain their audience, these objects are all hopelessly unable to disguise their respective shortcomings. That they have missing pieces, or are themselves missing pieces of larger wholes, is both what holds Griffiths’ installation together and what threatens to send it spinning off in countless different directions. What the constituent elements of the work also have in common is a weakness for the allure of the exotic and, in particular, the tropical. The world of pirates, parrots and go-go dancers is, on the face of it, a long way from the British domestic settings that they were probably made for. However, the paradise that they aspire to is almost an entirely fictional construction, rooted in a particularly British, morose but half-baked desire for escape: Treasure Island (1883), for instance, was written by Robert Louis Stevenson to entertain his family while on a rainy Scottish holiday.

To the Wonder and Satisfaction of All People is a phrase taken from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), describing the giant inhabitants of Brobdingnag’s fascination with the (comparatively) pint-sized Gulliver. Questions of display, of what we choose to look at and what we might hope to garner from such an experience, are central to Griffiths’ work. He tugs at the thread of curiosity, wonder and imaginative projection that weaves through 18th- and 19th-century adventure novels, 17th-century curiosity cabinets, circuses, science fiction and television detective dramas. He exploits our inability to resist peering around a corner or into a cupboard, the eye’s natural propensity to follow a line and the mind’s inclination to find a way into an object that appears to be hollow. Having taken his bait, however, we are usually presented with a brick wall or an empty cavity, or just returned to the spot we started from.

Griffiths exploits the eye's natural propensity to follow a line, and the mind's inclination to find a way into an apparently hollow object.

This puckish strategy was described in almost diagrammatic form in Griffiths’ recent large-scale installation The Only Living (Or Your Lonely Saucer Eyes) (2007), in the huge Furnace space on Greenland Street, Liverpool. A room-sized box, whose skin consisted of a patchwork of broken-down wooden furniture, was lifted very slightly off the ground on wooden blocks. Kingdom of the Cursed and Broken (2007) forced the viewer to circle around it, implying (in its proportions, and the space it occupied) that it would somewhere offer a door. No such entrance was forthcoming: in places alcoves were formed from intact sections of cupboards but were blocked off as quickly as they were opened.

The structure became a gently didactic lesson in looking: the destination was the journey, and it was the work’s surface, the jabbering conversation of wood grains, patinas, decoration and suggested former functions that we should have been paying attention to. It brought to mind a bric-a-brac remake of Bruce Nauman’s Going Around the Corner Piece (1970), in which the viewer is shown closed-circuit footage of the following side of a large white box, while realizing that they too are being captured by a camera behind them and displayed on the monitor around the preceding corner. Like Nauman’s installation, Griffiths’ work is about awareness, the growing self-consciousness of the viewer around an object that they had initially intended to wrestle into submission with their gaze but which is now beginning to bully them back.

Kingdom of the Cursed and Broken was a grander manifestation of the works that Griffiths has been making for a number of years from cupboards, cabinets, tallboys, tables and other second-hand furniture. In his exhibition ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’ (2007), at the Arnolfini in Bristol, wooden panels and doors were grafted together to become upright ‘chests’, not just in the domestic or even piratical senses (for the castaway fantasy was once again conjured by the work’s title) but also in its anatomical meaning. The addition of a carved wooden head to the top of one cupboard made this explicitly clear; others supported ornate wooden organs or pianos – wry stand-ins for chattering faces. Whether sealed up or partly exposed, the implication was that these silent boxes were the containers of something profound and precious: hearts, breath, souls or all three.

Containers crop up a lot in Griffiths’ work. Beneath the Stride of Giants (2005) is a wooden bricolaged representation of a 12-metre-long galleon, complete with mast and oars. We can only guess at the cargo it is carrying, for as with Boneshaker (2003), a mighty wooden carriage (minus its horse), it is impossible to see inside. The two vehicles embody the same paradox: while they are clearly made for moving, it is a mystery as to how they arrived in the gallery space, or how they could possibly leave, without collapsing back into the domestic and pragmatic incarnations of their former selves.

Other pieces are more easily portable. In the series of works titled ‘The Clown Situation’ (2005–ongoing) colourful vases are filled with sand, out of which forlornly poke the heads of small clown figurines. One such work demonstrated its melancholy potency in The Only Living (Or Your Lonely Saucer Eyes), placed at the foot of a huge canvas painted to resemble a brick wall. If the installation can be read as a side-show framing competing registers of noise (a sculpture called Deballa Boon, from 2007, took its name from the word that ‘hullabaloo’ is supposedly derived from, meaning noise intended to attract attention), then The Clown Situation (2007) was the quietest object in the space. It provided an unlikely balance to the two other ‘characters’ in the installation: a hybrid wooden cabinet, whose doors were cut away at the base to reveal the feet of a child-sized mannequin, and the vast spherical concrete head of an owl, based on a found knick-knack that Griffiths had used in an earlier work.

These objects (it would miss the point to call them figures, despite their anthropomorphism) provided a bizarre holy trinity: the owl (Stone Face, 2007) as the Father, the persecuted clown as Jesus, and the disembodied boy in the cupboard (Daylight Ned, 2007) as the Holy Ghost. Without wishing to force a theological subtext onto the installation, the allusion is fitting for work that deals with the quotidian manifestations of wonder and mystery, and the possibility of material transcendence – life after death for objects. The tragedy is that, while Griffiths may have given all these objects the chance of a second life, where they end up is a purgatory of tarnishes, stains and half-remembered, half-imagined histories from which they will never leave.

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.