The childhood nostalgia that became a popular theme in much 1990s’ art hasn’t yet disappeared – shows are still rife with winsome drawings, cuddly toys and ironic references to pop-culture detritus from the 1970s and ’80s. Consider, for example, contemporary art’s recent embracing of mainstream heavy metal; music that once alarmed parents and politicians has since become lite fare, with artists such as Steven Shearer and Jonathan Meese trotting out Iron Maiden or Judas Priest as more of a punch-line than an icon (unlike, say, the genuinely scary, church-burning metal favoured by Banks Violette). But Tim Braden pushes the nostalgia clock back even further, re-imagining a genteel 1950s’ boyhood consumed by daydreams of adventure, exploration and treasure hunting.
The show’s title – ‘I spend my evenings sitting by the fireside hunting tigers’ – is a quote from a letter by Gustave Flaubert, in which the writer describes how the mind can be transported by reading; here we can assume that this power also extends to listening to the 1950s’ radio plays that form the sonic backdrop to the installation, as well as to looking at exotic maps and photographs. Like Flaubert’s search for ‘le mot juste’, Braden looks for the signature details that will most effectively portray a given place, emotion or memory. Flaubert’s work often mixed the Romantic with the realist, and Braden’s images and sculptures likewise blend the wistful imaginary with the actually lived. This elision is presented in Braden’s latest installation in the form of a wilfully anachronistic pining for a bygone age that he never could have experienced first-hand (he was born in 1975), when Boy Scout pastimes like pinewood derby races, matinée serials and stories of propeller planes hunting for alligators were still the rage. Indiana Jones seems the most convenient role model here: a professor by day who enjoys a parallel life as an action–adventurer, evading the tedium of daily life.
The installation has been set up to resemble an old classroom, with a vintage pupil’s desk resting on exotic Eastern carpets, surrounded by a small library of adventure books and toy-like sculptures including the frame of a small boat (Wooden Boat, all works 2007) or a tennis-ball model of our solar system (Planetarium). On the walls hang visual quotes that reinforce the same atmosphere: watercolour paintings that depict the animals an adventuresome boy might come across in the woods, saturated classroom maps of the world and images of mid-century futurist icons such as Brussels’ 1958 Atomium.
Apocryphal memories merge with real ones in a soft blur of nostalgia, and the tentativeness of memory is reflected in the formal tools Braden employs; many of the two-dimensional works mix acrylic, chalk and charcoal on surfaces such as paper, posters and chalkboards, leaning heavily on muted and sun-bleached greens and browns, implying not only that they are mutable, but also that they have been exposed to extreme weather over a period of decades. Braden’s adventure world is a necessarily vicarious one, consistently mediated by books or diagrams or by his own fading memories. Layered mediation is common to almost all the works, for example Alpinist, a painting of a photograph of a film set featuring arctic hikers. The distinctions between original and retrofitted recollections blur, suggesting that perhaps the imagined adventure is just as valid as the lived one. And this oft-invoked contrast between real and fake (of which previous group shows have deigned Braden’s work a current exemplar) becomes a false dichotomy; we are constantly insinuating our present-day selves into our stored memories, a mix of real and imagined that recent scientific research has confirmed. Memory is indeed much more pliable than previously believed, and in a process called reconsolidation, the brain recreates the memory of a specific event in a new context every time that memory is recollected. And the more frequently you recall a specific memory, the more susceptible it is to being resculpted by the current stimuli surrounding your mind’s eye; as Harvard psychiatrist Roger K. Pitman has put it: ‘When you recall something, you don’t recall what originally happened; you recall what you recalled the last time you recalled it.’ Remembrances, it would seem, are as plastic as dreams, and even memories that you were born too late for can be reconstructed after the fact. This allows Braden to mine a relatively untapped well of cultural references, in welcome contrast to the necrophilic rehashing of irono-kitsch from the 1970s and ’80s that largely rules the roost today.