Sharing Roots: Plumb Poltergeist by Aaron Angell and Ian Law
Written on the occasion of the exhibition at Art Exchange, University of Essex, March 2018
by Matthew Bowman
Some exhibitions can feel perfectly spaced and capable of conjoining sparseness with plenitude. In entering Art Exchange to see Plumb Poltergeist, the viewer observes a number of works belonging to discrete groups. On the low rectangular plinth close to the door, are three inflatable stools dating from the 1950s with artificial flowers placed in them. When the eye moves to the left it spots a single sheet of painted glass. After that—if we follow around the room—a taller rectangular plinth upon which four ceramic works have been placed. Affixed to the wall that faces the painted glass are four square-framed black-and-white photographs. We have, then, obvious groups determined by particular mediums and themes: a group of photographs; a group of ceramic work; a group of assisted readymades or found objects. While there are two paintings, by dint of curation and approach, these do not form a pair and so remain deeply singular. Once the exhibition has become a bit more familiar to us, it becomes evident that the groups function not as self-contained units, but are ultimately interwoven in a complex manner.
Some of works are clearly made by Law, and others are made by Angell, so it makes sense to claim that the works are individual but the exhibiting of those works are collaborative. However, other works are also made by the two of them working together. Perhaps one way of clarifying the issue is that collaborative quality of this exhibition partly derives from an admixture of working together and working alongside one another. It is a dialogical process in which each speaker maintains their own position but discovers a shared ground between them.
The issue of determinate negation manifests itself in Angell’s engagement with ceramics. In interviews, a certain degree of ambivalence becomes apparent when discussing the ceramic basis of his works and the Troy Town Pottery. For instance, whilst conversing with Sam Thorne, Angell makes the remark that he is trying “to look at ceramics as almost not ceramics” and that he wishes those seeing the work in a gallery do not immediately exclaim “Oh, it’s ceramics” but rather “it’s sculpture.” How might one explain this ambivalence and evaluate its significance? To ask such a question should not be a preliminary to locating a point at which contradictions are resolved; on the contrary, there is arguably something productive about allowing the terms to remain in a state of disjunction. But how can we make sense of this state of disjunction and justify its presence?
One way into this question would be through something that could be named “anti-ceramics”—or, at least, that is the name I would like to propose here. I borrow the idea in significant part from an interesting essay by Nancy Foote titled “The Anti-Photographers” that was published in Artforum in 1976. Discussing the photographic work of artists such as Ed Ruscha, Eleanor Antin, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jan Dibbets amongst others, she coined the term “anti-photography” in order to capture their staunch resistance against standard conventions of rightness in photography (for example, correct depth of field, sharp focus, composition, proper relation to subject, etc.) rather than any hatred for the medium as such. As she writes: “Despite its dependence on photography, conceptual art exhibits little photographic self-consciousness, setting itself apart from so-called serious photography by a snapshot-like amateurism and nonchalance that would raise the hackles of any earnest professional.”
Law’s practice evinces a similar respect for and dependency upon interrelationality, though the logic of determinate negation is less overt or even important here. Put differently, it is less a case of “not this, but that” than of “that and that and that.” We could apprehend this veritable spider’s web of connections by taking Law’s On Simone Weil Avenue as an example. The work consists of a series of photographs mounted onto a replica of a Barbie Dream House floor that has been shifted from a horizontal to vertical orientation. Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher and theological thinker who, uprooted by the invasion of France by Nazi forces, worked for the Free French resistance movement in London until she fell ill, and was moved to a sanatorium in Ashford, Kent where she died soon after. In the months leading to her death, Weil worked on a report examining how a post-war French society could renew itself both politically and spiritually through rediscovery and reassertion of its “roots”. This report was published posthumously in 1949 as the book The Need for Roots. Subsequently, a non-residential road called Simone Weil Avenue was made in her honour and is the home for a retail park and hotel. Initially, Law was intrigued by the potential disjunction between Weil’s social philosophy and the consumerist hive that has appeared under her name.
Using the hotel as his base, Law worked with a local actor and photographer to produce the photographs for On Simone Weil Avenue. We see the actor working or perhaps playing with items—a cereal box, candles, netting, eggs—bought from the retail park. Whether this is a form of work or play, there appears to be an overcoming of the alienation between worker and commodity fostered by capitalism. The resultant photographs are affixed upon industrially reproduced copies of Barbie Dream House bases and displayed on the wall. Another set of oppositions therefore come to the fore: what one might assume is the ultimate antithesis of Barbie and Weil (though one might comment that Weil and Barbie share the same dream in some odd sense) as well as the classical horizontal/vertical binary. Once again, these oppositional terms function as a means for thinking interrelation, for thinking the determinate connections between apparently discrete categories.
These connections are essentially contingent, which further testifies to the equivocation that underwrites the exhibition’s status as collaborative, or joint, or parallel. Law’s On Simone Weil Avenue photographs were recently shown at Rodeo and acted in dialogue with the overlooked American artist Robert Overby. It is easy, and natural, to imagine those photographs being presented by themselves, say, within their own exhibition, having no more linkages than those already existent between each other as a series, or to Weil’s life, or just simply to Law’s practice as a whole. By the same token, the three stools shown by Angell can be exhibited in an entirely different context or just returned to being domestic items once again. There is a certain constitutive instability to the relationships between the works combined with the possibility of those relationships being sundered as soon as Plumb Poltergeist closes. Nonetheless, if they are nullified by subsequent circumstances, it is conceivable they remain knowable afterwards, lingering as traces of displaced, semi-forgotten and therefore semi-recalled meanings.