Installation, including Sub-base Gravel - Hill St, Household Artist in Residence, CQAF 2013
photography by Simon Mills
Structural Oblique Formations
This text was written on the occasion of Liam Crichton’s solo exhibition, ‘Vacant Echoes’, a site-specific installation in the disused offices of a former architectural firm in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. The previous usage of this location was clearly not lost upon the artist, whose response to this site was so in tune with both the building’s physical space and history, that one was left with a poignant sense of ‘redundancy’ in the context of an economic down turn.
In Gunter Grass’ novel, ‘The Tin Drum’, the protagonist Oskar has an encounter in what must be the books’ most abject of settings, the battlefields of World War II. Corporal Lankes, a young solider whom we later learn was a painter in his former life, explains in intricate detail, how he has titled the observation posts, known as pillboxes, that he was instructed to erect. So we come to realise that he has approached the construction of these military, fortified, concrete structures, not merely in a perfunctory way, but along the guidelines of the artistic principles still firmly rooted in his consciousness. The pathos, which this invokes in the reader, is acute. One is reminded of the act of self-delusion and the need in all of us to mentally escape from surroundings or circumstances we find almost too dreadful to bear. Like the little landscape pictures, which Anne Frank tore from magazines and pasted onto her bedroom wall, this soldier seeks some form of mental escape from the awfulness of the surroundings. In distracting himself with the process of construction, he holds on fast to his obsession with art in an attempt to maintain that connection with his earlier life, a life far removed from the context of war, a life of intellectual ideals and artistic aspirations. The underlying power of this passage is its ability to render the location of the battlefield an even more repellent moment in 20th Century history. Somehow by juxtapositioning the act of war-time construction on the eve on an invasion, with the principles of artistic production, Grass renders the sense of human degradation even more poignant. The abhorrent banality of war is succinctly summed up in Lankes’ choice of title for what he describes as his, ‘Concrete Structural Oblique Formations’ … “Barbaric, Mystical, Bored”.
And it is precisely this overlapping of form and function that we encounter in Crichton’s work, where the act of creating takes on the form of functionality, but in such a way as to render it redundant. In Crichton’s art a space is created where the viewer becomes inextricably lulled into a false sense of security. Its materiality and means of construction seem so familiar and yet each time one feels one is beginning to grasp hold of that sense of familiarity, we find ourselves being led into a dead end. Each time one is tempted to relax, one is simultaneously unsettled, almost as if the work is in a constant state of flux…
The overriding sensation then that this creates is one of duality, dichotomy, paradox. The elements are simultaneously austere and unsettling, whilst at the same time countered by other qualities that bring with them the warmth of familiarity. The harshness of the cool, white glow emanating from fluorescent strip lights creates an atmosphere of filmic balefulness. Yet even as one encounters these elements, one does so walking and standing upon a carpet of gunmetal grey gravel that brings with it a memory sense of the vaguely suburban, as the sound it makes underfoot lulls us back to long forgotten journeys along paths and driveways. But before we can rest, comfortable in these surroundings, the sense of the industrial within it jolts us out of our suburban reverie and we are once again unsettled. Yet the truly strange thing in the midst of all of this is that whilst these oppositional states, which constantly negate each other within the work, somehow seem capable of re-enforcing one other at the same time.
So the work does seem to be in a constant state of flux. Each element pulls you in, but once enticed, it pushes you back again. The heat, which emanates with such intensity, simultaneously attracts and then repels, a state of affairs, which seems to run throughout Crichton’s work. This contradictory state seems to be a characteristic of all of the elements in play. The large-scale, metal structures, like strange, displaced, industrial monoliths, must have some function in the world of ‘things’? They could not simply ‘be’, surely? And yet, there they stand, defiant of meaning, disconcertingly mute, offering us no clue as to their function beyond the familiarity of their material presence and the means of their construction, plain for all to see. This also is a feature of Crichton’s work. There is a directness and authenticity about its production, which makes it all the more bemusing. The method of creation is not concealed in any way. Each element and its inclusion can be plainly read. Yet conversely therein lies the subterfuge and the beginning of our journey towards that dead end... We imagine that we should ‘understand’ what these elements are ‘for’, how they fit together in the arena of Crichton’s art, and yet even in their very plainness they wrong foot us. We may be familiar with the materials and processes that have been employed in their creation, but ultimately they do not convey to us any sense of what their true function may be. Their materiality may originate from the world of ‘things’ but there the connection to everyday life seems to end. And as Magritte put it, when a mundane object so familiar to us becomes deliberately distorted and removed from its original context, its incongruity can appear almost horrifying.
Another important character of Crichton’s work, is the sense of its being deliberate. Each object is fabricated and positioned with startling precision. Nothing appears accidental. Each element seems to have been selected and created with the utmost surety. There is no sense that any of the elements should or could have been re-positioned or re-configured. And yet, as I write this, I am aware that this proposes yet another contradiction because in their essence these objects do not seem to have been fabricated at all, but to have ‘come into being’ of their own volition. Rather than the product of an artist’s studio, they appear to have come from another source altogether, like dispossessed objects that have somehow attracted one another to themselves. This gathering of elements seem somehow to constitute the creation of an 'event', and by event, I mean something performative within the work, as if all of the elements, the materials, space, sound and sensations, were activated, but more importantly, activated by each other, independent of the artist, which is a very rare quality to achieve.
Upon encountering the physical properties and figurative motifs which Crichton so skillfully employs, one could be tempted to hastily attribute this complex state of play to some sort of landscape or rural trope colliding with the urban. However, on closer examination that seems altogether too simplistic a reading. Embedded within the core of Crichton’s practice something far more subtle is at work, something almost indefinable, yet which eloquently speaks of a psychological state, the sense of a deeper interior reality battling against a surface exteriority. This then, together with the idiosyncratic elements of intense heat and a repeated coda of mesmeric music, neither of which are encountered all that often in an art work… create an atmosphere so odd, so compelling that it lingers long after one has left the building; an atmosphere, so tangible that it can be re-created in memory if one mentally retraces one’s steps backwards through the outer manifestation of Crichton’s own imagination.
Mary McIntyre, 17th June 2013.