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A sense of danger pervades Hamad Butt's work. Incorporating its own ultraviolet illumination in the form of desklamps, his previous installation, Transmission (1990), consisted of a ring of books with glass pages, each with the same strange figure etched somewhere in it. Because the books lay open at different places, the shape seemed to rise to the surface as the viewer watched. It was the outline of a triffid from John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids and the impression was given that it had been summoned by the very creation of such a circle, made only a block away from the British Museum Reading Room. Having been broached in this piece, notions of scholarship and of summoning spirits recur in Butt's new, three-part work, Familiars, where once more potential loss of control is crucial.

'Familiars' are spirits who accompany witches. Often depicted in the form of animals, they can change physical state at any moment. As likely to be friends as foes, Butt's companions are as peculiar as his ways of presenting them. An aggressive-looking, three-pronged device containing chlorine accentuates its danger. Sulphur gas is visible inside large, glass spheres, hung in a line just touching each other: a means of display which recalls Newton's Cradle, that most famous of executive toys, and tempts us to bang them together and in destroying them do ourselves irreparable harm. Watching iodine crystals inside the rungs of a hollow glass ladder heat and turn into vapour stresses the themes of metamorphosis, disguise or sheer instability, and visitors become more and more uneasy as they sense comparisons between their own existence and that of these volatile substances. Is there an underlying suggestion that inhabiting a body is only one among a number of alternatives and that eventually physicality itself, not to mention terms like 'body' and 'soul' will have outlived their usefulness?

Butt's dangerous pets refer to classic modernism; his playful use of industrial imagery is reminiscent of Francis Picabia's or Marcel Duchamp's. He certainly shares their interest in chance. By choosing and isolating unstable elements he reminds his viewers of a difficult truth: that the universe includes necessary poisons and uncontrollable constituents. Seeing them out of context, lacking antidotes, simply creates a desire for integration. Yet, as in Duchamp, an opposite strand of imagery counters this; references to alchemy are evident on the invitation card, with its furnace and its alembics, male and female in equal amounts. (Another alchemical symbol, the ladder, is emphasised by the fact that on this occasion it cuts through two floors of the building). Alchemy became modern science, a juggernaut that is out of control, an idol we must either destroy or worship. Butt leaves viewers in no doubt that the time to decide is now. Secrecy, process and transformation, Butt suggests, will bridge the gap between a mysterious past and a future that brings out the Luddite in us all. Of these, the most important is transformation. It will be our only defence when the triffids appear.

Issue 16

First published in Issue 16

May 1994
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