Consumerism, spatial confusions and dislocated images; volume, solidity and lobsters
Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ – first published in 1871 in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There – tells the tale of two unlikely friends who gently goad eager young oysters into joining them for a walk along the beach, only to devour them (albeit while crying):
‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
‘I deeply sympathize.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
The conflicting sentiments aroused by the cycle of consuming and being consumed – in which we all to a greater or lesser extent helplessly participate – percolated through Jess Flood-Paddock’s exhibition ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ at London’s Hayward Gallery Project Space last summer. The centrepiece, Big Lobster Supper (2010), was a giant lobster crudely constructed out of fibreboard, positioned against a backdrop of blue sky (titled Truman, 2010) that was taken from the 1998 film The Truman Show. Its bound claws pierced the wall in a simulation of the moment Jim Carrey’s boat hits the edge of the set and reality comes crashing in. Painted DayGlo orange and stretching floor to ceiling, Big Lobster Supper was inspired by ‘Consider the Lobster’, David Foster Wallace’s 2004 essay on the emotional and ethical contradictions of consuming lobsters for ‘gustatory pleasure’. Physically, it recalls both the anthropomorphic architecture of some American food venues (a fish-shaped fish restaurant, say) and Ghanaian coffins in which the dead are transported to the afterlife in vessels shaped according to their fantasy profession. Large enough to enter – to swallow us up – Big Lobster Supper inverts the Darwinian chain of being, inviting fantasies of being devoured or ingested by the very things we consume.
Installed in the back room of the gallery was Michael Johnson’s Self Help (2010), a two-metre-high replica of the dust jacket for the Olympic sprinter’s 1996 autobiography, Slaying the Dragon. Johnson’s sweat-beaded body, photographed in all its bare-chested, finely-honed glory, is itself armour-like. Inside, we are reminded, lurks the beast: the libidinal and undirected part of oneself that must be harnessed and transformed. On the one hand, the inflated scale of Michael Johnson’s Self Help simply enhances the unflinching confidence and victorious certitude of its author. On the other, its room-sized proportions and paper-thin walls invite thoughts of the interior, of something mutable, ungraspable – and perhaps a little unseemly – lurking within.
Flood-Paddock’s Alice in Wonderland strategy of scaling up images into 3D giants creates a sort of physical vertigo. This unresolved ‘state of matter’ – the dynamic between inside and out, volume and solidity – creates a not un-enjoyable sense of discomfort for the viewer. In Flood-Paddock’s world, the touchstones that anchor us have been displaced and physical and mental limits between things brought into question. This state of disorientation has been likened by Flood-Paddock to the first canto of Dante’s Inferno (1321), in which the narrator is lost in the forest – the artist interprets this as a metaphor for mental confusion.
A similar destabilizing effect was achieved by Flood-Paddock in her 2009 two-person show with her friend and former tutor Phyllida Barlow at The Russian Club Gallery in London. Responding to Barlow’s installation of giant cement-clad industrial cylinders (a forest of sorts, perhaps), she painted huge cartoon images of a cat onto the walls – in a chair, its back turned, in different colours and at varying heights – throughout the space. Appearing to extend beyond the limits of floor and ceiling the images not only confused the scale of the objects in the space but also the space itself. The fragments of disappearing cartoon suggesting an elevator-like vertical movement and, like the lobster’s claw, seemed to penetrate the defining boundary of the gallery walls.
Even what appears to be Flood-Paddock’s most materially substantial sculpture, Sacrifice (shown last year in two pieces at Swallow Street and, later, whole at The Art House Foundation in London) is, on closer inspection, merely an assemblage of pictures given three-dimensional form. Onto a four-metre-high wooden approximation of a stone Aztec statue she had seen in an issue of National Geographic, Flood-Paddock applied low-res, black and white images of the original sculpture gleaned from the internet and enlarged to actual size. Areas of grey paint were also applied, emphasizing the disparity between the solid structure of the object and the seemingly gravity-less picture plane. This shift between states is echoed in the numinous associations of the original idol – a manmade object housing a spirit – as well as its changing status over the centuries as it has been variously buried and rediscovered according to the fashion of the day.
Beginning their lives as dislocated images, Flood-Paddock’s sculptures seem to remain in a state of vibration and movement. Given an extra dimension and actualized in the physical world, they nevertheless retain a sense of impermanence. These transformations bridge the material and immaterial realm, confusing the interface between them; sculpture is extended into the soft geometries of the Internet, taking your body where your mind usually travels alone.
First published in Issue 137