Visitors approaching Glasgow Sculpture Studios this autumn are likely to have come across a nearby billboard advertising Mini-Cooper’s latest hatch-back/estate model: the Clubman. Featuring an image of the new car alongside the words ‘GO WITH YOUR GUT’, the advert serves as a fitting prologue to Nicolas Deshayes’s debut solo outing in the city.
‘Darling, Gutter.’ comprises a single installation of six untitled sculptures (all 2015) – one freestanding in the centre of the room, the rest intermittently dotting the gallery’s walls in low positions. Cast in solid Jesmonite from shapes made using expanding polyurethane, the sculptures limn the shape of squiggly human intestines. In parts, they bloat outwards to form thick, chubby rings; elsewhere, their appearance is more scraggly, compressed. Throughout, the Jesmonite surface shows off a creepy silk shimmer – a smooth effect countered by the plantar-wart-like holes and blemishes caused by air escaping the material as it sets.
Evident from pipes that enter and leave each work, as well as the slightly oppressive temperature inside the gallery, the sculptures also function as radiators. A single, silver hot water pipe links the works together, at one point restricting the entrance to an empty, second gallery just off the main space. (A deliciously theatrical touch: a minimal gesture delivered to capacious effect.) We thus have a set-up rich in active symbolism: an installation that not only suggests the appearance of guts but, by circulating warm liquids, mimics their basic function too.
Surfaces and what they communicate have long been of interest to Deshayes: in past works, he has tainted the facades of precisely machined aluminium with splashy piss marks rendered in transparent vinyl (Public Work 1&2, 2009) and captured huddles of brown, turdy lumps in a thin carapace of gleaming, vacuum-formed plastic (Shimmering Horizons in Tantalizing Tans, 2013). Here, the engagement with superficiality remains, though now as part of a much more complex arrangement in which depth – that which does not appear, cannot be seen – figures, too.
So what lies beneath? It’s tempting to speak of Sigmund Freud’s early ‘hydraulic’ model of the unconscious here: a complex allegorical arrangement composed of pumps and liquid pulsations of unchecked human emotion. A better comparison, however, may come from Victor Hugo and a section of Les Misérables (1862) quoted in the exhibition’s accompanying text, in which the writer describes the city’s famous subterranean sewer network. ‘Paris has another Paris under herself,’ a place where there are ‘no more false appearances, no possible plastering, the filth takes off its shirt, absolute nakedness, rout of illusions and of mirages, nothing more but what it is’. For Hugo there is something pure about the sewers, as if what they contain is too real for surface life and its many pretensions. The fundament-al power of sewers, their earthy truthfulness, no doubt attracts Deshayes. (‘GO WITH YOUR GUT’.) As the exhibition’s love letter of a title suggests, you sense a certain intimacy – a trust and tenderness – between this work and the grot and grime that inspire it.
Deshayes’s new work also asks questions about the nature of sculpture itself. These works are barely three-dimensional. Bar the one free-standing piece (might the show have been a touch braver without it?), they cling flatly to the wall, more like gluts of pale impasto on large white canvases than sculptural tableaux. Sculpture is also not, ordinarily, a time-based medium. Yet here it is: parasitically connected to the studio’s central heating system, these ‘guts’ heat up and cool down in conjunction with the radiators in the rest of the building. In this sense there’s something anachronistically experimental, almost cybernetic, about proceedings: lines of informational ‘feedback’ connect individual objects to a broader regulatory system.
Of course, the whole conceit is also playfully self-aware. This is work pushed to undermine its own seriousness. Like Deshayes’s practice at large, ‘Darling, Gutter.’ is all smart ideas and dumb toilet jokes.
First published in Issue 176