Hats Plus, a former hat shop in London’s King’s Cross, is the kind of rickety, rake-thin building on which Charles Dickens modeled Scrooge and Marley’s Counting House in A Christmas Carol (1843). So it’s perhaps appropriate that the fictional bankers’ hard-nosed attitude informed Sam Porritt’s exhibition ‘Keep Out Of The World / Keep The World Out’, which spiraled up through the venue’s four cramped, atmospheric floors. The London-based artist presented a series of felt-tip drawings on paper, in which phrases familiar to anybody who has felt the sharp end of the current recession – ‘Needs Must’; ‘Sorry, It’s Business, That’s The Bottom Line’; ‘I’m Sorry We’re Gonna Have to Let You Go’ – are transformed into round-faced emoticons via a few adroit pen strokes, their individual letters becoming alarmed eyes or disgruntled lips. These were complemented by several sculptures in which spherical glass lamps, about 20cm in diameter and with schematic faces drawn on their softly glowing surfaces, negotiated both each other and the plywood planks and boxes that formed their supports.
Given their shape and features we might read Porritt’s lamps as anthropomorphized atoms, unwilling or unable, as the title of the show advises, to ‘Keep Out Of The World’. Instead, they keep getting drawn into conflict, as in (Please) Don’t Make Me Break You (all works 2009), where a purple and an orange orb engage in a Mexican stand-off, or cosmological conundrums, as in Going, Going, Gone, where two frowning spheres stare up at a faceless third, as though the moon and the sun had seen their binary bargain dashed by the arrival of a new denizen of the sky. Spender/Saver sees one complacent, fat-featured lamp set high up on a plinth, while its brother languishes in a box scattered with shredded paper, like a hapless homeless person, or a tortoise hibernating through a cold winter spell. In this tough scheme there are winners and losers, but nothing, it seems, in the way of justice or a safety net. These orbs triumph and fail according to a logic that they neither comprehend nor confront, and while we may (given the steer provided by Porritt’s drawings) think of them as analogues of economic actors buffeted by the winds of post-Fordian capitalism, they also point to a bigger, more basic and more intractable problem: the world being composed of more than one thing.
Porritt’s response to this situation is to find in it a horrified humour. The best joke in the show is provided by the drawing If The World Were A Soup It Would Taste Horrible, in which the titular phrase is again transformed into a posse of sour-faced emoticons. We may well agree with this sentiment, but to do so is to ’fess up to the part we play in making the broth so foul. ‘Keep Out Of The World …’ was, in the end, a dark comedy of complicity, arrived at through considerable sculptural nous and a neat economy of means. There’s no Dickensian redemption on offer here, simply a seemingly hopeless appeal: ‘God help us, every one.’
First published in Issue 128