by David Brett
This is not a photographic dossier, though all the objects include photographic images in some form, as well as being photographs. It is not an exhibition of photographs of sculpture, though these objects all demonstrate a sculptural approach to space and materials. Nor is it an exhibition of craft, though it craftily displays a keen interest in materials and a very skilful lack of skill in their handling. What the collection most looks like is a group of sketches made by a set designer for theatre or film.
However, the objects are not models. They are neither models of – nor models for – anything. Nor do they have a determined scale. We can think of scale in two main ways: mathematical scale, as in an architectural blueprint; and intuitional scale, as when we say that a very small drawing (or model) ‘is on a vast scale’, when a small thing impresses as if it were a vast thing. Some of these photographs are of objects which in this sense are of large scale, though in concrete fact they are small. Photography tends to render its images ‘scaleless’ because a photographic print can be any size and still be itself.
These objects are the size they are because of the very humble, inconsequential and temporary nature of their materials; this limits the size they can be. If they were larger they would have to be ‘better made’. If they were better made they would not be what they are now.
These objects as a whole belong within a domain of ‘skilful lack of skill’, along with a good deal of contemporary art. Objects are made with as little obvious craft as possible, because the category of fine craft or skill is irrelevant. It even gets in the way of our understanding. The skill means nothing. That is an idea we can argue about (I would not like to defend the proposition that skill is meaningless). But within this particular domain, it is a priori; the presence or absence of a defined and named skill is irrelevant. We are dealing, where the objects are concerned, with what David Pye has called the "workmanship of risk" in which objects are made well enough. But only just. The presence of defined skill would endow the objects concerned with an excess of dignity. But there is no attempted dignity here. These are about as humble as objects can be; they are not even useful. It is the photographs that give them the dignity they lack as objects.
There is some sort of paradox here. The largest of the pieces has to be ‘better made’ or it would not stand up. This thing is constructed from two camera tripods standing closely together with their legs entwined; both are suporting a cardboard box of a rather complicated shape to which is pasted a fragment of a photograph. The effect is of a camera-skull construction – rather like one of the early Picasso pieces of card and tin – engaged in awkward self-copulation. But then, Vanya has had the objects photographed and what we are looking at is reproductions of these photographs. Or is it? What are we really seeing here?
I suspect that a written reply is going to be inadequate because these objects embody the question. The truth of the matter is, that a written account of anything that is not itself already a written account is always going to be inadequate, because things are ineffable. A little construction in cardboard and varnished paper, that somehow implicates a mattress into a doorway by way of the crudest kind of photograph and what may be a frame, cannot be the subject of a theoretical enquiry because it is itself already a kind of provisional question. It is an idea. Not an idea for something, but that rarest of things, a thought caught on the wing. This, it seems to say to me, is how the mind works. We are at the limits of language (always a good place to be).
The notion that ‘theory’ is somehow intrinsically verbal is a disastrous nonsense when works of art, or anything physical of any kind, are involved, because the whole point of an art object is that the ‘theory’ (whatever that is) is embodied. Or incarnate in the object. It can’t be taken out and studied as something of a different category. It can’t be said. And as the philosopher remarked ‘Of what we cannot speak we should remain silent’.
The skill or craft involved in making these objects is closer to that of the short poem – the limerick or the haiku. Even perhaps, the really good joke. Like the one about the man who... They require the midwife’s criteria – swift conception and easy delivery, according to Swift. In which the words exemplify or connote their function and arrive at their destination before they have set out.
Perhaps these objects exemplify Russell’s paradox; they belong in the class of objects that belong in no class; ergo, they cannot be described. I cannot say they are like anything else at all. Thus, to photograph them is to add a layer of paradox, because the photographs are ‘like’ the objects photographed, caught in an infinite recession, a hall of mirrors.
In effect I am disposed to take these photographed objects seriously because they at once, and without any fanfare, throw down a challenge which I cannot fail to fail. I feel that the task I have undertaken – that of giving a useful critical account of this artist’s work, involves me in a sort of necessary absurdity, like a man giving an analysis of a good punch-line. It’s a dumb thing to do in the first place. Like describing the sound of one hand clapping!