The events that happen inside buildings often leave behind marks, like a little scar on a wall where a ribbon of paint has been displaced by accident, or a naked screw where a picture once hung. These small histories are the utilitarian signs of other enterprises, human activities, the comings and goings of art exhibitions, public gatherings, music recitals, and other events that are the life-blood of buildings. The distinction between these events and the marks they leave behind is usually indicated by the fact that the marks are later covered up or removed altogether.
Observance of such a distinction is resiliently avoided in the exhibition at Birmingham’s Icon Gallery, ‘Since I fell for you’, by Susan Collis. The utilitarian mark is the very emblem of the show. A visitor might be forgiven for imagining they had turned up too late, or too early, when first entering the gallery. The first work on display, This too shall pass, 2010, imitates a plain white wall, precisely the sort of empty, pockmarked wall one might see in a gallery between exhibitions, with various remnants of the transition in tact – holes, screws, rawplugs, scratches, staples, and so on. It is only by instruction that a visitor learns of the materials that have gone into making the piece, and an alternative reality begins to dawn: Indian and African ebony woods, platinum, diamond, sapphire, ruby, emerald, topaz, gold, quartz, and coral, amongst other precious matter. To the spectator’s surprise, the whole piece is a disguised array of valuable and exotic materials.
It probably goes without saying that a typical encounter with many of these materials is under the hot lights of a jewellery shop. This is how we expect precious materials to be offered, on a velveteen stage, hewn into glinting jewels, presented under strict security arrangements. In the format presented by Collis, where a piece of platinum is cast into a staple and a gold nugget into a screw, the items offer a perplexing meeting place of the precious and the mightily mundane.
The artist’s technique is to present a catalogue of valuable materials in configurations that are anything but glamorous. Take a piece such as Twice removed, 2009. At first appearance it is a piece of junk wood, discarded perhaps from an old doorframe or wardrobe. It is only on closer inspection that this identification must be revised. The work is actually a composite of rosewood, walnut, bronze, silver, and lapis lazuli, materials that have been carefully manipulated to give the appearance of damaged wood and disintegrating paint.
Collis’ earlier works provide an understanding of where her ideas began. Untitled, 2002, is a pair of overalls hung on the gallery wall. They might have been left there by a technician or builder. From a distance the overalls seem unremarkable, covered in paint splats and marks of wear. Once again, it is only by closer investigation that a different reality is revealed, that these random blemishes are not random at all but in fact carefully embroidered cotton sewn into the fabric in precise formations. By using embroidery to represent dirt, Collis is playing with expectations of opposing categories; industrial and domestic, randomness and precision, sudden and gradual. The use of embroidery techniques also references the feminist strategy of reclaiming traditional craft-forms and subverting them by putting them to use in overtly conceptual artworks. What underpins all of this exposition is the question of value and context.
From such earlier pieces the development of Collis’ practice can be understood as one of pushing the dual existence of opposing categories to an extreme level. This is why Collis describes her work as a search for awkwardness. But how successful is the strategy? One of the triumphs of Collis’ practice is the experience it takes the viewer on. Her method of disguising precious materials and labour-intensive techniques within forms that suggest commonplace dilapidation probes our assumptions of what is in front of us. The uncanny realisation that nothing is what it seems makes for a difficult gallery experience, since all forms of conventional beauty are absent. At heart, what we are given is a demonstration of how preciousness and worthlessness may be rendered indistinguishable. The result is an arresting enquiry into what it means to place a valuation on something.
Collis is clearly sensitive to the idea that categories are bound up with the duality of meaning, and that two opposing categories oscillate around a common core. It is this oscillation that allows the artist to adapt her materials so that one category may give way to its opposite, such as deterioration gives way to renewal. The precious materials that go into making a piece like Twice Removed renew the value and the interest of the old piece of wood. At the same time, the value of the precious materials is degraded by their unusual appropriation. This oscillation reappears again and again throughout the exhibition, and leads the visitor on a journey of repeating cycles.
The problem, however, is that the strategy of ironical positioning has the effect of destabilising every value judgement one may make of the exhibition. To posit a response is to swing between animated surprise and arid contemplation. Whilst the barren appearance of the exhibition room is wonderfully alarming, it is also hostile to any attempts at aesthetic appreciation. This may indeed by Collis’ intention, to lead us to overturn our normal assumptions of aesthetic value. My question is this: after this overturning, what next?