My interview with artist Nicholas Pankhurst for T-R-E-M-O-R-S, No. 3: SPACE.
A fantastic space-age structure of shining, geometric segments takes centre stage among the plethora of a working space. Blanched by the white-hot sun of a naked bulb, the upper portions appear to float, hovering on the surface of the photograph. The brightness of the cold, flat light captures and stills, crisping the edges of the foil shapes and flattening the dimensions of the structure in space. But, away from the blinding central orb, it begins to unfold in three dimensions: the segments become precarious, balanced upon a foundation of Toblerone pyramids. Luminous, reflective surfaces are tauntingly counterbalanced with the suggested complexity and inexplicably of depth. Still, frozen in the stasis of the photograph, the mode of both the silver construction and the image’s integrity remain mysterious.
As an inscrutable object, the central sculpture resembles its literary namesake – the science fiction novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem – in which scientists ineffectually probe the shining skin of a living oceanic organism covering the surface of a planet, consistently failing to understand its evolution, nature, reasoning or purpose. Instead, mirroring the edifying tradition of literary utopias and dystopias, this slippery intelligence projects back to the scientists their own human flaws and weaknesses as illustrated by their complex and sullied pasts: elements that cannot be escaped even in the clean, blank infinity of outer space. Absolute otherness remains out of reach.
Pankhurst’s shining model city belongs to just such a 20th Century space-age utopia, echoing their televised aesthetic of utilitarian glitz, but placed in an incongruous relationship to the cultural clutter that surrounds it. Its six base pyramids sit upon a hybrid desk littered with objects and tools. Three of the pyramids on one side are supported by a combination of books, papers and CDs. It is only here that an element of the working space becomes an integral part of the structure. Despite this foothold, the material links between the construction and its environment are mostly a mystery, as is the extent to which the objects included in the image have been curated for this specific moment of display or are simply accidental. Have the pure white clouds of cotton wool been artistically scattered in the underpasses of the metallic city, their white, matt softness contrasting with and refracted in the crackling crystalline prisms? Or have they simply lingered here, migrating around the studio space, becoming entangled with paintbrushes or coming to rest in the crook of a book pile and between the shoulder blades of lever-arch files; merely nonchalant observers of the rise of this urban space station.
In his equally littered studio, the set for many of his works, Pankhurst described his fascination with the inherent trickery of art as a material illusion, making his work a balance between the practical and the fantastical. This is mirrored by a predilection for classic escapist fictions in which great ideals are envisioned as domestic dreams: suburban middle-class homes in space, greenhouses on Mars and biodomes in orbit. Stanislaw #1 is a stage set for that nostalgic fantasy with its low-tech space adventure aesthetic, reminiscent of the original Star Trek or the BBC’s 1970s Doctor Who television props. Tin foil is a necessity. Tin foil means space. It simply says ‘The future!’
We accept the visible suggestion of construction as part of the fantasy rather than belying it – as Pankhurst calls it, “ a magician in his underpants”- bending our already steeped imaginations into old-new worlds. The strange cross-hatching of metallic sticks are a mad forest of miraculously hovering pylons, pulled in by the gravitational force of the sun-star lightbulb while also being clearly and crudely attached to the ceiling by a mixture of wire and tape. Their twiggy, poking shadows bend off the ceiling and begin to rummage through the disparate items of the shelves – knick-knacks, stacked tape rolls, gnomes, a stapler, darts, bottles of pop, a tin, nested mugs, Donald Duck- touching the pictures that peel off the walls or hang clasped by bulldog clips. What new futures will we make out of today’s rubbish from yesteryear?
Another appropriated element featured in this utopian assemblage is the 1976 American science fiction film Logan’s Run, in which a controlled population live inside a sealed urban bubble, subdued by hedonism. Time is contained, uncomplicated by history and seemingly simplified in the extreme. Even the duration of life and the exact time of death at 30 years old is completely ordered. Existence is systematic. Nothing unfolds, is added or lost. However, Stanislaw #1 and Logan’s Run repeat the filmic trope in which memory and history lost to an alien future is partly recovered as littered material fragments. This material remains as mysterious ruins; unrecognisable stuff fettering the landscape. Logan cannot recognise the vine-wreathed and impossibly elderly face of Lincoln’s Memorial, but its significance is analogous to the shipwrecked and fragmented Statue of Liberty in the closing scene of Planet of the Apes. If the inhabitants of Pankhurst’s model city were to explore its exterior, they too might look with similar confusion between the shining geometric forms and the stuff littered about it, finding resonance in one object and complete discordance in another.
Just as the fragments of material have an unclarified relationship to the central construction, the image is in and of itself a fragment of time during that construction. What moment in the structure’s history does this image represent? Was it taken on the point of completion, just before destruction or is it unfinished? What other images might exist? One small, squat pyramid has been left atop a pile of boxes on the right and just beneath it a slim isosceles is no longer, or not yet, or never would be, part of the central whole. A forgotten boxy shape is balanced in the crooked arm of a folding desk lamp, discarded amongst the books, photographs, pots, spools, pens and paintbrushes. Plaster, or perhaps ceramic spheres lay discarded as if leftovers of an abandoned concept or previous activity, yet find material echoes in the impossibly clean cotton wool or the metallic matt white of a rear desk lamp. Relations to the modular city can be seen in the forms, materials and concepts scattered elsewhere: the silvery relief of a carefully placed spanner, which hangs amongst a collage of magazine cut-outs and reproductions of paintings. The disused, reused, overlapping dream and design-like architecture of the space reminds me of the building in which Pankhurst studio resides. Underneath a modern block – a modular relief of pipes, window boxes, door frames and balconies, reminiscent of a JG Ballard tale where urban jungle vines are creeping up the flaking pastel paint of modernity and ferns and wild grasses are blossoming in its cavernous concrete foundations – a failed car park has become a warren of studios. The idea reworked, continues to work.
Taking photographs of his work is Pankhurst’s way of foiling his own resistance to halt a continuous working process. Initially dissatisfied with his cluttered paintings, he began to take photographs to work on top of: frozen stages of a progressing idea that could be captured. Pankhurst’s new works in resin are also moments trapped in amber; moments made up of paint, stickers, bits of paper: “here is a dog, a building, the corner of something I don’t remember”. An experimental book-like work; pages of paintings all pressed densely together in dark resin. Pankhurst’s father, whom he describes as a very practical man, also paints, but having no tract with ‘useless objects’ he simply repaints his few canvases over and over. Conversely, this reminds me of the totally impractical, celebratory monstrosity that was Jay Defoe’s The Rose. Started in 1958 and not exhibited until 1969, The Rose grew to eleven feet tall, eight feet wide and eleven inches deep at its thickest and worked through many painting lives in one -geometric, organic, baroque even – becoming a sculptural monolith of painted surface.
Like this impossible painting, Pankhurst’s work resists the idea of an absolute finishing point as much as it negates a pure starting point. Outer space, the futuristic setting of many imagined utopias, might appear like a blank canvas for the future, but like the dark sash windows in Pankhurst’s image, that seemingly empty space is filled with reflected memories, histories, constructs and objects. It’s difficult to create a new world, a new idea, without appropriating and reformulating old ones. A capital K has been scrawled on the back of a postcard, tucked away on the right-hand side of the image, perhaps in reference to Victor Brauner’s diptych, Mr. K’s power of concentration, a combination oil painting with a collage of heterogeneous objects. Often interpreted as a visualisation of Franz Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis”, this painterly reference conjures dynamic material, conglomerating into something other in the act of painting, but also to the sense of things and stuff – the clutter of our cultural existence – attaching itself to us and becoming part of our daydreams of an abundant future.
So, space trash clutters the impossible dream of blankness, an emptiness only possible through memory loss, the fractured moment trapped in time, itself proven to be a necessarily temporary state: memories have a habit of resurfacing and are made more potent by repression. In order to discover the lost past of his city, Logan has to delve through its structural bowels, exploring, but not understanding, its functional structure. Similarly, I’ve always thought that the real dérive would occur in the service tunnels of Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon, rather than in the model city itself: an impossible, unformulated space from which there is little with which the imagination can work. As Pankhurst says, it’s hard to be convinced by originality.