So as it turns out, smoking does not only lead to a slow and painful death. In the heads of gallerists of Peckham, it also prompted something more positive and life affirming: in the shape of an art exhibition. For their latest show, which closed yesterday, The Sunday Painter explored -- admittedly after a night of excessive but productive lubrication – the possibilities of creating an exhibition around a small heap of cigarette ash that had been lying in a toilet cubicle for ‘approximately’ two years.
It was a starting point for philosophical debate. The ash obviously had a rich history -- having been exposed to the most private moments of a great variety of people. And thanks to its wind-still position and the negligence of the toilet’s cleaners it had been able to observe the world without the quick death awaiting its peers anywhere else in the big smoke. The origins of its existence had to be explored. Had Harry been stressed, constipated, or merely efficient when he smoked that cigarette on the loo? Had he been sitting there, lost in contemplation, barely noticing he ashed his fag on the ledge? Or had it been his experiment from day one to see how long the ash would last?
Samara Scott, French, 2012, woven carpet, household paint, 400 x 104 cm; Courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter.
The curators went through great lengths to give the grey substance relevance within the gallery context. They had photomicrographs taken and a condition report made. But when they thought about a title for the show, their brilliance sadly got a bit lost. Instead of further exploring the artistic possibilities of the ash, they began to think about theoretical context, about ‘the response exhibition’ in general and how the show should react to similar shows previously made. Instead of taking their initial idea seriously and believing in it all the way through, they decided the show should be more of a piss-take, inevitably weakening the concept that kicked it all off. The works on show, however interesting in their own right, unfortunately convey this lack of dedication. The artists were given the brief, but were also told they should feel artistically free – they were given a framework but no boundaries. It results in an exhibition that, on the whole, has nothing to do with the initial idea. The cigarette ash could as well have been an old shoe.
Oliver Osborne, Rubber-plant 5 (Otto responds), 2012, oil and digital print on linen, 30 x 26 cm; Courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter.
How this was explained is that it doesn’t really matter. It’s more about the viewer’s association than about the artist’s response. But if that is the case, then what is the point? Why go through the trouble of developing ideas and giving them a physical shape, to then just say it doesn’t matter? Especially when, really, I think it could have been great. It’s inspired to create an exhibition about something so trivial and banal as some cigarette ash in a gallery toilet, because it can generate all sorts of interesting thoughts and revelations about the human condition and generally, about life.
A work, and actually the only work that managed to capture this, was Patrick Cole’s Ziggurat (2012). Cole’s purpose-made sculptural installation consisting of wooden ledges and ceramic gherkins, telling the story of Dirk McFlanagan, an – as I imagine him -- slightly dirty man staring at a zerton viewing monitor in search for his target, describes in little words and powerful imagery the story behind the objects on display. Suddenly the physical residue of human existence comes to life, and you understand, once again, why life is brilliant (and smoking great).
(Image on top: Graham Hudson, 200612_SE154QL, 2012 , A3 graph paper, rock, glue, wallpaper paste, 42 x 29 cm; Courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter)