Phillip Lai and Moyra Davey make a neat double act. At first glance their parallel solo shows at Camden Arts Centre seem worlds apart: Davey's practice is highly personal and heavily image-based, clinging to the walls; Lai's language is sculptural and industrial. Yet this formal disparity masks a shared thematic interest in processes of production, dispersal, displacement, interpretation, and decay.
Davey's exhibition, life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece comprises multiple attempts to inscribe identity and bridge experiential distances through mail art, photography, and video. The mail art is an ongoing ritual: Davey takes photographs during her urban wanderings and home/studio life that are then printed on thick matte paper, folded down, stamped, addressed, and posted to the gallery in which they will eventually be displayed. Since the content is also the container—the photograph serves as both letter and envelope—the exhibited pages bear the marks of their transmission, including unapologetic snatches of fluorescent tape and strong fold lines that accentuate their physicality.
Moyra Davey, Installation view of life without sheets of paper to be scribbled on is masterpiece; Photo: Marcus J Leith; Courtesy Camden Arts Centre
The photographs veer between vernacular and quaint, and often depict planes or places of display—clocks, books, papers, windowsills, tabletops, gravestones—where words, objects, or signals collect. Indeed, Davey has a fascination with surface: her works are palimpsests, imprinted with a strata of forms, information, and interpretations. The postal works layer letter over photograph, writing over image, distance over moment; her videos overlay literary and historical texts with personal analysis and experience.
Writing and the transcription of ideas are central to Davey's practice. She seeks out fellow avid chirographers in Subway Writers (2011–2014), a mail-art photo-series depicting people writing in notebooks on trains and in stations. Their air of cramped absorption attests to writing's ability to render public space private. Davey's video works also tend to develop from texts or literary figures. My Saints (2014) features a montage of expression sparked by petty criminal-turned-writer and political activist Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal (1949). Various people attempt to interpret passages from the book dealing with theft and transaction, their narratives intercut with shots depicting the concealment of cash in books and wall crevices—an embellished reenactment of one of Genet's anecdotes. The dialogue reiterates themes of self-fashioning and loss of control: “there's no reason why we lose things,” “looking for meaning in random situations.” Davey is adept at locating lyricism in the everyday.
Phillip Lai's exhibition in Gallery 3, Besides, shares Davey's fascination for passage, exchange, and the move from one hand to another. While Davey's preoccupation with writing and inscription leads to an omnipresence of paper—books, letters, photographs, money—Lai is interested in production on an industrial scale, and accordingly adopts the media of manufacturing: cement, steel, plastics, glass, wood, and rubber. Like Davey, he understands the potency of surfaces, and Besides is rich with both textural and visual material relationships.
Lai combines a Minimalist spatial consciousness and use of industrial materials with a decidedly non-Minimalist interest in narrative, labor processes, and the political and poetic dimensions of the object. Besides is an obstacle course of placed and displaced things, including piles of black-dyed hessian lumped onto a frame built from reclaimed gas pipes, tire shreds looped inside a plastic garbage bin lid, spoons nestled into a moving company blanket, and an off-white fiberglass canopy arches over a sheet of clear plastic. Wherever possible, objects aren't attached, so that they might be disassembled and reconfigured for future reiterations—Lai is a relentless recycler. Commercial cycles of production, waste, reclamation, and reuse of materials are converted into a restless rearranging of the furniture.
At the core of Lai's practice is the fault line between craft and mass production. Lai undertakes industrial processes of casting, molding, and spinning to create singular, mostly non-utilitarian objects. His objects and assemblages invoke the difficulty of a perfect curve, a straight line—things we take for granted in our daily environment but, like fire, would have difficulty producing from scratch without aid or tools. Through carefully selected groupings—opaque fiberglass and transparent plastic, metal alloys and recycled fabrics—Lai plays material qualities against each other in intriguing ways. These works speak to the fetishism of materials that led to the admixture of surfaces in Modernist domestic interiors in lieu of ornament—a sentiment that has now been reincarnated in the veneers of affordable flatpack furniture.
Phillip Lai, Installation view of Besides, 2014; Photo: Marcus J Leith; Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Arts Centre
Materials are selected for their historical and symbolic roles, as well as their physical properties. Plastic's polyvalency, concrete's aggregate composition, and the refining processes that morph the natural into the synthetic—flax to fabric, sap to rubber—summon ideas of alchemy, ritual transformation, and salvage. Lai's aesthetic experiments are matched by an enquiry into overlapping political, social, technical, and economic histories, particularly the intricate and far-reaching webs of commerce that surround everyday objects and substances. The export histories of rubber and jute cannot be extricated from the processes of empire and factory work, while Lai's reclaimed gas pipes signify the transfer of energy and labor, and the transition from the raw to the refined. Combinations of elements add up to larger narratives: a glass sheet overlaying an expanse of black rubber topped with metal-spun chrome cylinders fashioned into vases and pots, re-imagines the remnants of a car crash as a stylized industrial still life.
Both Lai and Davey understand the symbiotic connection of production and destruction. They engage with time, vernacular materials and experience, process and production methods, and the dynamics of substance and surplus. And interestingly, both artists combine rigorous attention to formal detail with a methodology based in reading as research. In the exhibition reading list, mention is made of the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic (1971), a classic of Russian science fiction—and indeed, to step inside Lai's exhibition is akin to entering the Zone, where ordinary substances have been altered and charged with an unseen power, rendering them both valuable and ruinous.
(Image on top: Phillip Lai, Installation view of Besides, 2014; Photo: Marcus J Leith; Courtesy of the Artist and Camden Arts Centre)