Walking on the Cracks, Kit Hammonds
A Mexican curator I consider relatively wise as well as foolishly pompous has given me two pieces of advice that have stuck with me. The first: that if I kept showing that I could do practical things I would never be a curator. The second: as a curator, one had to be putting yourself at risk of being ashamed in what you do, otherwise you were not trying hard enough. I take some pride in having proved him wrong on the first. The second is something I still aspire to.
When Andrew Lacon invited me to write about his practice, he reminded me that I once sat on an examination panel assessing his work and my anonymous mentor’s advice also came to mind as having been issued at roughly the same time. Lacon may not welcome me bringing it up, but among the works he showed at this time was a photograph of an English Midlands wasteland. A single metal stake dissected the image, apparently delineating the mundane landscape as private property, although no fence was attached to the post. The composition was somewhat wrong, even if technically polished – sharp focus, immaculately hand printed. Nevertheless the work had an air of self-disdain about it, the image itself skewered on much the same utilitarian post it depicted, echoing the image within ad infinitum.
It seemed to be both a critique of what was pictured – a divided landscape – and, metaphorically, a means of breaking through the technical aspects of the discipline of photography. Lacon admitted to me that he had grown frustrated with the making of photographs, where demonstrating skill with the camera might gloss over the ideas. He also admitted a slight sense of shame in those works, although from an outside point of view this was unfounded. Personally, I enjoyed the tension – an insistence on skills, and a refusal of them – and the risk of presenting something that the artist may not have taken pride in.
Although somewhat of a sideways approach to Lacon’s current work, there are elements of this early work that signal some particular drives that might be seen as oddly consistent despite some dramatic shifts, not only in his materials but also in concepts and world views. At a base level, the anecdote shows how Lacon has risked leaving behind certain skills he has acquired to search for something different in his practice. Photography has become less of a primary means for Lacon, yet a critique of the image remains – pushing out into objects, sculptures and installations. Something of his dissatisfaction with the banality of the image as a form of representation persists.
In this exhibition a complicated image is constructed in physical space. The floor beneath your feet is an interruption of the very fabric of DCA’s building. Its bright colours work against the white cube, whilst at the same time fitting in seamlessly with it. What appears as open space is fraught with invisible borderlines that pass through our reality.
Borderlines appear often in Lacon’s practice, even if not physically present. These are articulated as national borders at moments of crossing from one jurisdiction to another in this particular work, but, as hinted above, economic or social lines of division and demarcation are equally significant in his work. In Stack (after Mexico), a canvas bag of slabs of marble might appear as an object, but its journey is as significant as its materiality. A work made upon Lacon’s return from a residency in Mexico City, the distinctive pink stone was hand-carried through the airport, and we might speculate (correctly as he later told me), that the purpose of stone replacing clothing would be questioned by nonplussed customs officials. Our attention is turned to the movement of the stones via the closely observed limitations of the formal conventions of weight and mass that define what is permittable and what is contraband. Now arrived in a gallery space, its informality of display sitting on the floor instead of on a pedestal, the work straddles a border between aesthetics and institutional critique.
One might read this politically, but also poetically – that is as material metaphors for cultural transitions and appropriations. It articulates the fraught nature of translation that exists in any art work as part of the general state of translations that occur on micro and macro levels around us in a globalised society (at least for those of us able to participate in it). This is further emphasised by the main component of this exhibition at DCA, the floor itself. Manufactured by the artist, it includes broken down fragments of much the same marble that sits in the aforementioned bag. Likewise, the geometric terrazo is just one step in its life. Effectively made from rubble, the work is planned to be broken down again after the show into further fragments that might then be reconstituted into another form, that of crazy paving.
In this act Lacon neatly fits together rights to access and symbolic values between different cultures and times. The familiar pattern of broken up stones appears on floors such as Diego Rivera’s Anahuacalli Museum in Mexico City. Famous as a personal collection belonging to the artist, the museum is a treasure trove more than a historical enterprise. The building itself is a modern take on pre-hispanic architecture that mashes up the different styles associated with Mayan, Aztec and other more ancient cultures who constructed the pyramids of the Mexican Basin. Inside it houses an impressive collection of votive figures and artifacts. This legacy continues, increasingly prosaic and quotidian, on the facades of government buildings, and homes throughout Mexico City, using increasingly cheaper materials than the dark, robust volcanic rocks used in the original temples until, at their lowest ebb, they appear much like European crazy paving.
This style of flooring, therefore, overlays one history onto another – from palazzos and pyramids to municipal public spaces and private gardens. It’s a pragmatic style of stonework that absorbs its cultural meaning from its surroundings. Taken out of context, or rather, placed in the deliberately non-site context of a white-walled gallery (with all the cultural connotations this provokes in itself) Lacon’s installation hovers between theses significations. One might read into it – a specific 21st century take on Land Art and Post-Minimalism, as much as one might read it through a retelling of a certain baroque sensibility that learns from Las Vegas. Indeed Anahuacalli itself might even be understood on these terms. Its imposing seriousness and polemic form of architecture is not so distinct from that of Liberace’s home, borrowing from various time periods to evoke a particular mood. Lacon’s installation appears to intermediate between the two faces of mid to late modernity.
Rather than being utilitarian, these kind of spaces exhibit what Norman Klein terms ‘entertainment baroque’, or ‘special effect’ architecture, alluding to particular places while ultimately providing a dream-like threshold between times. After all, Anahaucalli only preceded the opening of Las Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace by two years. The casino’s collection of copies of Venuses by different artists from different epochs that lined its Circus Maximus showroom might also find analogy in the collection of votive sculptures that, with more gravitas, are arranged in an equally asynchronous display in Rivera’s museum . And likewise, the discontinuous flooring of laid-down stones have something of the unsettling effect that casino carpets adopt to remove the punters’ sense of time and space – albeit for different purposes. With its candy colours, Lacon’s floor certainly emulates something of a deliberate, deluxe-lite sense of grandeur.
The formalism of colour (or more often than not its lack in formalism) elicits quite a different reading when we start to map such ideas onto borders, if that is not too much of a spatial contradiction. For colours are, in fact, borderless. What we see are defined points, and subjectively defined positions on a spectrum. While not exactly arbitrary, they are equally not ‘natural’ divisions and, therefore, a matter of perspective- cultural as well as personal. And so Lacon’s interest in colour is also placed within a relativistic consideration of meaning. For what appear as pure, that is primary, colours to the European eye are often not those primarily used in other cultures. And, at some point, revisionism or ignorance perceived classical marble sculptures to be pure without colour and denied the vivid hues in which they were once painted by the ancient Greeks. From this, modern ideas of democracy as well as rational architecture sprung up, devoid of the colour field that once inflected them.
This is what I believe Lacon means when he continues to engage in the politics of the image, even when his artistic path has more directly led him into three dimensional installations and other assemblages. The gallery or museum is another framing device (a camera, is, after all a room) that represents and denies in equal measure in modern and contemporary society.
Lacon’s interest in the display of pre-Hispanic art in the museum also leads to the more functional municipal exhibition of symbols and objects in public space (a questionable term today, but for now it serves to demarcate a particular form of democratisation that supports and denies rights in particular directions depending on the political mood). Here again, marble proves a compression of material and cultural meaning. In Mexico City in particular, marble appears abundently as a utilitarian choice, used on the floors and staircases of the metro for instance, as a material that can withstand heavy usage in a city of more than 25 million people. It manages to speak to the modernity and affluence of Mexico whilst also harking back to traditional building materials – it appears democratic.
The symbolism is quite different in Europe. Marble, as a sculptural material, has also been associated with luxury in Europe for centuries, but, as Lacon has noted, in the 1950s despite cost analysis showing marble would be better suited to public space around social housing requiring less maintenance over time, grass was laid instead. The artist pointed me towards Ian McHarg who notes: ‘Grass is the cheapest ground cover measured by capital cost alone but when the cost of maintenance is added it becomes almost as expensive as marble. Indeed it is the high recurring cost of maintaining grass which accounts for the greatest proportion of maintenance costs.’ For all modernity’s supposed rationalism, social divisions remain drawn out in what lies underfoot.
Of course this might be put down to a distinctly British tradition that prioritises green space as a latent echo of our own pastoral cultura. Yet it is clear for anyone to see that the usually limited and policed green spaces of urban housing estates are a relatively low approximation of those of the noble ones to which they hark back to. In essence, the provision of grass doomed to be worn down and replenished according to council budgets acts to emphasise particular socio-economic and class divisions, rather than address them. This exhibition touches on a different symbolic value system. Marble was luxury and therefore appeared decadent when attending to the needs of the disadvantaged, despite the utilitarian advantages. Lacon’s employment of the stone marks out these tensions between real and cultural values on many sides.
This train of thought eventually led me back to finding a certain shame in Lacon’s work; this time manifesting more as a critical reflection than a personal feeling. With leanings towards postcolonial discourse, shame takes on a specific patina when approaching the intricate politics of rights to speak without speaking over. As Timothy Bewes points out, shame is a particularly thorny outcrop in the postcolonial landscape, as writing or speaking from any position of apparent privilege or guilt risks silencing the ‘subaltern’ or ‘third world’ subject. Inevitably, one reduces others to the status of objects in perpetuity. As he notes, ‘the real histories of national liberation in Third World countries disappear into an abyss of epistemological méconnaissance, while political interventions in the West on behalf of such struggles are discountable as so many attempts to ventriloquise the other.’
Bewes goes on to note that this condition risks ‘sentiments (such as shame) to take the place of more robust political understanding’.
These musings do not discount Lacon’s work as engaging with how such issues might always underpin our stance when exploring meditations on power and transgression. What his work has successfully approached is the difficulty, and fragmented nature of cultural history that finds its path from globalised landscapes shaped by colonialism. The work shown here address these lineages that span First and Third worlds, Elite and Quotidian classes, and the effaced effects of power that exist equally within more localised instances or personal experience. After all, the control systems that operate in global travel and have equally shaped the landscapes of Europe as much as Latin America, if in different directions. Those Midland and Northern British landscapes are the result of an Empire as much as those in other countries. It should not be overlooked that the overlapping legacies to which Lacon points (Anahuacalli, Ceasar’s Palace, and the urban regeneration programmes of UK housing estates, among others) are part of the same period, a period of a Cold War state of shifting recognitions of independence and dependency in the postcolonial landscape.
In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) Freud proffered that we must represent a sense of guilt as one of the most important problems in the development of civilization and show that ‘the price we pay for our advance in civilization is the loss of happiness through the heightening of a sense of guilt’5. I would argue that shame, as a product of guilt, is in fact its representation. Aquinas (after Aristotle) held shame to be the fear of a disgraceful act, or more precisely – fear of the disgrace itself or fear of being held to public contempt. Any lack of fairness should inspire some level of shame if being exploited for other purposes, and in this exhibition marble – that thing literally cut from the ground, from beneath the grass – becomes both tool and metaphor. Laid-down underfoot if you dare to step on it, test the limits of this artwork and its permissions. Are you participating in this transgression? Do you feel responsible?
 Norman Klein, From Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, New Press, 2004
 Ian C. McHarg, ‘Can we afford open space? A survey of landscaping costs’ Architect’s Journal 8/3/56 p268
 Timothy Bewes, The Event of Postcolonial Shame, Princetown University Press, 2001. p11