January 2008, Oliver Payne and Nick Relph @ Gavin Brown's Enterprise

The Art of Eating
By Sofi Thanhauser

With that quiet hiccup of light that flashes every time an obvious point finally gets made, Oliver Payne and Nick Relph' installation at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in September thrust together two tiresome modern discussions. It seems like it wouldn't work-like putting the two boring people at a party together and hoping they'll interest one another. But fusing these two problems works because it offers breath to both, and both are problems of suffocation. Suffocation, cannibalism, incest, stagnation and ennui: all the maladies of the self-enclosed space.

Problem one, is, predictably, the problem of contemporary art itself and of its stubbornly self reflexive focus. 'What is contemporary art, really?' asks one new installation after the next; answering invariably that contemporary art is in fact a vacant area of interest for vampires to drain of it's color. Are we looking in a mirror of modish vapid disdain for modish vapid interests that become vapid...and so on forever? Why is it always about to die and why-more tedious still-is it so intent on naming its disease?

Problem two is-to use a term coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the 1940s- the problem of a totalising Culture Industry that takes any image, song, or idea, no matter how iconoclastic, swallows it up, and spits it back out as commodity. Escape, in this model, is impossible, all avenues lead the same way.

Problem one is signaled instantly as the viewer enters the installation to find not one but four variations on the theme of a bicycle wheel atop a stool. Duchamp's wheel-on-a-stool is a neat visual synecdoche for a full century of art that does little else than talk about what art is, and Payne and Relph's take on the original bends his radical statement into critique.

One of the wheels turns film that stretches between itself and a projector. The film is blank but perforated every couple of inches with double hole punches so that the resulting image is a vacillating double blob of light, projected onto a classic clear plastic design chair. It's a meaningless little picture show until you consider that the two circles of light, daughters of the ciphers in the film, are a miniature version of the bicycle wheel and projector wheel. It is a contraption that projects nothing but its own form.

In another of these sculptures the wheel spokes radiate meet at a grotesquely off-centered hub. The metal wires twist unnaturally to meet in the wrong place. To say that the sculpture attempted thus to "decenter" the discourse begun with Duchamp's wheel would probably be to peddle the tinny, ersatz sense that comes from welding visual language with art critic jargon. But it is easy to see that the bent wheel is a machine that simply does not work. The off-centered hub, like the double blob projector, seems to undermine the usefulness and validity of ceaselessly self examining art; of endless meta-ness.

Payne and Relph approach problem two obliquely. They are uninterested to say the least in playing David, and one can hardly picture them facing goliathian Capitalism or Culture Death with verve and a slingshot. After all, the whole point of the culture industry conundrum is that rage-against-the-machining doesn't work. This is the age, they seem to signal, of the guerilla combatant, of the artist who makes it impossible to tell whether he is friend or foe, of the Looney Toons motto: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

In a side room of the installation, cordoned off, appropriately, by the kind of textured Plexiglas used to divide up office cubicles, sit an office chair reupholstered in tie-dye sits and another one redone in biker studs. Like taxidermy bears frozen in ferocious poses, the fabric symbols of counter-cultural rage lay impotent, so emptied of their former message that they seem quite at home backing a corporate office chair.

Above the chairs hangs an arrangement of computer mouse pad mounted behind frosted glass. Presenting industrial design as art seems at first to suggest that the thieving can go both ways; that 'art' can just as easily eat the slick symbols of the information age as it can be digested by them. The more shocking suggestion being made here, though, is that the line between "contemporary art", design, even advertising, ought perhaps to vanish entirely. Not only is it too fraught to figure who is co-opting what, it's downright unnecessary. The Man (in the disparaging sense) and The Artist are too bound up in one another to be at war. To heck with dialectic; it isn't Marx' tangled legacy but Ruskin's simple message of the integration of work and art that is relevant here.

This disintegration of genre divides is like the idea of the double man, the twin, the casual smashing of egoic boundaries. Two full gallery walls tiled in mirror reflected in each other a tessellated, refracted Aphex Twin logo. The refraction results in the image of two men walking in different directions, and the double-men reflect each other across the gallery in endless ways. Who these two men are is an open question. They could be Payne and Relph. They could also be (fellow Kingston College drop-out) Richard David James, the man known as Aphex Twin, and Jame's stillborn elder brother of the same name. Like Payne and Relph, Aphex Twin is a figure who suggests that there are ways to hole up comfortably inside the capitalist dystopia (literally: James lives in a renovated HSBC bank). And as a single man who goes under many names as an artist, he parces his ego as easily as Payne and Relph fuse theirs.

Critics seem loathe to analyze or even comment on the fact that Payne and Relph are two men who work as one artistic entity, but it can hardly be irrelevant. The best part of the piece at Gavin Brown was its refusal to be mopey; its athleticism and joie du bataille, and these qualities probably emit, at least in part, from the very fact of partnership. When I first saw Nick and Oliver they were standing together in the gallery with a measuring tape stretched out between them. It was rattling furiously-Oliver's hands were shaking because was laughing, silently and helplessly. It was clear that the hilarity was something impossible for an outsider to understand; something conducted through a giant pool of shared psychical matter. In short, by simply understanding one another they escape the trap of becoming lonely, solipsistic, and cold. If they cannot solve the crises of modernity they can at least provide an important message-look with a gaze undistorted by rage or fear.


Sofi Thanhauser

Sofi Thanhauser is a freelance writer in New York City.

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