[Exhibition essay for Gallery TPW, 1999.]


Damien Michael Buckland Moppett


Damien Moppett's 1997 series of silver gelatin prints Untitled are images of little constructions made from the children's plastic building blocks known as Lego and rubber balloons. Both materials are the kind of creamy grey to which only non-metallic objects can aspire. The Lego are assembled into simple structures which contain the inflated balloons, determining the space into which the balloons can inflate and, consequently, their shape. It is unclear whether inflated and sealed ballons are forced into the constructions, or whether deflated balloons are inserted into the Lego and inflated in situ. I imagine, though, that it is the more organic, less violent second method that Moppett used.

The constructions are beautifully lit to accentuate their three-dimensionality, their originary status as sculpture, as objects. They are shot from above, which serves to preserve their scale: they are not models for buildings, not maquettes, but the photographic record of an activity, a construction. The simplicity of the objects and the relative transparency of the method of their fabrication gives them an originary status[1] as performance. When we look at the photographs, we imagine the artist constructing the objects depicted. Is this photographic work, then, in which the referent is unproblematically primary, or work in which the artist is investigating the complex of ideas around photography and its referent? Another way to phrase the question (or, more exactly, a somewhat similar question) is: are these photographs merely the documentation of an object which resulted from an action, or do these photographs have another, more complex, position within the discourses of photography.

We could say the photographs are elegantly seductive while the little sculptures were unpersuasivley inane and the action that made them semi-skilled child's play. [2] Some of the humour in these works comes from the juxtaposition of the slickness of the photograph — which is on some level documentation, merely documentation and the humbleness (that is, cheapness) of the sculptures themselves. Here photography exalts the mundane. [3] (In Buckland the mundane is exalted by the snapshot.)

How different these works would be if most did not feature the knot of the balloon, which serves as the belly button to an absent umbilicus. On the other hand, they dangerously move the work from the coldly analogical to the realm of the allegorical. They begin to speak of a human vulnerabilty as opposed to physical attributes of certain objects. And why turn an engineering problen into a moral (or even worse, psychological) one. The play of an architectural assemblage should not traumatize its materials.

In conclusion: dirty play [4] [arrow] silly sculpture [arrow] masterful photograph. This is the artists' alchemical formula for turning shit into art.

Michael Buckland's work reverses the trajectory: he takes art and turns it into shit. But whether through insufficient mastication or some sort of bowel malfunction, great chunks of art are still present, partially digested, cold and bright among the steaming faeces. Our job is not to attempt to separate the art from the faeces — this would be impossible anyway as they are forever united and now constitute the objects of our study and admiration. [5] Our job, our exalted agenda, is to determine the possible relationships between the shit and that shit's lumpy art derivatives, to trace back in order to more effectively look forward. [6] To imagine an original, pre-lapsarian, pre-Buckland object or action, pure and Utopian, worthy of our unconditional love and boundless admiration.

In one work he's sitting high up in a tree, sawing off the very branch that supports him. In another he has, literally, painted himself into a corner. Often, comic bits of this kind aspire to a certain state of grace. Here, they seem to aspire to the proverbial. Buckland plays the proverbial "man who painted himself into a corner," "man with egg on his face," "ostrich with his head in the sand."

Some clowns laugh on the outside and cry on the inside and some clowns cry on the outside and laugh on the inside. Buckland's no clown though; he's a buffoon. [7] The actions he undertakes and straightforwardly documents with snapshots [8] do not find their antecedents in similar schticks by, say, Buster Keaton. Buckland's primitive routines are more likely derived from the simple line-drawn antics of the likes of Nancy and Sluggo. But he mugs even less than those flat characters.

The figures Buckland plays are, in terms of the primitive narratives, not developed characters but, structurally, more like the images of children one finds on certain traffic signs at crossing areas in residential neighbourhoods. But photography rarely allows us to remain for long on formal or structural matters. It sucks us in with its convincing depictions of the visual details of whatever little world constitutes its referent and leaves us staring at the comely face and solid but squiggly body of Buckland's image. And this image is itself a conflation of a literary character; a formal, proverbial sign; and — unavoidably — a representation of the artist himself. (The artist himself stares back at us blankly, equivocal and equivocating, quantumly vibrating between mutually exclusive states, quietly verging on annihilation while still having a fairly fun time of it.)

These works' status as self-portraiture is unavoidable, despite their claim otherwise. A similar dynamic is played out in Bruce Nauman's "Self Portrait as Fountain" — certainly one of the art nuggets which constitutes Buckland's happy poo.

[1] Two "originary statuses"? How is this possible? Is it first necessary to propose some kind of multi-dimensional universe? No — I don't mean "originary" to mean the point of ultimate origin, but simply a stopping point along the way, a nodal point within a specific and uni-directional trajectory.

[2] Note the verb tense changes in that sentence, which are no accident. As a photograph, the work exists in the present tense. But as a sculpture, the work exists only in the past — and not only because ballons (as every child knows) deflate on their own, even if you don't touch them and leave them on the dresser as you sleep when you awake they will be as deflated and wrinkly as old rotted corpses. And likewise, as performance, the work exists only in the past. So once again and as usual photography triumphs not only by surviving the original referent and (in this case) the originary act which resulted in the referent's construction, but by actively killing both.

[3] Which is more fulfilled, the balloon or the Lego? Would you rather be the Lego or the balloon? What is the nature of this union? Which is having more fun and which makes the decisions? (Hint: the balloon is the girl and the Lego's a boy.)

[4] But how can work that is exceedingly clean and bright be called "dirty play." Indeed, how can it even be termed "play." Well, it can't. All play is dirty, a direct expression of the anal phase, a regression to childhood anality. Moppett's work, with its feeble attempt to push play into the realm of the genital, pointedly refers to the impossibility of true play. (True=Dirty)

[5] I am not using the word "art" to refer to the works exhibited, but to refer to the concept of art — a concept that precedes and determines our reception of individual works.

[6] Lately I've been hearing various drag queens telling a joke which I would include here if I could remember it. It ends with Oprah standing in a bathroom stall and exclaiming, "I don't remember the last time I ate corn!" Artist Buckland, one assumes, is fully aware of his corn consumption.

[7] Buffoons go through life with but one set of clothes. Clowns are clothed in a costume that comes off after the show is over. Thus buffoons are trapped in the hellish limbo of not being able to distinguish between show and non-show.

[8]These snapshots are habitually developed and printed in drug stores about to go out of business.