I recently encountered two very different installation works that made me think about the power of artificiality. Both Matthew Crawley’s Life Cycle of a Mould Mite (2015) and Thomas Hirschhorn’s In-Between (2015) are recreations of real or imagined spaces: the former a 1:1 facsimile of the artist’s daughter’s bedroom, the latter a low-grade material rendering of a bombed out interior, based on media images. While they differ significantly in materials, content and process, both works spoke to me through a language of elaborate, methodical copyism. Whether reproducing a teenager’s bedroom with exactitude or hand-constructing the detritus of a fictional explosion, both artists engage in a symbolic process of destruction and re-creation.
Crawley’s Life Cycle involved the meticulous reconstruction of Brady’s bedroom as it appeared in 2012, complete with furnishings, books, cds, clothing, smartphone, posters, magnets, hair pins, etc. etc., into a replica of the bedroom built by the artist in his shared studio at Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun (former home to artist collective Leeds Weirdo Club). Inspired by the evacuation of Brady’s room in 2014 due to an infestation of mould mites, Crawley set out to reproduce an earlier incarnation of Brady’s room, building the replica to fit the original carpet and arranging the contents according to memory and photographs. Like Crawley’s other works, the build is impeccable, the walls, light switches, electrical sockets, baseboards, window and door frames are reproduced with skilled precision. Entering the room is akin to passing through a portal. The austere, white door of the studio reveals a second replica door – complete with hand-drawn paper nameplate and doorknob hanger – leading into the highly personalised, pink-toned world of Brady Crawley, then aged 13.
So convincing is this facsimile, with every object in its right place, collected and arranged according to the desires and logic of a teenage girl, that for a moment it ceases to feel like art. There is an inexplicable awkwardness – this is a private world that ought not to be gawped at – and yet the urge to explore the details, to hover over the pinups and open the dresser drawers, soon takes over. It feels lived in, and at the same time eerily staged. Evidence of its falsity is well concealed: the radiator is made of wood, its magnetic alphabet stuck on with blue tack. When the curtains of the single window are drawn, a view of the studio shatters the illusion. For the duration of the show, the only way into the studio was by crawling over the bed and through the window, returning the viewer to the ‘real’ world and exposing the backstage of Crawley’s installation.
Life Cycle is about identity and familial bonds, and how the spaces we grow up in reflect and embody our changing personalities. A phase of Brady’s development is memorialised, freezing the traffic of mementos, magazines and colour schemes at a particular point in time. While some of these objects continue to reside in Brady’s room (which, incidentally, she lived without for the duration of the exhibition), many of them had to be reintroduced or reconstructed. Now 16, the artist’s daughter collaborated on these aspects, colouring some Moshi Monsters to replace those that had previously populated her wall. In this way the work is both a memorial, a kind of time capsule, and a reimagining of a lost moment – a fake. Its poignance lies in the fact that Brady and her parents cannot return to this moment. Life Cycle succeeds at the point of failure, in the very effort and exertion of trying to capture experiences and things that have passed.
Months later, visiting the South London Gallery to see Hirschhorn’s In-Between in its final week, I was again struck by the sheer ambition and level of detail of the installation, which towered, spilled over and filled every corner of the main gallery. Inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s words, ‘Destruction is difficult. It is as difficult as creation’, the work is one of a series in which Hirschhorn explores the aesthetics of ruin and disaster, using the media’s barrage of disaster images as a reference point. The result is an oddly beautiful space, light filtering through a perforated tarp onto heaps of debris, webs of hanging wires and projecting crossbeams. A closer look reveals that much of the rubble is sculpted from cardboard, painted black, some with faux-brick patterns. Toilets, still attached to their plumbing, dangle from exposed upper floors. As I was leaving the gallery a piece of styrofoam fell from the ceiling, prompting an invigilator to gasp, horrified. It was comical. This art-ruin must not be allowed to fall further into ruin!
Hirschhorn continues a legacy of artificial ruins that can be traced back to the nineteenth century – they epitomise a fascination with the ruin as a symbol of fallen civilizations, of human achievement and hubris toppled and reclaimed by nature, of apocalypse. All these associations are of interest to Hirschhorn, but more centrally he is concerned with what it means to be ‘in between’ creation and destruction, a state of uncertainty and precarity that is exemplified by the ruin, and that we all occupy in our present world. In this sense, Ruins with a capital R stands for ‘a structural, an economical, a cultural, a political or a human failure’, yet to cause destruction is a creative act in itself, and a challenging one at that. In the words of Hirschhorn:
My love of precarity comes from the strength and courage which is necessary to create something, despite its precarity, despite the precarity of all things and despite the precarity of life. The logic of the precarious is an absolute necessity and complete emergency – the contrary of an ephemeral – logic which is nothing else than the logic of death.
For me, it is their ability to ‘give form’ to precarity that makes both Crawley and Hirschhorn’s installations so affective. They draw the visitor in with their architectures, their surfaces, their carefully considered details. They imbue objects and their arrangement with a certain resonance – one that speaks of the unrelenting, destructive pressure of time. They both try in vain to recuperate this loss, thereby asking us to acknowledge and confront it. For this reason Life Cycle and In-Between present rich material worlds that seem palpable, trapped energy in a dead-end loop. To try to recreate a moment in history is ultimately to fail, but it is by way of trying that something redemptive emerges. These works – facsimiles, fakes – deliver a profound message about our need to anchor ourselves within this precarious world, if only to pause and consider the fragile beauty of an in-between space.