‘BILL MURRAY: a story of distance, size, and sincerity’, Brian Griffiths’ current exhibition at BALTIC, has its origins in a photograph stuck on the wall of the artist’s studio. A snapshot of the eponymous actor on the red carpet at Cannes, the image now greets viewers to the exhibition itself, emblazoned on a banner hung on the riverside wall of the former mill. The image is a strange one. A ‘personality’ in a brightly coloured suit stands out against a wall of anonymous paparazzi. The dominant impression is of distance. One version of the power relations of twenty-first century celebrity is summed up in the interaction of figure and ground – the famous on one side, everyone else on the other, an insurmountable gulf of fantasy and aspiration between. Murray, however, has performed a sly reversal of position in which he has turned around to look in the same direction as the photographers, picked up a tiny vintage camera and raised it to his eyes.
For Griffiths, this characteristically deadpan gesture creates “a really interesting dynamic, he seems to dutifully flatten into them like a digital Mad Hatter.” In this sense, the celebrity becomes, for the artist, “one of them” – figure blends into ground, distance is dissolved. A slightly less generous reading might see Murray’s gesture as parodic, flirting with switching sides while ultimately maintaining difference. That a single image of Murray can simultaneously be both, speaks to his joyously ambivalent position within the constellation of popular culture. This ambivalence is largely what has made the actor an unlikely patron saint of the internet, allowing him as it does to embody so many of the contradictory facets of online culture – sincerity and irony, camaraderie and loneliness, kitsch nostalgia and cool detachment. Griffiths refers to this quality as ‘Murrayness’: a singularity that “quickly breaks into these ambiguities and nuanced ways of thinking about Bill. Bill the philosopher, Bill the lost man, Bill the old curmudgeon, Bill the superstar, Bill the anti-brand brand, Bill the guy next door.” In Gateshead, he has attempted to utilise this protean quality to create a “fancy landscape, and also a metaphysical adventure story using Bill as a prism or filter.” Dotted around one of BALTIC’s galleries are a series of lovingly crafted, if slightly shoddy, doll’s houses or models, each conveying some element of Murray’s allure. A modernist LA villa with a tiny Eames lounge chair. A mansion containing a warmly lit collection of whiskeys. A house from which wafts the scents of coffee and cigarettes.
Like most of Griffiths’ work this installation has fantasy at its heart. The ability to “freewheel” through Murray’s qualities, personae and associations has obvious appeal - “The idea of moving through an image or an object or a set of ideas is something I’m interested in. I use objects as props, objects as fictional cues, objects as souvenirs.” The use of distance and scale in the new work is typical of Griffiths’ sensitive grasp of the way objects can induce states of fantasy. Consider the way the doll’s house or architectural model operates. The reduced scale and miniaturised detail implies distance while prompting the viewer to project herself into the object’s space. (“Something happens which make people want to inhabit it.”) Fantasies thrive on a combination of familiarity and strangeness, closeness and difference. This, too, speaks to a sense of ‘Murrayness’. A large part of the actor’s recent appeal comes from his habit of popping up ‘randomly’ at parties thrown by people who he doesn’t know. He has become something of a trickster figure, able to traverse (temporarily) the barriers that separate celebrity from non-celebrity. He seems like he could, in some realm of possibility, become your best friend, although you understand that he won’t. His relatability is predicated on his mystique.
This playful exploration of celebrity through the lens of distance and scale is a good example of Griffiths’ way with sculptural metaphor. He is an artist who, in his own words “thinks with things.” “I am an object among objects,” he declares, “like Bill.” Bill Murray is a subject most at home in the realm of the spectacle. In recent years he has begun to play the role of a kind of free-floating internet ghost, more meme than man. But Griffiths’ installation is resolutely analogue. Murray himself is not so much the subject of the new work as its material – “Bill is an object that is used in this assemblage, as much as the architecture. It is cobbled together.” It’s interesting that the artist describes even the Internet in terms of its material qualities, as consisting of “surfaces – it doesn’t really have edges or ways of breaking it open.” The objects on display in Gateshead, by contrast, can be broken in countless ways. At every point they bear signs of their own made-ness. The joints are visible. Digital images of Murray are used throughout, but they have been printed, torn and glued rather sloppily onto the structures. Griffiths suggests the work is related to the Pop tradition (“a very gloomy British Pop”), but the literal, phenomenological concerns of Minimalism also seem central. “This whole thing is really the idea of how you feel as you move around the space and things seem to shift. There’s an instability to the size of things, the material of things, or even just the lights – different colours of lights, or different types of lights, or different sizes of lights.” Light, here, is a physical thing, perceived in a bodily way. Griffiths embraces sculpture for its awkward and literal thingness. “The art that I like,” he says, “is the art that you actually hit against.”
Griffiths is explicit that his objects differ from commodities – “I don’t make things which are shiny, and box fresh, and they don’t look produced” – and the difference is more than superficial. The glossy commodity masks the various material conditions and social relations that produce it, and presents itself as an immaculate thing. It is a deception fuelled by fantasy and desire. Unlike commodities, however, Griffiths’ constructions show their strings. In his career-long exploration of sci-fi, historical fantasy, cartoons and now celebrity, he has acknowledged the need for reverie in everyday life. What is striking about his work is that this escapist impulse depends on material factuality. The absorptive detail of the doll’s houses draws the mind to other places, while at the same time certain elements (the coffee machine, cigarettes, working radio) “are trying to insist on the now.” There is tension, but one doesn’t necessarily contradict the other. There is an attempt to reach fantasy through materiality. To create objects which allow for escapism while revealing, and revelling in, their own means of production.
In the figure of Bill Murray, this dynamic comes to life. For Griffiths he seems to embody precisely this double quality. The idea of Murray acts as a cipher for thinking about the place of our internal fantasy landscapes within the globally networked spaces of a commodity-driven, celebrity-focused society: “I think there’s something about Bill’s wry detachment and pleasure in the moment, which he can do simultaneously. Which is a description of the human condition. He seems to get the joke, Bill. He seems to get this absurd, eccentric position of being inside and outside your head simultaneously.”