Public sculpture usually dominates its surrounds; they are alien objects that often attempt to improve an area by shifting our focus away from it. Conversely, Charlie Godet Thomas’ ‘Cloud Study’, commissioned by SCULPTURE AT and located in Bermondsey Square, is a different species; it blends into the language of the street and manipulates it like a virus, deforming common visual cues and the messages they usually transmit. A sign, for example, is supposed to be read easily, but Thomas’ is ambiguous, and he tells us about our environment instead of distracting from it.
Rather than take centre stage, as monuments and public sculpture often do, the work is discarded to the edge of a patch of gravel, and on first glance the industrial looking yellow base gives it the appearance of some roadside signage. At the time of writing, the council had posted a planning application notice to the sculpture, adding to its camouflage.
The sculpture is a riff on a weather vane, with north and south arrows below a yellow speech balloon made from metal which has been pierced through with ‘-YO’ IS STUCK IN THAR FO’EVER, LI’L GRAY CLOUD!!-’ The words are taken from Joe Btfsplk, a character in the satirical comic strip Li Abner by cartoonist Al Capp, who is perpetually chased by a raincloud as a sign of his bad luck. The imagery it conjures is a common motif for Thomas and he invariably uses it to stand in for struggles against either bad luck or depression. So, despite the jovial appearance of the sign drawn out in a childish script, it quickly becomes darkly comic and existential as you continue to walk around the piece. This becomes more apparent in how the language of the speech balloon is confused. It’s unclear who the words are meant to be emanating from as the sign spins in the wind, or who they are directed towards. Perhaps it’s directed at the buildings that surround the square, the developer built perennial grey clouds which follow you all over London and destroy the communities they displace – and still follow them as they get pushed further and further out of London.
The language used in comics is usually stable, direct and looks quite detached from whatever action is going on in the strip. It’s also not difficult to draw apparels between Thomas’ speech balloon and the iconography of applications such as WhatsApp that use oddly disembodied speech balloons to try and render these shallow forms of communication more lifelike. But here, Thomas has made such language devices physical in the world to reveal their synthetic nature; and by doing so he has initiated a process of change. Instead of being synthetic, you can see through the words to the sky beyond and their density and colour change as the light fluctuates throughout the day. This reingratiates the words with an aura in a time when language can be superficial and online bots can easily fake human interactions.
But just as quickly as this is perceived, there is another glitch in the sign’s message. The wind picks up and the writing on the balloon quickly flips back and forth from ‘-YO’ IS STUCK IN THAR FO’EVER, LI’L GRAY CLOUD!!-’ to ‘SI ‘OY- RAHT NI KCUTS L’IL ,REVE’OF -!! DUOLC YARG’. It is reminiscent of Bruce Nauman’s language experiments, where he would create prints and objects with reversed words to confuse the information and let us experience the meaning of those words anew. By separating meaning and appearance this deconstruction of language forces us to re-evaluate its function. You are experiencing the wind, but also the mutability of language, which is not concrete, but can change and alter our environment just like weather conditions. Language is said to mirror the world, so it’s interesting to imagine what type of world would be created if it were reconstructed from the schematic of Thomas’ language.
Considering such a breakdown in transmission, is the moving vane really communicating the direction of the wind? Or is it demarcating the confluence we now inhabit? One of the different weather systems of change which are moving over to us from the States, the Middle East, Europe or their foreign investment?