Greg Lucas: Wall Have Ears and Other Failed Ideas. Review by Dr Jane Louise Fletcher
OUTPOST: 10b Wensum Street, Tombland, Norwich, Norfolk, NR3 1HR. It’s an artist-run gallery founded in November 2004 and committed to presenting exciting and cutting-edge contemporary art - exhibitions, screenings, critical forums, artists’ talks and other - harder-to-categorize - events. If you don’t already know it, you need to check it out.
On Saturday 22 October, 2011, Greg Lucas headlined there- one of those events that evades categorization. His presentation, Walls Have Ears and Other Failed Ideas, remains difficult to summarize. He took the floor at 18.45. It was dark and cold outside but the atmosphere within the gallery was convivial and relaxed. The building has functioned previously as a skittle saloon and a bed shop. Now it is a whitewashed space, the ‘white cube’ sort of place in which one expects to view art. Art critic for the Guardian, Adrian Searle, once remarked (this is from memory, not wholly accurate necessarily) that you could tell when you were in the presence of art rather than entertainment because the seating, for the former, was inadequate and uncomfortable. That night, the selection of benches and chairs, informally arranged and procured from who knows where, proved comfortable. The audience was ready and waiting and wanting to be entertained. They were not going to be disappointed, but there’s no doubting what they were about to experience was a masterful work of art.
Lucas is well known for his ‘stand-up’ slide-show performances, performances in which - through a series of visual coincidences, tangential juxtapositions and hilarious anecdotes- he weaves his inimitable narratives while exposing the inherent ambiguity and fluidity of photographic meaning. (He has continued this idiosyncratic way of looking at and talking about photographs in his blog - http://greg-lucas.blogspot.com - begun in 2009.)
That Saturday night was no exception to his rule, to his game plan. We were exposed to pictures of nuns and shopping bags, sleeping bags and ‘flying’ sheep. The metal detritus of a near-fatal car crash. Golf courses, sweet biscuits, gaffer tape; a Bachelor Boys’ album cover compared and contrasted to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare. As for the walls and ears to which the title of Lucas’ talk refers - the sequence of images and accompanying narrative need to be seen to be believed. Bizarre, incongruous, unorthodox, ambiguous: the anecdotal threads that link Lucas’ extraordinary imagery - we’re talking pictures of the artist halfway up a rock face, a bachelor stripped bare but for his socks and boots and the women’s crotch-less, thermal tights that he sports - could only ever be ‘told’, and probably only retrospectively. Lucas is like a novelist semantically sculpting structure and sense out of the swirling whirling never-ending chaos of embodied experience. He distils his own history, comprised of selective, selected’ and to some extent - modified memories, into a coherent story, however idiosyncratic and unexpected. That this story-telling relies on photography and other forms of visual imagery -his own line-drawings and tracings should be acknowledged for their skill and dexterity, their weird beauty and complexity - is what makes his performances so mesmerizing, pertinent and unique. A lot of people talk a lot of nonsense about photography, and in doing so they miss its point. Lucas speaks profoundly of the arbitrary coincidence that seemingly dictates everyday lived experience, and photography’s part in making it visually explicit if, ultimately and always,refusing to explain it.
For a long time now Lucas has aligned himself with Pataphysics and its ‘inventor’ Alfred Jarry (1873-1907). In doing so, he rightly situates himself in a fabulous legacy of imagination, symbolism and subversion: from Surrealism to the Theatre of the Absurd, from Pop Art to Baudrillard. These artistic stances and social critiques underpin Lucas’s practice; an extremely radical practice, I would argue. For his part, Lucas seems to be driven by the realization - the understanding - that photographs generally fail to function within established codes of communication; or, rather, they are always on the brink of subverting and demolishing them. Instead of evidencing the truth - as was once hoped they would - photographs have the power - in the right hands - to dispute what we think we know and to challenge what we accept to be true.
Thus, in the tradition of Roland Barthes and his hard-to-categorize meditations on photography, Lucas reveals how the photographs that don’t end up in the coffee-table book or on the gallery wall - that aren’t containedwithin the cultural economies and social taxonomies that we carelessly allow to constrain us ‘are the ones that (perhaps unfortunately) depict and determine our destinies. Jokes apart, this is deadly serious stuff.