Michael Dean’s sculpture abounds with recurring motifs – cryptic, fragmented objects and formal gestures that seem to stake a claim to expression while failing to reveal what, exactly, they are expressing. Communication and language are at the centre of his practice. Most characteristic are the tongue-like forms in cast concrete that often populate his work. Whether affixed to other structures or lolling on the floor, these oversized, weighty and flaccid things convey the muscular effort of communication, pushing forward an idea of language as material process and bodily struggle. They return, heaped on the floor, in ‘Sic Glyphs’, an exhibition of new work by Dean currently on display in the South London Gallery, an exhibition for which the artist has been nominated for the Turner Prize.
This set of intriguing, complex sculptures revolves around the relationship between language, materiality, the body and the city. The works are assembled from a number of basic elements, including bodily objects (cast concrete fists and tongues), construction materials (corrugated sheet metal, rusted steel bars and casts of their insides) and general urban detritus (dried weeds, 1p coins, the little baggies used to carry drugs). These are configured into abstract forms with a graphic clarity and autonomy that is offset by their slightly haphazard construction – components are simply leant against one another or yoked together with plastic straps. In some cases dirt and debris litter the floor. The works simultaneously take on the character of letters, anthropomorphic figures and architectural structures. Sometimes, on the other hand, the materials do not appear to coalesce into any of these things, appearing as mere conglomerations of stuff. If language is at issue here, it is a language composed of bits and pieces – phonemes, words, loose phrases – that are constantly on the brink of dissolving into formless nonsense. As letters they might well be just mannerist gestures. As a crowd of figures they stand alone and isolated. As structures they are ramshackle and precarious.
The gallery walls and floor are adorned with stickers of the kind found on urban lampposts. Dean’s versions repeat the word ‘shore’ in different variations and sentences verging on the nonsensical. As noun or verb, ‘shore’ is a word with multiple meanings. Particularly pertinent in this context is the sense of propping or supporting something that would otherwise collapse. The repetitive use of ‘shore’ (to me, at least) resonates with that of T.S. Eliot in the apocalyptic closing stanzas of ‘The Waste Land’, which present a similar tension between the dissolution and preservation of meaning: ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’. Eliot’s apocalyptic mood pervades this exhibition – the structures appearing as hastily constructed barricades against some impending destruction, or as debris left in this destruction’s wake. They are both heroic and pathetic. From one angle a single work stands erect like a modernist totem, from another it lies dejectedly on the floor. Fragment, prop and ruin are all key to the way Dean’s sculptures are composed.
It is worth nothing that the specific context of these sculptures is an urban one. Construction materials suggest the construction of language, yes, but also evoke more literally the rampant redevelopment and homogenisation of cities like London, itself a process that evacuates the richly textured meanings of everyday life. The notes of resistance and struggle, therefore, are at least partly pitched against capitalism’s systems of abstraction and standardisation. Dean’s work suggests that to speak effectively necessitates employing the specific materials of our wasted environment, rather than any clean and abstract structure. Language is presented as a struggle in the dirt, and whether any meaning can be brought forth is not at all certain. Failure is never far away.