A couple of gallons of cola usually works, sprayed onto the gymnasium floor to stop the wheels from slipping, and sending rider and BMX groundward. After a flatland meet, in which the bikes have been dragged, thrown and spun, the reluctant partner to a dancer, the surface is scuffed – as with the smudges of a worn eraser.
Though lines have been painted across Hannah Barry Gallery – markings for korfball, tennis and hockey courts interrupted by the walls of the exhibition space – my shoes don’t stick, so I assume that Oliver Griffin, photographer and flatland apostle, has been discouraged from anointing the room with caffeine and corn syrup.
On the wall, hung off-centre in a 3 x 3 grid that recalls the conventional arrangement of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s water towers and grain elevators, are nine risograph prints. They belong to a series of photographs taken by Griffin at a flatland BMX competition in 2015, not of the riders or their performances, but of the streaks whorled by skidding tyres.
The photographs are all taken from above, close-up (from handlebar height perhaps), so as to abstract the intersecting grids of basketball court and hockey pitch into a De Stijl exercise of primary colours and clean geometry, albeit one defaced with the smears of a doodling vandal. Griffin has long cited the Düsseldorf School as an influence, yet this perspective – far from the Becher’s aspiration for clarity and taxonomic order – suggests he is less interested in typologies as a method for accumulating knowledge than to serve some other purpose.
This purpose may in part be explained by Griffin’s long-term pursuit of the boring image, his effort to resist photography’s power to render every subject ‘interesting’. The series could then be interpreted in terms of the arbitrariness, the drabness, the inconsequence of its images. But the book published on the occasion of the exhibition supports a different reading, by accompanying the photographs with what is described as Griffin’s ‘love letter’ to flatlanding: ‘a philosophy of Bicycle MotoCross (BMX) and everything’.
These patterns – ‘anarchic marks on a dogmatic floor’ – are not made by chance, he insists. They record a compromise between imagination and reality, between the hundreds of hours practising and the split seconds in which a trick is executed. For Griffin, flatlanding is a means to transcendence, ‘a heaven on earth’. The painted lines outline escape routes, towards a state of ‘thoughtless control’ and unimpeded motion. The tyre prints trace those gone before.
While at the gallery I was lucky enough to witness Griffin and flatland pro Jason Forde take turns to wheel in tight circles around the centre of the room, threatening the clean surfaces of Hannah Barry’s white cuboid. Their movements assumed a rhythm and regularity, each run re-articulating and extending the last. Scrap the notion of a ‘decisive moment’; for Griffin, photography and flatland are disciplines, through which we learn to live between ugliness and beauty, the revelatory and the dull.