Alone in a small vestibule adjacent to the main gallery at Hollybush Gardens hangs a pristine blue varsity jacket emblazoned with the slogan ‘PUTTING IT ON.’ Ruth Proctor thus confronts us with a rather irreverent preface to her exhibition; the item loudly confesses its status as a costume, a prop in an illusion of coolness rather than a reflection of an inherent quality. It also summons a niggling, self-effacing suggestion that art making is yet another form of putting it on: the jacket becomes art when hung on a white wall rather than a body and Proctor assumes her role as an artist. And with this declaration she curiously vanishes – a rare thing for a performance artist – sidestepping any earnest claims about presence or authenticity.
The closest Proctor comes to a conventional form of documented live event is in ‘Public Fountain Hat Dance’, in which she attempts to balance a bowler hat, wryly ‘putting it on’ to the vertical jet of a water fountain. This action is presented in a floor-to-ceiling grid of black and white photographs, reminiscent of the work of conceptual artists such as Hannah Wilke or Suzy Lake. Yet in contrast, Proctor herself is not the focal point of the action. Even as her drenched body leaps and flails with determination, she seems to do so with the sole purpose of nudging the objects into animation. She appears only so that the hat can become the star performer.
Other such theatrically endowed objects make up ‘Smoke Signals’: obscure arrangements of stones and mismatched playing cards laid out on sheets of paper and silk scarves on the floor. These found objects are purposefully placed, as if they are part of a premonitory ritual or reading. Although their placement in the gallery is the product of Proctor’s act of collecting, the objects do not act as concrete evidence but rather delicate propositions that evoke other potential players – the mysterious fortune-teller and the illegible fate of the unknown subject.
Throughout the exhibition, Proctor takes up this fairground aesthetic of cheap thrills and shadowy illusions in a very literal way as in ‘Time Machine’, an arcade claw game salvaged from a theme park in Blackpool. However, she also applies this vague logic of play and trickery to explore other phenomena. ‘Eclipse’, for instance, presents a diptych of photos of the recent eclipse (ostensibly) visible in UK skies – one crystal clear from a news broadcast and the other taken by Proctor in London of an opaque grey sky. The cloud crosses the moon crosses the sun in a series of illusions that lead to the appearance of nothing at all.
This also demonstrates an unusual, light-hearted ambivalence in Proctor’s work as she seems equally invested in the success and failure of actions and images. Hearing the tinkling tango pouring out of the worn ‘Time Machine’, the childhood craving to hold one of the synthetic neon teddies trapped inside comes flooding back, along with the knowing dread that the claw, propelled by a clumsy agency all it’s own, would always return empty handed. Even so, Proctor wants to play again and again, face futility head on, committedly try and pleasurably fail.