Steven Claydon, Culpable Earth, review by Henry Little
Museum display has long been analysed and critiqued, with theorists exposing its cultural coding, unspoken assumptions and modes of address. But Steven Claydon is more interested in the object-hood of artefacts: the processes by which an inanimate object comes to signify a culture, period or narrative over time. It is this potential for object-based narrative, and its role within archaeology and history, that Claydon exploits.
The largest work in the exhibition apes a museological reconstruction of a chariot. On a low level platform wheels made of ceramic, steel and wicker, are arranged to give an intimation of a four wheeled vehicle. In the centre a large funerary earthenware vessel stands. On the front, a profile of Alfred Russel Wallace (one of the main proponents of evolutionary theory, concurrent with Darwin) is rendered like a Bellarmine jug. This nod to evolutionary theory and Wallace’s inclusion establish an understanding of history in which endless forms are possible.
Like evolution, Claydon loves hybrids. Objects which look like classical busts are presented on Modernist mono-chrome plinths; a wheel is crafted in wicker; a video work shows pot-making; emoticons are cast in metal. Cultural debris from all corners of life are thrown together and shown as mixed fragments and formed of materials at odds with their original function. These displays present a culture which is unfamiliar but in a familiar mode of address.
Wallace’s profile is an important cipher. History here is understood to be comprised of myriad changes, developments, mutations, possibilities and outcomes, cocking a snook at the idea of Hegelian, teleological and linear history. Where outdated museum displays sought to concisely and adroitly present archetypal objects and key exemplar artefacts neatly summarising our current understanding of a time or place, Claydon presents a no-place: a culture conjured out of odd bits and bobs in an intentionally confusing, alogical arrangement.
Claydon’s display engages other senses too. A large wall-based work, made out of honey comb sheets in a rising stack, exudes a strong smell of honey. Next door, Carrier (2012) is a microphone in a ceramic bell, with an amplifier below. Movements and sounds within the vicinity alter the low drone which comes from the arrangement. We are given tantalising sensory traces of the world Claydon sketches with his display.
Who conjured you out of clay’ (2012) is a sculpture in three parts. At floor-level a stylised Mannerist monster mouth (normally seen in gardens) supports a red Formica cube, which in turn holds a portrait bust that looks a lot like Leonardo da Vinci. A recent Frieze article (September 2010) by Jorg Heiser was titled ‘Super-hybridity’ and looked at the tendencies of current artistic practice (as well as music) to sample, mix together and splice incongruous styles and objects at an ever increasing, dizzying pace. Although clearly not artefacts from a culture we’re aware of, these objects are inexorably defined by our own, rapidly changing, cultural conditions.