Work, my father once told me, is whatever you wouldn’t do for free. He makes and forgets such statements casually, but as a former trade union official, he braced for negotiation with such surety – vagueness in the workplace being the voodoo of bosses. The broader implications of the claim always paradoxically mystified me. The relationship between ‘work’ and ‘free’ so unstable, I could scarcely fix one without pulling the other out of focus. In the service of profiteers we demand our time’s worth. But what of the work whose product is subjectivity, by extension, the world? Unexchangeable things.
‘The Infinite Lawn’, a group exhibition at Tenderpixel, London, navigates this ambiguous object of labour via material margins, centralising marginality. It comprises sculptural installation, photography, printed multiples/editions, sound and text-based work all fitting surprisingly well in the gallery’s small shop-front and basement spaces.
Many of the pieces are readymades - a term preferable to the dubious ‘found object’ for acknowledging agency and fabrication even if both remain obscure, perhaps unknowable. Vanessa Billy’s uncanny sculptures include ‘In Peril’, an anxiety-inducing plastic bag of water nestled among rocks described as ‘locally sourced’, a factual description, probably, but no less wry given it’s evocation of pious consumer ethics.
Other readymades by Czech artist Petra Feriancová (from her series ‘Survivals, Relics, Souvenirs’) are largely non-human in origin – nuts, desiccated starfish, a shed snake-skin: sculptures that, conditions permitting, build themselves. If the manufactured readymade signaled a conceptual shift from artisanal to authorial gestures, the organic or otherwise naturally occurring readymade announces the custodial, image and text, the archival. All are prominent in ‘The Infinite Lawn’, inasmuch as prominence applies to installations of such willful understatement. The manufactured includes Adriano Amaral’s assemblage of threadbare handkerchiefs and Yann Sérandour’s pile of books titled according to variations on the phrase ‘a needle in a haystack.’
Sérandour’s accompanying collection of monochrome photographic prints appears to be borrowed from an archive on the golden age of the potted cactus, an era of which I confess ignorance. It clearly occurred, though, its social and political significance well documented in images of cacti being cultivated and pondered for their noble pursuit of formal perfection, for their utopian potential. Other obliquely horticultural metaphors are present but this one most clearly echoes the exhibition title.
The title originates in Italo Calvino’s novel ‘Mr. Palomar’. It’s titular protagonist, named after an observatory, is given to philosophical transports over ostensibly banal phenomena such as shopping for cheese, observing a wave in the sea and, of course, maintaining his lawn. The literary trait underpins a motif traceable from Calvino’s Palomar through the speculative paranoia of Witold Gombrowicz’s novel ‘Cosmos’ and Flaubert’s satire of bourgeois knowledge acquisition, ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’. The collision with contemporary art practice occurs in the materiality of narrative evident, for example, in the work of Katrina Palmer. One of Palmer’s stories is quoted in the press release and an affinity for her work is unsurprising. The work most evidently on the same spectrum as Palmer is Falke Pisarno’s. Her piece ‘29 Decisions for a Time Capsule Radio Piece’ (2006), a text and a recorded reading of the same, sets out largely tautological criteria for performance. Ouroboros-like, it circles a void of content and devours its own tail with the absurd humour of a literary modern.
Other text-works include Ian Whittlesea’s multiples - free for visitors to take – cards bearing the phrases ‘I only appear to be dead, I only appear to be alive’ and ‘The invisible is real’. This deals most directly with circulation and dispersal - themes latent but unrealised elsewhere.
I mentioned the economy, the marginal aesthetic - in fact, ‘The Infinite Lawn’ initially appears barely curated, played by ear in inchoate minor interventions. On inspection, quite the contrary appears true. It’s actually a fairly robust framework to apply to a group show. For contemporary work by relatively young artists to cohere as it has, one might expect pre-existing collaborations, dialogues with institutions, proposals written for tailor made themes. It all looks extremely recent and extremely synced but it actually spans about a decade with nothing newly commissioned. The schema of the exhibition is a network of invisible labour and pattern formation simultaneously binding ‘The Infinite Lawn’ and dissolving its borders.