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Scenario One. After the apocalypse, those artists remaining on Earth have been forced to retreat into their studios to assemble quasi-functional structures out of the material detritus of super-modernity. Channelling a half-remembered litany of forms and contexts, they attempt to construct tool-kits for survival in a newly formed wild.
In one corner of the room, a metre-high floor lamp modelled after Kubrick’s Monolith bleakly illuminates its own context. On the wall to the right, a piece of clear Perspex decorated with a colourful, Ken Done-esque collection of painted dots and dashes partially screens a gesso-covered chunk of the artist’s studio floor: a topography of used surfaces now preserved for posterity. Just above head height, an industrial curtain of thick blue plastic strips slices through the space on a heavy diagonal, while beneath the stairs a small white architectural model of a house spins rapidly on a rotary motor, its form distorted by the flickering pulse of a strobe light. Every few minutes or so, the strobe and the motor cut out, allowing the house to coalesce briefly into a recognisable form before the cycle begins once more.
There is a distinctly Ballardian flavour to Stephen Russell’s recent works, a kind of post-functional exhaustion that calls up hazy fragments of a dilapidated modernist dream. Sol LeWitt’s cubic geometries are re-purposed as the basis for rudimentary domestic furnishings (Sol lamp, 2013), while Proust’s search for lost time is reduced to a commercial T-shirt logo, papered loosely in printed multiples over a paint-stained board (Losstime (Torpor Audit), 2013). ‘I’m interested in what happens after the end’, Russell admits. ‘There’s a speculative dimension to the works, like the projection of the near-future onto the present in some of Ballard’s sci-fi material’.1 After the end (those that stayed in the cities), (2013), is a case in point. A basic floor lamp assembled from a piece of pipe, a naked green light globe and a plastic bottle, it is easy to imagine this object as being crafted by the survivor of some unspecified future apocalypse. As art in the aftermath of design, Russell’s works actively dodge the sublime, offering instead a domesticated vision of pathos in the face of the unknown.
‘The general meaning of torpor’, Russell explains, ‘refers to laziness or Iethargy. I was thinking of lost time and of allowing that space of lost time or laziness or even hallucination to manifest. The more specific meaning refers to a metabolic state that animals go into to hibernate. So it’s about survival, in a way.’2 Metabolically speaking, torpor is a cyclical rather than permanent biological condition—a period of stasis that slows time during hibernation. In a state of torpor, time is effectively ‘displaced’ as temporal progression occurs outside of consciousness and is not experienced first-hand by the subject. A torpor audit then suggests both an official, bureaucratic assessment of accounts of lethargy, hibernation or non-productive time (there’s a Kafka-like absurdity to this proposition), and a process of ‘sitting in on’ or ‘observing’ torpor from the perspective of an outsider (as in, when classes are ‘audited’ by non-enrolled students). In Russell’s exhibition, this double meaning amounts to a future-proofing exercise: a means to shore up and take stock of future pathways that might be available after the period of stasis is over. ‘Work’ takes place outside of the matrix of economic or biological productivity, while torpor provides the platform for ‘work’ to continue. Perhaps this is why the exhibition leans towards the speculative or the anticipatory in its formal and aesthetic language: the ‘not-yet’ or ‘not-quite’ of Russell’s provisional, make-shift collages, paintings and sculptures emphasise their impending future evolution or, equally, devolution.
The rhythm of evolution and devolution is most explicit in the stuttering on/off of Russell’s spinning, strobe-lit house (Atelier Stephen Russell (A-SR) – Unrealised project for Rochedale, 2013). As a form that enters full visibility only when the power cuts out and the rotations slow to a stop, the kinetic sculpture draws correlations between the blurring of vision and the expenditure of energy, highlighting the hallucinatory affects of entropy in the degradation of form. The usual associations between light, clarity, and knowledge are diverted into darker, more hypnotic channels as the strobe negates illumination in favour of camouflage. It is also of some significance that the model featured in this work is based on Russell’s childhood home. Russell’s somewhat audacious original plan was to produce a scale replica of the original dwelling—mounted on a large spinning platform and illuminated by a massive strobe—as a public artwork in the suburb of Rochedale, where he previously lived. The proposal remains ‘in hibernation’, the model acting as a signpost toward a potential future incarnation.
Torpor Audit comes to a bluntly dry climax with the presentation of Affected Lamp (after Lynda Benglis). Strategically mounted at head height from the wall, the lamp snakes outwards as a tentacular, roughly rendered red phallus topped with a bulbous tungsten globe. As a kind of reflexively pathetic ‘money shot’ for the exhibition as a whole, the piece harks back to Lynda Benglis’s infamous self portrait (featuring the artist naked in sunglasses sporting an enormous latex double dildo), first published in Artforum in 1974. The vertiginous interfacing between over-exposure, light, blindness, minimalism and power evident in Russell’s other speculative objects is given a final twist, as the ‘power play’ of Benglis’s original posturing is reduced to nothing more than a question of voltage. The same kind of reverse reverence is evident in Standard Monolith (reversible lamp), (2013). Here, the transformative, transcendental connotations of Kubrick’s ‘progress sentinel’ are radically undermined by the explicit ‘thingness’—the in-your-face-wood-and-paint-ness—of Russell’s blatantly un-monolithic construction. It is in this way the Monolith becomes, like Benglis’s dildo, the domesticated materialisation of a once utopian Idea.
Stephen Russell, 'Torpor Audit', installation view. Photograph Carl Warner.
Stephen Russell, 'Torpor Audit', installation view. Foreground LossTime (Torpor Audit), 2013. Ink, magazine page, reversed custom box frame. Photograph Carl Warner.
Stephen Russell, 'Torpor Audit', installation view. Foreground Affected Lamp (after Lynda Benglis), 2013. Photograph Carl Warner.
1. Stephen Russell, conversation with the author, November 2013.