joanne lee


curio island

An essay was commissioned to accompany Ayling and Conroy’s exhibition (in Double Acts curated by Sally Lai) Curio Island at Phoenix Gallery, Brighton May - June 2007. It now appears on the artists’ website and was quoted as part of Ayling and Conroy’s nomination for Axis’ Open Frequency Programme.

The work is sited in an entrance foyer, with steps descending to the street outside, but the doors are locked, and the main entrance to the building is now elsewhere. The installation feels a little stranded here (by the artists’ choice, I’m sure – they have spoken of it as being truly an island away from the other exhibited works in the Double Acts show.) Phoenix Gallery used to be a commercial premises and this space retains something of its former atmosphere: it’s the sort of place one might wait for job interviews or meetings, lulled by the traffic outside or wondering where the lavatories are to be found. The work echoes (crazily) the big displays of fake plants so beloved of corporate entrances.

The title strikes me first: Curio Island. I imagine an island made up entirely of curios, a place perhaps resembling some vast and permanent car boot fair. The contemporary retail universe is full of Babylands, Kingdoms of Leather, Sofa and PC Worlds. Once, rather memorably, I encountered a Kebab World. I can’t help but conjure a land populated solely by babies, a world made entirely from sofas and a place where kebabs are the only foodstuff, and supplicants pay homage to the great sculptural idols of the Doner Kebabs that turn slowly, knowingly, ineffably… (My imaginings owe a lot to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with its tales of fantastical places such as Armilla, a city entirely constructed from plumbing.) It amuses me that, not five minutes walk away from the current Brighton location of Curio Island one can find Buffet Island, lapped maybe by a tide of hoisin sauce…

‘Curio’ suggests we will encounter knick-knacks, bric-a-brac and gee-gaws: things that have no function other than decoration. I like these odd words variously used to describe ornamental bits and pieces. It’s as if we have struggled to name those thingamajigs that are altogether useless except for the gathering of dust and memories. A curio suggests something that grandparents might display on shelves or inside china cabinets: we appear to have little love of curios these days. Today’s fashionably minimal homes do not wish to clutter their sleek surfaces.

In fact the items presented in Curio Island are rather too big to be your average bric-a-brac. The constituent parts of the installation certainly have something of the jumble sale or car boot fair about them but more particularly, they evoke for me one of those back rooms in garden centres where you find a peculiar juxtaposition of old stock that failed to sell and is now marked down in the hope of attracting a buyer. I think it’s the combination of ornamental sculptures with a rustic barrel, fake pink flowers and green-brown rushes; it’s the white fountain and the coir hanging basket liners and their improbable conjunction with an inflatable parrot and multicoloured plastic balls. There’s a terrible melancholy in such places, where dusty items languish unloved and unwanted, a melancholy echoed for me in ‘curio’ itself, a word redolent of Victorian houses, and of the past itself. This melancholy oozes through the installation too, as it sits at a distance from the other works in the exhibition. The afternoon sun struggles through grimy windows and there is silence but for the muted growl of traffic outside.

As I wander around, the work slides in and out of focus. What at a distance I took to be a rather lumpy wall painting resolves itself as a plastic inflatable parrot, which has been carefully filleted in half and stuck to the wall to form a ready-made painting. Upon closer inspection, the small elegant nude to the side of the installation has had tattoos adhered to her alabaster body. It’s rather playful – it recalls the naughty urge to draw moustaches on posters of pretty girls - however there’s something quite obscene, not to say violent about the thick chrome pole onto which she’s jammed: it makes me squirm uncomfortably. On top of the assemblage there’s a bucolic sculpture of a couple, surmounted by the fronds of plastic rushes all out of scale with them (the rushes, relatively speaking, are as big as trees!) The lovers are perched on top of a bit of wall, but the romantic scene appears to have been painted magnolia, that dullest of domestic colours. Curio Island oscillates and echoes, provoking competing, contrasting images... And I can’t help but feel that the collaborative double act has a lot to do with the complexity of my response.

Etymologically speaking ‘curio’ is a shortened form of ‘curiosity’. Items were once described as curious, or curiosities if they were ingeniously or elaborately worked (or if, as natural objects, they appeared to have been fashioned in this way.) Natural and artificial curiosities were displayed side by side in Renaissance Kunst and Wunderkammern (the so-called ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that have been proposed as the forerunners of museums and galleries.) Curiosities were something considered novel, rare or bizarre, and curiosity came to name any excess or superfluity in an artefact beyond its proper function. Theologians of the time warned against the power of the curious artefact with its power to distract, and of the desire of the ‘curiosus’ to make his/her own interpretations, without recourse to the proper guidance of the priesthood. In our own times it would be the priestly caste of art professionals who might seek to steer a reading, but I’m pleased to report that the curious objects of Curio Island elude their knowing grasp. The work, rightly, cannot easily be defined and it continues to distract me.