joanne lee


time and fire destroy all things

A catalogue essay for ‘Time and Fire Destroy all Things’, Nigel Grimmer’s WHITEWALL exhibition at Milton Keynes Contemporary.

The contemporary art exhibition is often a rather temporary event, especially in the case of shows that are to some degree site-specific, when work is created or configured for a particular location. Often, the work only exists in situ for a few weeks, or for a month or two at most, before it is packed away in its bubble-wrap, crated up and returned once more to the cold storage of the artist’s studio. As an audience, we are left only with the results of our usually imperfect memory, our recollection affected by the half-remembered conversations we might have had with friends and muddied by the assertions of an exhibition catalogue with its own points to make. Given the nature of such ephemeral situations, it always seems unrealistic that art is often seen as a way to leave something of oneself to posterity. The title of this Whitewalls exhibition, ‘Time and Fire Destroy All Things’, indicates that as an artist, Nigel Grimmer is very well aware of this, and that his work as a result has more modest, and ultimately more interesting aims.

The title derives from an encounter with the remnants of what had preceded Milton Keynes. During research for this project, Grimmer came across a reference to the aphorism having been carved above a farmhouse doorway: rather appropriately the house followed its own dictum such that both are now long gone, expunged to make way for Milton Keynes’ subsequent development. It strikes me that there is a particular issue about past and future in a new town. To build a new town is to make a fresh start, one founded in optimism; it is to imagine how things could be, were one able to start from scratch. I wonder at the complexity of trying to create a whole town in which countless individuals will come to live their particular, individual and detailed lives, with all their transient or sustained loves and hatreds, their varied pleasures and precise pains. How on earth might one begin to imagine the specificity of lives lived and create a town that will enable the present, let alone the future, to take place?

It is an examination of the messier details of human life that forms the core of Grimmer’s practice as a sculptor and photographer. For this body of work, he has constructed scenes involving a diverse cast of ‘characters’, toy figures he has spent many years collecting. These small figures, standing in for us, their human counterparts, have been placed into a range of staged scenarios, which are then photographed. The resulting images and their accompanying captions consider the realities of those frustrations, jealousies and confusions to which we as humans are all prey. Although seismic events may shift our lives upon their axis, what matters day to day is the texture and particularity of our intense but fleeting emotional states. One could read Grimmer’s title as a somewhat negative sentiment, with its suggestion that what is precious to us will not sustain, but I prefer to intuit the reverse: that neither will those things last that cause our major or minor traumas: time passes, situations become history, and there is a comfort in such a realisation.

Whilst Grimmer is alert to the minutiae of life, there is also a sense that, as an artist, like the town planners and architects, he too plays a kind of God, controlling the locations and spaces for people’s expression, whether he is creating photographic scenes in his studio or working outdoors in the ‘real’ world. In the studio he manipulates the scenarios, creating the entire location where the events depicted occur. Outside, he chooses the vantage point from which to photograph his characters, such that the depth of field renders the backdrop (landscape, cityscape) into an oddly fictional state. In all cases, whilst he is very particular about how and where he photographs, the result is to make a strangely generic photo-place, a space that is ultimately the assertion of his internal imagination. So, we look at pictures taken in Berlin or Tokyo, London or Milton Keynes, Germany or Holland, and we are rarely certain which might be which: they are anywhere, nowhere and everywhere. In Grimmer’s pictures, even the real world looks made up, so that the image of the English south coast’s white cliffs might as well have been constructed from props.

It would be interesting to know how accurate a sense of place one might get through a study of charity shops, which filter and sort the detritus of our society. From my own experience I suspect that that one would discover a strange homogeneity: curious rules operate, such that clothes are always rigorously ordered by colour in a way entirely at odds with other high street shops, though there is also randomness and chaos, as the kitchenware and bric-a-brac sections collide the useful and the (allegedly) ornamental in rather startling ways. Perhaps the most chaotic section of all is that devoted to toys, which is where Grimmer finds much of the material for his work. Often contained in boxes on the floor, rather than carefully displayed on shelves, the toys are piled together with little ceremony: dolls are jammed head first into a tangle of limbs belonging to countless action figures, and models suffocate beneath the furry bellies of teddy bears.

I imagine Grimmer squatting on the floor rummaging through the melee of little bodies in boxes of cast-off toys, seeking out the, for him, especially expressive characters. Once inserted into his staged scenarios or aligned with his captions, these figures will allow him to make new revelations in what I have come to think of as a kind of psychological portraiture by proxy. (I wonder if he tells the charity shop volunteers what he has in mind for these characters, or whether, if they inquire, he avoids the subject by simply inventing fictional children for whom he is making his purchases?) The figures with which Grimmer works have been collected from across the world. Whilst many have been discovered in UK charity shops, some coming from those of Milton Keynes, others derive from Japanese stores; some were chance discoveries at car boot fairs or jumble sales, and yet others were researched and sought out through a sustained engagement with eBay. This global cast are, as a result, curiously representative of twenty first century life in the human realm, where families are dispersed and friends scattered across continents.

For a long while, Grimmer has found toys, models and action figures to be potent material for his art, indeed they have been significant elements of his practice since his time as an MA student, when toys first made their way into ‘Passing’, an exhibition he made for Central St Martins College of Art and Design. The figures he selects would surely be of little significance to most other people. He chooses small, slightly battered characters that have become separated from their original contexts; they gesture oddly, perhaps having lost the item with which they were originally posed; they wear odd clothes that displace them from our era; some offer up a quizzical expression or whilst others remain suitably blank, their lips sealed with clumsily applied paint. By the time Grimmer has done with them, however, weaving them into his new narratives by lending them a selection of found phrases, they look so right that it is hard to imagine where on earth they could previously have found a home.

Grimmer has said that he doesn’t recall playing with toys as a child: instead, his youth was spent roaming the Norfolk countryside on his bike or climbing trees with his brother. It was only later, during adolescence, that he became interested in action figures and superheroes. Becoming a teenager is to enter a time in which the testing out of potential identities is part of our daily life, when our sense of self is uncertain and possibilities are flexible. That superheroes traditionally have flaws, or lead an alternative existence as a ‘mere’ human, allows an exploration of those positions of power and vulnerability that are at the heart of our growing up. At the point when, approaching adulthood, we become most embarrassed if others catch us still playing, perhaps the reality is that play is more essential than ever before?

It seems to me that it is possible to claim that being an artist offers a certain licence to continue the exploration of our self in the world, through what might be termed a more sophisticated conception of play. But as I write this, I’m struck that maybe play is always already sophisticated? After all, when we make toy planes or spaceships ‘fly’, we use the power of our imagination, and in doing so we manage to erase our own physical role: we pretend that the craft is flying independently of us. Whilst playing, we encounter simultaneous sensations of immersion and distance: we become engrossed in the situations that we enact, whilst also, to an extent, we spectate upon the scenario, as we test out our own possible reactions. We ‘become’ the character with whom we are playing, acting out the voices aloud or in our head; we animate the plastic with our imagination, but we also observe, God-like above the miniaturised toy-world, deciding what fate should befall it. In watching kids play, it is not at all unusual to see them practice murder and decapitation on their toys, as well as testing out more pleasant alternatives… Play, then, is already a rather grown-up activity.

Alongside Grimmer’s ongoing collection of figures, he has become an inveterate gatherer of the very odd things that people say, scavenging the rubbish heaps of observation (as Sigmund Freud once had it) for the import of our unconscious disclosures. He listens out for the gnomic phrases that let slip the reality of our inner psychological life. Anything can be grist to his mill and he’s never off duty: whilst at work, or when journeying on buses or trains, he’s alert to what strangers or friends might say. At times, people play the same game to him, reporting back what he himself had apparently once said, phrases that become unfamiliar in the re-telling. His notebooks are filled with such material; sometimes it spreads to the very surfaces of his home or studio, as, lest he forgets, he jots down a pithy phrase onto notice boards or the bathroom mirror. Transformed through re-enactment by his collection of characters, his version defamiliarises the everyday such it is made strange again, allowing us to encounter it afresh.

Grimmer’s work isn’t the result of solitary artistic imagination, with a solipsistic practice taking place in private, rather it seems very much about being out amongst humanity at its most diverse. It derives from his acute observation of the world outside his studio, in which he seeks to observe the minutiae of human psychology, and very often its making takes place back in that public realm, aided and abetted by a regular crew of friends and family. He rarely plays alone: even if he makes the images in his studio, the characters may well have been sent to him by friends, or the captions provided from an earlier conversation. There is a sense in which all his work is a sort of collaboration. I hope I’m not spoiling the work for you by letting on how it’s done, but I like very much the fact that in order to make one image, his dad utilises a fishing rod to suspend one of the characters against a Norfolk sky, whilst in another, his mum grips a particular female character and thrusts it firmly into the camera’s sightline, her hand concealed just out of frame.

This delicious relationship between what was real and what imagined is inherent in Grimmer’s work. The saturated colours of his hyper-real images seem surely to have been the outcome of some nifty digital manipulation, but are instead entirely lo-fi, literally hand-made. The images depicting a tiny mobile phone held awkwardly by human hands, give a clue about his method, carefully disrupting the illusion that the other pictures create. To me, the work is all the more engaging for knowing Grimmer’s technique: in his evocation of familiar forms of play, we are at once allowed access to the imaginative realm he creates, for of course, it is already our own.