'Lucy Skaer: The Siege' at the Chisenhale Gallery

Gemma Sharpe

Reviews / 26.06.2008

Lucy Skaer, The Siege, 2008. Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London Lucy Skaer's recent exhibition 'The Siege' (2008) at the Chisenhale Gallery in London presents a siege-scape in which the positions of victim and victor are legible and clearly defined. Within the ensemble on show here - consisting of new and pre-existing works from her practice - the very process of art-making is posed as Skaer's battle strategy.

The siege is a form of combat in which an assaulting army overcome an immobile contingent by a breach of their defences. In the Chisenhale exhibition, a breezeblock dividing wall, delineating positions of inside and outside, has been built across the gallery, arching away from the visitor's entrance. On the outside of the wall are two large-scale drawings by Skaer: one lies horizontal, and another, consisting of three adjacent panels, is hung at such a height that its lower section curls along the floor. This drawing in effect slumps, and if we are to read into this display the allegory of a battle, these drawings in their supine arrangement appear like futile attackers. Within the wall-hung drawing Hokusai's The Great Wave(c.1823) can be made out, while on the horizontal papers is a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's drawing The Deluge (1517). Widely known for her drawings, Skaer's treatment of pre-existing imagery practically camouflages the original by the effect of its re-rendering. In this case, Leonardo's drawing has been sliced into parallel lines, aggressively laid down upon the paper, and Hokusai's iconic image is pixilated by a grid-like spiral patterning.

On the other side of the wall is an array of seemingly disparate elements: a basic wooden frame, standing upright in loose concertina, refers to the foreground structure in Paul Nash's painting Landscape from a Dream (1936-38) and nearby, 26 re-casts of Constantin Brancusi's Bird in Space (1923) variously lie on their sides or perpendicular like expectant ammunition. Here Brancusi's iconic shape is remade in compressed coal dust; literally and aesthetically de-valued, the elegant structure which so effectively describes a movement is now rendered inert. Placed around the gallery are a number of antique tables that have been cut into printing plates, some repeating a large '0' shape, and others the image of wiry hands or the outline of a building. The resulting prints are found on the floor, though unlike the abject and forlorn drawings, they seem like the result of heavy labour, now discarded. Gold Zero (2008) is a length of gold beaten into an '0', which is placed on one of the printing tables, embodying rarity and fiscal privilege on this side of the wall. Beside this object is a collection of teeth cast in bronze. The teeth function like a gruesome and occult vanitas, casting a nod to mortality within the whole work. Lastly - as if a tool of reconnaissance - a mirror is placed on the ceiling directly above the breezeblock wall, giving a partial view of objects on either side.

If this work does represent a battle scene, then the strategy of each participant becomes the key to deciphering positions of victim and victor, and of attacker and besieged. I would argue that it is the process of making - which differs markedly between the objects on the inside and the outside of the wall - that provides each object with its own battle strategy. One of the most striking elements of the Leonardo and Hokusai re-drawings, placed on the outside of the wall, is the evident monotony in the labour of their making. Visible on the blank space are signs of the artist's body on the paper, signalled by marks of graphite which have spread away from the boundaries of these seemingly unfinished drawings. This slow and meticulous rendering counters the practices represented on the other side of the breezeblocks - a Richard Serra-esque wall that itself realises a brawny 'heavy metal' form of sculpture. Beyond the wall, the making of coal-dust Brancusi copies presumably involves force and pressure; prints are produced from carved tables through a heavy mechanical processes and gold is poured and manipulated under highly technical circumstances. Unlike the laying down of pencil lines, here are industrial mechanics; in addition the materials themselves, gold and coal in particular, embody heavy industry. The wall demarcates a split in strategy, between the heavy-duty production of the workshop, and the act of laying down lines on the floor of a studio, kneeling on a sheet of paper and slowly drawing out an image.

In The Architect and the Housewife (1999), an artist's book by Frances Stark (who, like Skaer, is largely identified for her drawings), gendered modes of art-processes are examined. Considering her own practice, Stark discusses the domesticated space in which she makes work and opposes her 'room of one's own' to the space of the 'architect' - a model of the masculine maker whom Stark imagines standing on scaffolding in gallery spaces, shouting directions to a legion of makers. Stark's space for creative production is an individual one, akin to the realm of a housewife, and she imagines herself as such: 'I am sparing you the details of my toil which aspires to productivity, suffice it to say it is not hard to experience, on a regular basis, the loneliness, the anxiety … I imagined a housewife might feel'.1 Stark unpicks the intersection of gender and method, thinking through both the formation of the canon of art practice and the possibility that residual values of gender schema remain embodied within the world of art-making. The practice of drawing, Stark argues, opposes the mechanics of the largely masculine architectural method; drawing is akin to a domestic mode of industry. Skaer, in the Chisenhale exhibition, presents a similar argument. The drawings are present at the outside of a wall, as if they have attempted to besiege its frontier and have failed against the architectural or mechanical objects which inhabit the other side. Method of production is key to this opposition.

To discern Skaer's treatment of the conditions of inside and outside within her wider practice, the film made in collaboration with Rosalind Nashashibi, Flash in the Metropolitan (2006), is particularly important. This 16mm film, lasting only 3 minutes and 30 seconds, shows the effect of a torch being flashed upon darkened objects in the Near Eastern, African and Oceanic collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There is mischief in this film, as it giddily whips through this sacrosanct museological space. Snapped so rapidly that detail is omitted, the filmed artefacts are reduced to mere icons and their attachment to a place or history collapses. The film is a siege upon these objects. Flash in the Metropolitan (consciously or unconsciously) echoes a late scene in Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen's seminal film Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), in which the central character, Louise, and her daughter Anna visit the Egyptian room of the British Museum in London. The voice-over to this scene suggests the mythological sphinx, perched outside the city walls, as an allegory for the political and economic position of Louise, a single working mother, and her daughter. Mulvey explains how the sphinx represents a threat to the patriarchy, devouring any man who cannot answer her riddle. Crucially however, even if the sphinx were to inhabit the city's commonality, she would still remain at its perimeter: '… women in patriarchy are faced with a never-ending series of threats and riddles, dilemmas which are hard for women to solve, because the culture in which they must think is not theirs'.2 The sphinx offers a means of considering the feminine position at the outside of a culture she has no claim upon, and of the subsequent hopelessness in attempting to besiege that culture. Mulvey is echoing Simone de Beauvoir's claim that 'humanity is male and man defines woman, not in herself but as relative to him…. [women have] no past, no history, no religion of their own'.3 In the British Museum and in the Metropolitan Museum, both films ask us to look at ancient cultural artefacts, and how the marginalised subject can occupy the culture that they have produced, further how a claim of ownership might be staked upon this culture. Flash in the Metropolitan in particular, offers an answer to the problem of cultural ownership in visually manipulating the artefacts to such an extent.

Within The Siege, Skaer has constructed and assembled objects in order to stage their opposition. Importantly, these oppositions are built upon contrasting methods of production, which as Frances Stark would argue are loaded by the gender of their maker. The overtness of Skaer's art-historical references frames each component as a 'character' with a distinct voice - a voice which echoes the artist whose work Skaer is remodelling or redrawing. Taken against the background of Flash in the Metropolitan and Riddles of the Sphinx, this exhibition can be seen as conceiving of a culture as having a centre and an outside, and questioning whether these boundaries are permeable. Like the sphinx, the objects at the outside of this siege have failed to gain entry. Therefore, to commit to the allegory of battle, I do not believe Skaer's siege-wall to be permeable. However, recovery may come through the fact that she orchestrates this battle-scene: the entire ensemble falls under her authorship. Like the objects flashed with a torch in the Metropolitan Museum - temporarily vanquished by this portrayal - there is a similar potency in Skaer's mastery of the objects within her space, and the claim she stakes upon the references they embody and the methods of their production. Perhaps this is her alternative to strategy of a siege and her answer to the problem of the subordinate subject excluded from a culture they cannot own: by remaking these works she can demonstrate - and begin to cross - the boundaries of defence these art-historical artefacts depend upon to hold their dominant cultural positions.

- Gemma Sharpe

  1. Frances Stark, The Architect and the Housewife, London: Book Works, 1999, p.8.

  2. Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, from the script of Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977, in Scott Macdonald (ed.), Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers, Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1995, p.112.

  3. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (trans. H.M. Parshley), London: Everyman Library, 1999, p.xlviii.