File Note #7: Brian Griffiths - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Martin Herbert


Brian Griffiths Quote Biography References Credits

Brian Griffiths

Discussions of the suspension of disbelief don’t often arise in relation to the activity of watching decades-old episodes of Star Trek or Bonanza, and rightly so. Coleridge’s simple concept could never do justice to the Byzantine cerebral scaffolding that a viewer must rig up in order to extract full pleasure from those shows, a structure that encompasses happy incredulity, immersion in kitsch aesthetics, and the wish for life now to resemble the small screen’s super-simplified takes on past and future. Books like Inside Star Trek, which drain symbolic fuel from the Enterprise’s tanks with every passing factoid, do not help the latter aspect to dominate; personally, I only got through my recent reading of Solow & Justman’s opus by soundtracking it with spooky sci-fi instrumentals from Sun Ra’s Space is the Place (1974). A close shave, otherwise I might have found myself idly thinking about current events — like, say, the US administration’s recently announced plan to restart the space programme, dot the moon with military bases and place its mineral resources in the hands of private corporations. Had Brian Griffiths directed Star Trek, however, there would surely exist one less opportunity for viewers to disengage laboriously from the imprecations of contemporary reality. At some stage in the first (and no doubt only) season, ‘Bones’ McCoy would simply have refused to operate on a dying alien on the basis that his seasoning dispensers weren’t up to the task. Goodbye, fourth wall.

Given that a common synonymous phrase for the willing suspension of disbelief is ‘going along for the ride’, it is quite apt that a number of Griffiths’ artworks to date — from his long-running series of space-station interiors, to his mounted medieval knights, to his recent full-scale theatre wagon — have referenced vehicles or movement. They are typically life-size, situating the viewer in relation to an intimation of motion that inhabits a theatrical envisioning of the past, or the past’s version of the future. To maintain any kind of illusion in relation to them, it’s necessary to adopt a physical and psychological squint. Navigating one of Griffiths’ space-stations, you need not to notice that the consoles are made of smooth brown cardboard and the instruments upon them are built out of pound-shop junk kitchenware: atomisers from household sprays, plastic plates, plastic juicers, plastic washing-up bowls, and vacuum-formed plastic trays. While circling his theatre wagon, meanwhile, one must overlook the fact that it is produced entirely from second-hand wooden furniture: from deconstructed, brilliantly recombined cabinets and veneered wardrobes laced with Indian and African sculptures. The big picture, the chimera, gets strafed by these reminders of drab domesticity or messy colonial history; and so, seduced as we might be by the old macro, the contemporary micro trips us up, reminding us to pay attention to the small, everyday stuff, accretions of which are the fabric of history — and which, one can’t help but feel, tell more honest stories. Craft is valorised here, but only to an extent: when things come together in Griffiths’ art, it’s invariably the first stage of a figured falling-apart.

‘Whenever a new prop was needed, Irving had to create it. Doctor
McCoy’s ‘scalpel’ was one of a pair of slim triangular Swedish-
modern salt and pepper shakers that Irving bought in the May
Company basement. After ‘operating’ on his patient, McCoy would
use the same device to seamlessly suture the incision…’

- Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, Solow & Justman, 1996

Yet in the process Griffiths marries a light touch to a seemingly instinctive sense of grand event, and the manoeuvring between registers which his works necessitate is a great part of the pleasure of viewing them. Their immediate, broad-sweep visual effect is invariably supplanted by bristling and almost painterly detail work — at which point the magical, alchemical nature of his process (he made this out of that?) becomes apparent — but both registers of reception are exhilarating. If you want celebrations of make-do-and-mend creativity that find their closest analogue in the freewheeling delight of children’s fantasy play with inappropriate materials, or examples of homemade art that can compete with the prevalent fabricated spectacle, here’s grist to your mill. Griffiths’ is, however, a multivalent and far from exclusively formalist art, one which does not falter at its fuller extension as cultural argument. Its central oasis of critique merely happens to be generously fringed by seductive and comical foliage, the funniest part of which is the fact that his almost desperate feats are presented as straight and serious, with the gallery as straight man. Griffiths mentions as an influence the deadpan antics of Charlie Chaplin, who also knew that making audiences laugh — usually at someone who didn’t seem to notice the joke — is useful in getting them to understand a larger subject. (Chaplin, of course, was idolised by Bertold Brecht, whose own alienation techniques are never too far from the surface of Griffiths’ work.)  

For his show at Camden Arts Centre, Griffiths intends to build a gallery-filling wooden boat using the careworn furniture that, for some time now, he has been sourcing from second-hand shops and auctions. It’s a vehicle that, based on a synthesis of Egyptian and Viking designs, should outwardly offer viewers the opportunity to oar back into a jumble-sale of ancient pasts: pasts overlaid by, and as finally unknowable as, those that adhere to the second-hand furniture and trinkets themselves. As you get past the optical fireworks, assay the deep asymmetry between object and facture, and assess the boat’s improbable buoyancy, this seeming offer of an ethereal backwards ride is liable to end in disappointment, a sense of mourning for something that perhaps was never there in the first place — with, however, the consolation prize of a more enlightened window on the human organism’s enduring tendency to escapism. Surgery with a pepper shaker, yes, but at this historical moment — when manufactured appearances are the currency of political will and the most popular film trilogy and novel of our time proffer somatic voyages into a meticulously realized fictional past — that may be just what the doctor ordered.

'Once a lumberjack was about to chop down a tree, when he noticed a heart carved on it, with two names inside. Putting away his axe, he sawed down the tree instead.’ — From ‘The Early Essays — On Seeing a Tree in Summer’, Without Feathers by Woody Allen.


Brian Griffiths was born in 1968 in Stratford upon Avon and presently lives and works in London. He received his BA (Hons) Fine Art from The University of Humberside in 1992 and completed his MA Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 1996. He is represented by Vilma Gold, London where he had solo exhibitions in 2003 and 2001, and in 2000 mounted the curatorial project These Epic Islands. Other recent solo exhibitions have taken place at The Breeder Gallery, Athens, Greece (2004); MCMagma, Milan, Italy (2002) and One in the Other, London (1999).His work has featured in numerous group exhibitions in public, private and artist-run galleries in Europe, the USA and South America including: Brian Griffiths/Alexandre De Cuna, Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paolo, Brazil (2002); Tirana Biennale, Albania (2001); Just History, Tal Esther Gallery, Tel Aviv (2001); Beck’s Futures 2 at the ICA, London, Fruitmarket, Edinburgh and Sothebys, New York (2001); Brian Griffiths/Kenji Yanobe, Barbican Centre, London (2000); Neurotic Realism (Part 1), The Saatchi Gallery, London (1999), East International, Norwich Gallery, Norwich (1998); New Contemporaries ‘97, Cornerhouse, Manchester; Camden Arts Centre, London; CCA Glasgow. His work is also included in the current exhibition New Blood, at the Saatchi Gallery, London.He has curated exhibitions for The Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (The Lost Collection of An Invisible Man, 2003), Bart Wells Institute, London (The Necessary Enemy, 2002) and Vilma Gold, London (These Epic Islands, 2000). Forthcoming projects include a solo exhibition at The Groninger Museum, Groningen, Holland (2005). Brian Griffiths is also represented by Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paolo, Brazil. 


  Don Quixote Miquel De Cervantes (1605) Penguin Books 2003 edition ISBN 0142437239

  Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift (1726) Penguin Books 1994 edition ISBN 0140620842 

Tales of Mystery and Imagination Edgar Allan Poe (1908) Collectors Library 2003 edition ISBN 1904633137

The Man Who Was Thursday  G.K. Chesterton (1908) Penguin Books ISBN 0140183884 

Meditations on a Hobby Horse E.H. Gombrich (1985) Chicago University Press ISBN 0226302156

Without Feathers Woody Allen (1990) Ballantine Books ISBN 0345336976

The Transparent Society Gianni Vattimo (1992) John Hopkins University Press ISBN 0801845289

The Gold Rush Charlie Chaplin (dir.) (1925)

The General Clyde Bruckman (dir.), starring Buster Keaton (1927)

Modern Times Charlie Chaplin (dir.) (1936)

A Matter of Life and Death Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (dir.) (1946)

Pierre Le Fou Jean Luc Godard (dir.) (1965)

The Prisoner Incorporated Television Company Ltd., TV series (1967)

Simple Men Hal Hartley (dir.) (1992)


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Martin Herbert is a writer and critic.