File Note 74: Simon Raven - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Brian Catling



Just Images References Quote Biography Credits


In Cabalistic lore there are two twilights. Twilight of the dove and twilight of the raven.

Most artists try to establish a career in serious constancy or public showmanship, following the divided trope of the mythic poet; the division into court jester practicing conjuring entertainment or the shunned shaman making esoteric spells. But separate and superior to both of those frauds is the Trickster. The wise being, close to many deities, whose very purpose is to be an acerbic catalyst unbalancing and testing the reality of the world and all the beliefs awash there, by not being part of it and causing discomfiture and sometimes embarrassment to strip all tinsel from the bone.

From Africa to Polynesia, China to Greenland, the Trickster has risen in triumphant grinning splendour over the vanities of grander but more transparent practitioners in the tribe. Simon Raven has purposely structured and evolved his artist practice to follow this sacred task. While many of his contemporaries fall over each other to gain a slippery purchase on the ladder of recognition, or gain a swelling price in the blind vaults of networked galleries, he has studiously disguised both himself and his purpose and refused to construct anything more permeable than a shudder, a dream or laughing ghost. Raven’s installations and performances are brilliantly understated in their image moment but sharply resonant in their lasting impression. In other words they grow in clarity and meaning after the viewer leaves them. This is one of the unique qualities of his works. Outwardly he gives marvel and irony tainted with a humour strangled out of abnormality. Raven is steered by his delight in irrational human behaviour. The juicy Fortean evidence that always wants to displace the dry actualities of what we are told is true.

He has made performative works that track and listen to the changes of the world; to both the celestial and its interpretation by a confident and flawed humanity. Raven’s instrumentation to explain these enigmas is heroically poetic and profoundly flawed. All drama is banned, driven out from the temporary places that he sanctifies into Dadaist oratories, using his own muted body as a text bed and a somnambulistic slave to the ever changing, transforming events.

Glimmerings is a performance developed during Raven’s residency at Camden Arts Centre. After saturating himself in the history and presence of the room he was given, and understanding the other exhibitions he would co-exist with during his stay, he constructed Glimmerings to allow the light drifting through his space to be seen and felt as a pressure moving towards a purposely dimmed room next door that held the mechanical hysteria of Bruce Lacey’s robots. 

Raven’s “automata” are very different: he placed lenses and large hanging mirrors in the pathway of the room’s moving sunlight. They rotate as if out of speed with the bustle around; slow motion reflections and shadows controlled by the touch of the rolling of the day.

He mixes this stately passage with references to the biblical parable of the Talents, colouring this with the sound of battery powered butterflies fluttering randomly against the livid strings of an electric guitar. This effect is then amplified by a series of portraits of hideously swollen pug dogs; winged and gloating out of a psychotically starred universe into this domain of the broken and the spilt. More trickster angels guarding the precious volume of taste, long turned sour, bad and sublime.

The language of such manifestation is modestly potent and elemental in the apparent rawness of its performance. Setting teeth on edge while whispering tranquilities and allowing the only real place where metamorphic resonance can truly exist. Raven does not want to impress us with his talent or skill. Nor does he preach or seek sympathy. Instead he wants to show us that the entire world is made this way. Held together with grip and spit, foible and misdirection and the astonishing, undimming belief in transcendence.

There’s a kind of redemption already implicit in any energy that curates and gathers such wreckage with this amount of care. It’s not a sentiment of retrograde but a fervent displacement of the accepted status of knowledge; like Magritte’s pipe or Chaplin’s tramp, The parable of Talents, Lilith, Don Juan, Wile E. Coyote and of course one of the greatest tricksters the Raven. 

The joy in seeing Raven’s performances and installation comes in that recognition and often on the way home. A gesture, a prop, a sound or the light sliding across the room. What he did in the twilight when it had gone; setting one of the circular mirrors flat on the floor with a spotlight glaring into its blinding disc, and finally carefully placing on it a brightly coloured toy model of a cycle rickshaw. Once switched on the little figure furiously peddles the toy inside the perimeter of the glass; a comic skidding orbit, over lit and futile. Then we look up at what it casts on the ceiling and with child-like awe gasp at its beauty, relevance and the generosity of the gift. Raven has made a vision out of tat. The kind of magical act that never dilutes.

The wand that he has waved for us is not a staff of power or a twig of fictional wizardry. It is a crap paradigm of the reality of hope. Bits and pieces of pound shop (dime store) facts nailed to gossip gizmos, gob welded to shared truths and plugged into Elastoplast batteries, with enough juice to last to the end of the performance. Just.


Aaron Williamson The Forgotten History of the Affligare Spike Island Books (2012)

Brian Catling The Blindings Book Works (1995)

Brian Catling The Vorrh Honest Publishing (2012)

John Burke Life in the Castle in Medieval England DORSET (1992)

Owen Jones Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class Verso (2012)

John Bradshaw In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding Penguin (2012)

Neville Shulman Some Like It Cold Summersdale (2001)

Steve Roberts (Dir.) Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980)

Batman TV episodes Instant FreezeRats Like CheeseGreen IceDeep FreezeIce SpyThe Duo Defy Twentieth Century Fox (1966–68)

Meg Baird Seasons on Earth Wichita Recordings (2011)

Arto Lindsay The Subtle Body Rykodisc (2002) ⁄ Invoke Righteous Babe (2002) ⁄ Salt Righteous Babe (2004)

Cairo Gang The Corner Man Empty Cellar (2012)

Josephine Foster Blood Rushing Fire Records (2012)

Gregory Isaacs Cool Ruler EMI (2000)

Cat Power You Are Free Matador (2003) ⁄ Sun Matador (2012)

Henryk Górecki Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Dawn Upshaw, Soprano) Nonesuch (1992)

 ‘The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.’  William Gibson


Simon Raven (b. 1978) studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (BFA 2002) and the Royal College of Art (MA Sculpture 2004). Exhibitions include Parlour Ecole Loqueteuse, The Ragged School Museum, London (2010); Sounding Off, Vitrine Gallery, London (2010); A Stranger’s Window, Nottingham Castle (guest curated by MOOT Gallery, 2010); The Collectors, The Collection, Lincoln (2010); Animal Magic, Milton Keynes Gallery (2010); Indoor Life, Walden Affairs, Den Haag, Holland (2009); Sex For The Disabled,
AND Festival, Liverpool (2009).


Brian Catling is a poet, sculptor and performance artist.