Last Friday I found myself doing something rather unusual – all right, all right, no witty quips, please – I was standing in a basement, down a lane, off a road off Bond street, looking at preserved pigeon droppings on a square of black sheet steel hung on a wall. More to the point, I was having the aim of this exercise explained to me by a tall, bespectacled New Zealand gentleman self-consciously eating a pain-au-chocolat (it was 8.30 in the morning, after all). The man in question was David Rickard. And we were looking at an artwork of his.
I have to admit, before I knew anything about the artist or, indeed, anything about the exhibition, it was the curious idea of a private view over breakfast that drew me into this. A novel way to present a new show, certainly. More often than not these events are evening affairs, overcrowded on account of the free wine on offer and very little consideration given to what’s on the walls. One can blend in, sink into the Diaspora and leave feeling imbued with culture. Here, I was alone, off-guard, sober and in the hands of the artist. And at 8.30 in the morning I was unaccustomed at having to engage on a certain level of intellect, let alone talk about it, certainly without the fortifying reassurance of a glass of cheap Cabernet.
For those of you, like me, unfamiliar, David Rickard is an installation artist. Art such as this, experimental rather than representational (or even literal), can be a hard grasp, and is often considered pretentious to the layman as a result. Is it even art? But pretensions about installation art are usually born out of a lack of understanding and, admittedly, without any explanation, my first glance around the gallery was customarily focused on the aesthetic.
In that first look, all I saw was shattered glass, something made of dice and a sequence of photos of the artist inflating balloons. Not to mention pigeon poo. I had no idea what these were about and 8.30 in the morning was no time to consider such matters. Under normal circumstances I may, simply, have moved on. In this instance, however, I couldn’t. I was the only visitor at that hour. To have walked in, grabbed a coffee, given a glance to each piece and said cheerio, I thought would be rude. After a brief conversation with Vishal Sumarria, the gallery owner, I was about to do a cursory lap and say my goodbyes. But then the artist walked in. I couldn’t leave now.
And a good job he did. A personalised guided tour of the artworks, by the artist, kicked my brain into gear. And this tour, in precis, is what I shall attempt to offer you now.
Time + Trace is all about capturing the transience of time’s impact on something and then representing it in a single form. (At least that’s how I saw it – and art is interpretational). Be it 24 hours of a person’s breath, the instant a piece of glass shatters, the roll of a dice. And, of course, what happens to a piece of sheet metal if it’s placed under a pigeon’s perch overnight.
In a hangar somewhere in the English countryside, David sat on a chair, strapped a modified apparatus to his face, connected it to a silver foil balloon and breathed. A whole day’s breath was collected into a number of these balloons, each one then added to the previous and suspended behind him. A photographer captured the action every 15 minutes. The merest hint of time passing (bar the time-lapse photography) is a chink of light below the hangar doors, fading in and then fading out. The result is Exhaust. And it makes for quite an impressive sculpture, really. Unfortunately, like the very thing it’s depicting, the balloons wither and deflate and the art is lost, hence it exists only as a single photograph.
In From Here to There, he dropped nine sheets of glass on the floor from various heights, then painstakingly collected all the pieces and bonded them back together, numbering each piece on a paper mount to give order and relationship in an effort to trace the instant of the glass shattering. Similarly, and my personal favourite, Random Relatives, involved rolling a succession of dice and then connecting them with aluminium bars represented by the distance of units depicted by the combined number on opposing faces. He stopped once he’d created six ‘layers’, rolling 264 times to create a complicated three-dimensional matrix within which every component is positioned relative to its neighbour. You could look at it for hours. Come to think of it, if you didn’t know what it was, you could still look at it for hours, figuring it out. Its oddly disparate, random uniformity – if you’ll forgive the oxymoron – is curiously arresting.
There’s wit in there, too. A hundred small mirrors are placed in a perfect square on one wall. On closer inspection I notice they’re all broken. It’s called, funnily enough, 100 Broken Mirrors. It doesn’t really need any explanation but looking at it, after a moment where neither of us spoke, David gestured at it and said, “Seven hundred years of bad luck.”
As we wandered around I started to wonder how all these things came into being, what prompted the ideas, what sort of studio he had. Back at HQ I put in a bit of research and came across one particular installation that Vishal Sumarria had mentioned to me, by way of introduction. Evidently dropping objects from a great height seems to feature quite prominently in Rickard’s work. In 2009, he was selected to create an installation for the Economist Plaza in London. The square being made up of three buildings of different heights, he wanted to encourage people to look up at these. What better way to do so than to plant something on the ground that suggests it’s fallen from up above. So that’s exactly what he did. He hoisted, by crane, three giant clay balls to different heights and then dropped them. The resulting forms made up the work. Simple, really (in idea, I mean, not in execution), and it worked.
The works resonate. They make you think. And at 8.30 in the morning it’s a shot of cultural adrenaline that gets you started better than any cup of coffee. And as for those pigeon droppings, they are Constellation. And I see it now. Each one, its ammoniac residue creating a curious celestial outline against the black steel, looks like a tiny galaxy on a stellar map. See, there is an aesthetic there after all.
Time + Trace runs until Friday 1st July at Sumarria Lunn Gallery, South Molton Lane, Mayfair. For more information on the exhibition, visit the website. Rickard will be exhibiting next at the Venice Biennale. More information on David Rickard and his works to date can be found at his website.