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Casual Equivalences

The Archipelago of Contented Peoples, Steven Claydon | The Common Guild, Glasgow; Mount Stuart Hall, Isle of Bute

To see Steven Claydon’s exhibition at the Common Guild you must ascend to the heights of Park Terrace in the West End of Glasgow, which boasts wonderful vistas of the old university (as watched over by bronzed-Lord Roberts - a veteran campaigner; Afghanistan, India, South Africa). Follow the road round to Woodlands Terrace and walk up the stairs to the glass entrance door. As this door is locked you’ll press the brass buzzer and be met by the smiling face of a friendly attendant as they grant you entrance…if they grant you entrance. The power of refusal is in their hands; after all, this is their territory. You are Guest and this is Guild.

Once inside, you may wonder “What silent contract was made crossing that threshold?” but not for long. Soon you’ll be bathed buttercup; all is forgotten in the purified light which oozes through yellow butchers’ plastic from the skylight above the grand staircase of no.21. Before proceeding through Membrane I/II/III our fair host St. Even Claydon offers you two appetisers to whet tongue by. Sharp, familiar, what is this taste? Bitter, bad, form, old, chap, does it smart?

You observe Zoetrope - The Earth Becoming World. It is a cylindrical steel structure on a blue gym mat split into 10 segments and topped with 10 African? Indian? Afghan? mask-faces carved from wood resin. You think they are Maori perhaps, but first you think hmm…? They face a golden camera lens. Is this an inversion of the imperial gaze? Doesn’t feel like it because Claydon is a White, male artist from England. You stand back and ponder. You’re not sure you like your art appropriated from drowning nations. Those islands are now facing a second wave of colonial carbon change. Gunpowder propelled bullets brought the first. The extractive economy fuelling the industrial revolution and global capitalism brought the second. But surely there’s more to it than what simply appears. These are after all representations.

So, reaching into the internet, you find the Primer lecture Claydon gave to the Guild in the old university overlooked by Lord Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (Indian Rebellion, Expedition to Abyssinia, Second Anglo-Afghan War, Second Boer War). You listen; “the crux of what I’m trying to do” says Claydon is “ask why is it we always make a casual equivalence and then arrest it there”. Feeling sheepish you realise that’s exactly what you’ve done. You’ve made an equivalence between the appropriations of colonialism and the appropriations on display here and arrested it there. Frustrated but encouraged, enticed and confused, you must move on. You must transcend these casual equivalences, this is fine art! You’re on the inside now, remember the stairs you climbed, the buzzer you pressed, the threshold you crossed, the light you bathed in.

“This is Russell Schweickart he was in the Apollo 9 mission” Claydon’s in your head again. “A camera broke when he was orbiting the earth in his self-contained suit…and so he just stayed there for 10 minutes looking at the planet and it completely fucked him up, changed his life…he said, ‘I’m not special, everyone’s like this, it just so happens that I ended up there’ and people who end up in these situations; you could call them ‘sensing elements’. ‘I had a special feeling when I went out and did that, now I feel I’ve got to tell everyone else’ in a way I think artists are probably self-appointed sensing elements as well”. Claydon continues grazing such topics as the “holographic universe”, the “liminal space between the thingly and the metaphoric or the narrative”, “Linneaen taxonomy”, and “structural anthropology” as “colonising structures”.

On the second floor landing you feel a sense of dread. It’s the little-red-hood wolf-in-the-bed kind. Why what big words you’ve got grandma! All the better to school you with. Claydon has just mentioned ‘colonising structures’ and Carl Linnaeus (the man who initiated the categorisation of people into races and gave scientific racism its conceptual grounding).

You’re feeling like you’ve walked into a trap; Claydon knows what he’s doing; and it’s a very important experiment which needs powerful objects to collide. He says in the museum an object loses “its efficacy or its agency but it’s gained another kind of agency of cultural commodity or mouthpiece”. He says like a “moon rock or a lute from the 15th century”, he does not say ‘but better still my art needs objects charged with exotic energy’. Through his desire to reanimate these appropriated objects his work in fact re-enacts the deadening energy of the museum without disrupting it.

His voice is still playing in your headphones as he recounts his graduate museum job; “people were outside wanting the bodies of their ancestors back and I was inside wondering around the stores”. You wonder whether Claydon still reckons himself inside the museum stores of history and outside history itself. You wonder if this detachment feels light and airy. You wonder whether it’s worth it and if this is what he means by examining value. You think about public funding.

On the table in front of you are more replica appropriations. Figurines, 1-foot high with gold pill-packs in their mouths, stand or lie on top of a clear resin surface with shredded money suspended within. Claydon’s voice steps in to explain “there’s also this gold plated blister pack of ibuprofen, they actually are, that’s the real thing in there just gold plated, and what’s interesting about that I suppose if there was a kind of metaphor there, it’s saying this is the reward you get for colonisation, you get the trappings of being able to numb pain or something like that”. During the quiet appreciative laughs in the audience you think about detention centres on Nauru and the rewards for colonisation. You think about visas. “There’s more to it than that, but that’s more or less it, these two examples of very sophisticated things that have come out perhaps to do the same thing; because these Savi masks in Papua New Guinean culture are used to ward off evil and a similar thing happens perhaps when you take a pill, you remove pain”. You think of the ‘casual equivalences’ Claydon says he’s wants to overcome with his work.

You’re starting to understand Claydon, like Schweickart, he doesn’t think he’s special either. “I don’t think of myself necessarily as an author, I think I’m a co-author and an assistant really and I think what I do is I enable these things into being”. It’s good he’s not the author of his own work, you think, because it would be weird if he was.

As you leave you cast your mind back to the Tiffany Jenkins talk which accompanied Claydon’s show. Someone in the audience suggested that her periodisation of history (from which she says we must move on) comes at the expense of seeing continuities between ‘then’ and ‘now’. You shudder at her unabashed use of the N word. You remember that she was paraphrasing radio presenters from the 50s but the feeling of alienation remains. You think about representation and the way it shields us from the reality of our utterances. You think about the relationship between culture and commerce, and the mutual territorial claims that maintain them. You tip your hat to the bronze lord.

Danny Pagarani is a writer, musician and artist based in Glasgow. His essay on Inas Halabi’s Letters to Fritz and Paul was featured in the publication that accompanied the exhibition at Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem.

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