It is often a good idea to read the catalogue essay before you view the exhibition. Sometimes, being able to ‘get’ the basic ideas behind an artist’s works can immediately amplify the rewards of seeing them. In David Garner’s case, however, you should look at the exhibition first. The trouble with Garner’s works (from a catalogue essayist’s point of view) is that they speak from themselves. As soon as you begin to pick apart the threads of significance in these works, to describe the references that may be discernible within them, you also begin to reduce them to one fixed interpretation, whereas they are open to many others.
Garner works from his studio in a small town in the mining valleys of South East Wales, the region in which he was born. He studied art in Newport and Cardiff, and in 1981 he left for London to study at the Royal College of Art, during which time he was awarded a scholarship to work in the studio run by the RCA in Paris. But he subsequently returned to the place of his upbringing, where he is raising a family and teaching art at a local college. Whenever possible now Garner employs local firms or individuals to make things which will be incorporated in his work, or to solve practical problems for him. It is a small matter perhaps, but indicative of his wish to re-root his praxis within this region, now enervated by the loss of the mining industry. He has an international perspective both on world affairs and on the art world. But at the same time he savours the relative isolation of his situation as a professional artist, distancing himself from the frenzied manoeuvring of metropolitan artists for short-term celebrity status.
Garner makes prominent use of ‘found’ objects in his work- that is to say, he re-presents in his work things taken from the real world, without significantly altering them. The first works by Garner to incorporate ‘found’ objects date from about seven years ago. They featured accumulations of workmen’s protective apparel- boots, gloves, helmets- redolent of the moribund coal mining industry. Subsequent works incorporated moving parts such as toy trains, and iconic stuffed animals. Some of these works reflected upon specific events from the history of Wales, others derived from personal events such as the death of his father from pneumoconiosis.
Artists who make use of such ‘found’ material do so in two ways. They may select a natural object- like a stone or a piece of driftwood- that has interesting plastic or textural qualities, and present it in juxtaposition with other materials as a formal abstract element. Or they may take an existing, man-made artefact and present it in itself as a work of art, either on its own, or together with other ‘found’ objects. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a bicycle wheel mounted on a kitchen stool as a sculpture in an art exhibition in 1913, he also invented the concept of the ‘ready-made’ art object. The ‘ready-made’ is not usually significantly altered in its new guise as art, if at all, but its context- and thus its meaning- has radically changed. The ready-made already has a ninety-year history. Time enough to demonstrate that it is not a one-off idea, but is susceptible to innumerable variations and refinements. In some of the works on this exhibition, what we perceive at first to be a familiar object as it appears to us in every day life has in fact been subtly altered or even specifically made. In a sense these are what the terminologists of modern art would call ‘prepared’ or ‘assisted’ ready-mades.
Garner’s works are placed on the gallery floor rather than on plinths. They hover in nature somewhere between the art genre known as ‘installations,’ and what might be called ‘visual theatre.’ Obviously no real performers are present, and they are not literally time-based works. Nevertheless, heavily inferred human presence hangs over them, that of individuals or groups of people who have recently departed. They have perhaps lost their lives, or they may have just disappeared from official records, having been rendered homeless and stateless by circumstances beyond their control. They are likely to be those euphemistically known as ‘displaced persons.’
In the work unequivocally title Displaced Family an old dining table is covered with a crumpled white tablecloth. Dried wax from a guttering silver candlestick has formed a linear device on the white cloth. People have always interpreted such natural and accidental marks as portents or messages, and this one could be read as a question mark. At the opposite end of the table, another punitive question mark has been formed from plastic Lego pieces, around which are placed small toy soldiers flourishing bayonets and machine guns. Occasionally Garner’s small children accompany him to his studio. As small children do, they observe and imitate the professional activities of their fathers. Seeing Garner forming the ‘blind’ wax question mark on the tablecloth, his small son made the Lego question mark which has become a part of the completed work.
Seated on chairs around the table are six ‘figures,’ in the form of bales of used clothing- the contents of drawers or wardrobes perhaps- held tight by plastic baling twine, in uniform rectilinear shapes. These bales are denser and heavier than they may seem. Assembled specially for the artist by a textile recycling company (in normal circumstances the company would only bale one type of textile together), they require the application of four tons of pressure in a steel cage. They could be compared to the famous crushed car body sculptures made by the French artist Cesar during the 1960’s, except that unlike Cesar’s scrap sculptures, Garner’s bales of fabric have not relinquished their associations with the people who once owned them- if anything, these associations have become heightened.
Even though these bale forms do not literally replicate the human form, we immediately perceive them as such. The fragments of clothing, which protrude from each bale, tell us about the person to whom they belonged- whether they were male or female, young or old. One bale clearly contains garments and other fabric items belonging to a small child- forlorn teddy bears, a pink bedspread, woolly scarves. In some ways, the provisional feel of these metaphoric ‘beings’ harks back to the figures incorporated in the installations made by the West Coast American ‘junk artist’ Ed Kienholz in the 1960’s. In spirit, however, they might be more empathically related to the lesser-known work of Tadeusz Kantor; a Polish artist with hybrid proclivities who invented the notion of ‘emballages’ (‘wrappings’) also in the early 1960’s. Anticipating arte povera by a decade, and situating themselves somewhere between gallery art and theatre, the impetus to make these works, using humble and disregarded ‘found’ materials, came from Kantor’s observations of people exiled to the fringes of society, whom he referred to as ‘The Wanderers and their Luggage.’ “I found out an extraordinary model: the wandering people, roaming about on the outside of society, always on travel, with no particular course, homeless,” he wrote, “…formed by the passion to wrap up their bodies with coats, blankets, sheets, submerged in the complex anatomy of clothing, in the secrets of packages, bags, bundles, straps, strings, hidden deeply from the sun, rain and cold.”
To make a less literal comparison, these are echoes in Garner’s work of the spirit that imbues the 1942 film The Silent Village by the remarkable artist Humphrey Jennings. Ostensibly a topical documentary film, Jennings constructed a commentary on the then recent vengeful destruction of the Czech village of Lidice and its inhabitants by the Nazis, by recreating those events in a South Wales mining village. The village’s inhabitants played themselves and used their own names. The strangely unsettling effect of the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar; the particular and the universal in Jennings’ film, is similar to that achieved by these works of Garner’s.
Two smaller works stand in the corners of the gallery, dramatically lit. One in this pair, called Another Time, Another Place, comprises a simple wooden chair; to the back of which another ‘baled’ figure has been tightly tied. A large hourglass is fixed to the seat of the chair with a strong metal clamp. Instead of sand, the hourglass is filled with real human teeth.
The companion work; Fear of Furniture, also comprises a chair, on the back of which hangs a man’s black jacket. The jacket has been pinned to the chair back by a rusty carpenter’s ‘sash clamp,’ uncomfortably pinning down and constricting the jacket. To this long metal arm is attached a lamp, turned to focus its beam on the jacket. The seat of the chair is covered with holes that might be cigarette burns, through which sprout tufts of hair.
A birdcage is suspended from the ceiling of the gallery in semi-darkness. This is a work called The more you sing the more you risk your life. The cage’s interior is lit by the glare of a naked light bulb, revealing its small yellow inhabitant. A canary is lying lifeless, not on the conventional lining of a birdcage, but in the fold of a roughly woven black and white striped shirt, the customary garment of one who is incarcerated. Threaded between the bars of the cage are small coloured portrait photographs, taken from passport photographs or identity cards.
The large work Production Line is in three parts, each resembling a large steel wheeled trolley such as those used in factories producing clothing or processing meat. On the first trolley hangs a line of suitcases, some with clothing protruding from their lids, suggesting that they have been packed and fastened hastily. The suitcases are hanging on large hooks. The rack beneath this line of suitcases is covered by shoes, none of them forming into pairs.
Eight bales of clothing hang on the second trolley, suspended from larger-than-life coat hangers rendered potentially lethal by the sharpening of their ends into points. Like the seated figures of the Displaced Family, each bale possesses its own identity, a fabric persona orchestrated from the differing colours, textures and patterns of the accumulated scraps.
The third trolley carries three wooden palettes, as if slung without great care on to a conveyor belt. Trussed tightly to each palette are the belongings of a particular person, otherwise unidentifiable. They remind us of the hastily abandoned personal effects we see in people’s burned or wrecked houses on TV new reports from countries not so far from our own. One of the owners of these summarily bundled effects, we may deduce, has been studying for a degree. A sociology textbook, ironically titled Understanding Society, is rendered mute by being bound so tightly that it cannot now be opened and read. A large, faded photographic portrait of a man forms part of another palette. The baling bands which tie it to the palette mask his eyes. Two kitsch carved wall plaques form part of the same bundle. They are perhaps the most cherished belongings of an elderly woman. Another group of chattels includes a Japanese ghetto blaster and a pair of trainers- the belongings of a young person, no less poignant in this context.
The most recent work in the exhibition also provides the exhibition with its title, End Product. This work attracts our attention because it incorporates a literally moving, kinetic element. From the open bottom drawer of an office desk issues an ‘endless’ roll of paper; upon which is printed a chain of identical male and female ‘logos’; like the simplified figures displayed internationally on wash room doors- human figures reduced to emblematic ciphers with accompanying bar codes. Every quarter of an hour a sturdy grey Anglepoise lamp on the desk turns on, and the paper unrolls over the top of a shiny black ballot box which also stands on the desk. But instead of feeding into the slot in the top of the box, the roll of paper is diverted over it and into the maw of a paper shredder, which makes a whirring sound as it produces an ever-growing pile of useless paper curlicues on the floor.
Shredding things, to remove them irrevocably from the attention of others and ourselves, is a contemporary phenomenon. Garner estimates that some 15,000 of these printed figures will be shredded during the course of this exhibition. This and the other works refer to the careless or vindictive processing, displacement and disenfranchisement of large numbers of people, expressing through the medium of sculpture the consequent experience of memory and loss of the individuals involved.
The works do evoke specific historical events- Auschwitz, war in the Balkans, the Rwandan tragedy, the current struggle for Palestinian independence. They remind us of images we see nightly on the television. Yet Garner is careful not to pin down the references in his works too specifically, or to overburden them with narrative inference. What is left out is just as important as what is included. The items of office furniture, lamps and other items which have found their way into Garner’s works, for example, are the strictly functional, styleless type that lurks in the sort of office in which the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial found himself.
They have been in use for many years, perhaps by faceless bureaucratic apparatchiks just doing their job, or perhaps by torturers. They do not belong to a particular place or time. For as the hourglass full of human teeth in one of these works implies, the events which we tend to think can never happen again have a habit or repeating themselves.
David Briers is an independent writer and curator based in Yorkshire.