Companion Plants and Song Birds

Jo Langford at Jonathan Smart and Fiona Gillmore at HSP

There’s an old Fiona Gillmore work that’s impressed everyone that’s seen it and that’s the die-cut paper leaves. Made from a simple white paper, these replicas were simply piled up in the middle of the gallery floor in a large rotund mound. They exerted a certain charm as a kind of regretful, morose animation. They played up by acting on the rustling of paper, the slow drift of leaves falling and the autumnal charm of a closing season. If we wanted to use another adjective we could call the work restituitve. Which is exactly how I’d like to refer to her recent work, Cage for a Songbird, at HSP.

I think it’s fair to say that the mute tones of abjection pervade Gillmore’s practice. Take another earlier piece, the light box work which quite simply stated, ‘better luck next time’. Paired up with a set of walking sticks, emotive crutches at the best of times, it’s a work that exudes a certain wry humour whose spirit is more belated than jovial. This abject tone certainly pervades Cage for a Songbird as well, but it is more fittingly encapsulated in the parenthetical enclosure of the shows poster which plead, ‘come home (please)’. This bracketing makes the companionship plea a deliberate plaintive cry whose emotive sentiment lends the show an aura of belated lament. Bearing this in mind it’s worth thinking about the implications of the piecemeal construction at work in the architectural centrepiece. Not that one would want to harp on about the re-constituted motif or recycling but it is worth thinking about how this aesthetic bears upon the larger themes of Gillmore’s practice as a whole. To use a rather deliberate pun, surely it’s worth thinking about how and why, Gillmore’s timbre is tinted the way it is. Of use here is the video work which lurked in the backroom of the gallery portraying a continual cycle through void and presence, black and white. This circuit is also there in the show as well. Take for instance the way the blue walls cradle the show creating a complimentary bracket to the earlier parenthetical sentiment of the posters. But if all this offers up a mid-ground, one imbibed with a muted forlorn appearance then it’s also worth thinking about why Conner’s work avoids the garish or the jubilant in preference for the subdued or the belated.

I don’t think many people would call Jo Langford’s work sombre and yet there’s no getting around that tone in the companion plants which were exhibited as part of her recent show, Jitterbug at the Jonathan Smart gallery. Making radio controlled, mobile white boxes stuffed with fake flowers just to be contained within a fenced off circuit is certainly a joy to see but of course that just makes it twice as sinister really. The picket fences and fake flowers smack of suburban neurosis, an anxiety so familiar to so many different and differing art practices. This heightened anxiety and queasiness before a dross-life of countdown and beautification are beautifully played out in the achingly frustrating and extremely difficult to navigate tracks the plants are contained within. Couple this with the garish connotations of fake plants and astro-turf and you’ve got work ready-made for the suburbanely-anxious. But what interests me here, within the context of Fiona Gillmore’s mute, belated commiseration are the ominous tones of death’s knocking toll in the processional connotations of companionship and mobile, controllable plants. The binding contract here seems to be this implicit aspect of control and the constrained nature in which it is held-over for the audience’s benefit. Played out in this aspect of the work are themes not overtly familiar to Langford’s practice but are, in retrospect, a quite necessarily underlying feature of it. Take for instance the Flower People work at the Physics Room last year. Sure it was jubilant, yellow hued, almost tropical in its good-looks, but what belied all this was the ticking clocks that so dependently mounted such a spectacle. So even though fake-plants don’t wilt, this underpinning still alludes, even perhaps mounts or gives-way to an incessant cyclical nature. We can refer to this a processional narrative which is played out in so many of Langford’s recent work. Most of these works have all featured

processional elements either voyages or migrations and at the very least mysterious destinations. The abrupt change of scale and location, a circuit within a procession of travel, in the Companion Plant works is also a noticeable shift in her practice. For the first time really, Langford’s work has shifted from its usual miniature scale to become a real-time interactive component. Not that this level of engagement in anyway belittles her previous work and I’d suggest that it compliments and provokes re-readings of her earlier work that urge us to reconsider the direction our readings so easily take. I also especially think that for the first time, Companion Plants offers up a way of reading those very early works which so vastly different to what she’s become so popular for. Those dark lite environments, with their heavy handed, blacked-out atmospheres almost claustrophobic in their enclosure of the audience seem almost quaintly poetic in their inversion of the bright-lite mystique her work so readily


Those early environments which forced our attention onto those glinting spectacles of the precious, invocations of star prick apostrophes now seem wrapped up within this cyclic, processional attitude towards mortality. What I’d like to suggest then, is that wrapped up alongside Langford’s more jubilant work is this more restrained sensibility which we need to pay attention to. An obvious place to start would be the Tinseltown work handily placed opposite the Companion Plants. This works hard-graft realism, at work both in the incongruity of the title and the industrialised bleakness of the town’s appearance makes for a nice contrast against the muted despair of Fiona Gillmore’s Cage for a Songbird. It’s this shift, this gap that heightens the major difference between these two artist’s practice. Gillmore’s work plays out death’s impending enclosure as a poetic, abject sentiment rather than the affectatious tones of Langford who so readily masks this underlying theme. In a sense though, these two practices are almost complimentary in spirit, both intoning a certain jouissance for the path well travelled.

Harold Grieves (writen for presto in exchange for an ad).