2016: Issue 2: David Attwood: Don’t Leave stones unturned [1]

David Attwood
David Attwood

Dave Attwood. 2016. Steps. Book and magazine, faux marble vinyl tiles. 22.5 x 30 x 3cm. Photo: Robert Frith – Acorn photography.

Robert Hughes is a paradoxical character, the strange figure of an aesthete in the modern world. His distaste for contemporary art is immortalised in his later documentaries, and his distaste for Duchamp in the very tome that sits in this exhibition[1]. He was also successful in his move to television, and along with John Berger became one of the most readily accessible art critics to mass audiences. The mix of self-admitted elitism and distaste for style over passion ­– and his foray into mass marketability and reach – make Hughes an appropriate piece of the puzzle here; in Dave Attwood’s Don’t leave stones unturned. It is this mix of the high and low that Attwood is interested in, with a floor of false marble vinyl and the visual puns associated with the cheap magazines, art history tomes and a movie DVD case that rest upon it.

David Attwood

Dave Attwood. 2016. Don’t leave stones unturned. Install documentation. Photo: Robert Frith – Acorn photography.

This show is extremely reduced. A simple combination of objects and installation, that is boldly put together and left with a minimum of alteration – a readymade. The principle aesthetic device at play is rare in art: humour and a pun. The initial reaction to such an absence, and such strange un-serious mechanisms seems almost always to be disappointment: that this is a joke, but one that doesn’t really land.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this show though is not its ostensible subject, but the modes of viewership it permits. The show’s reduced nature, while simple, gives an enormous amount of empty space to its objects. The richness of this work is to be found in its ability to open pathways for our own consideration. It is the generosity of Attwood’s practice to leave things with the bare minimum of engagement, and not to overload us with things. It is extremely effective at allowing us to meditate on what we have placed before us. The first reaction is primarily disappointment, necessarily – and perhaps this initial effect will invariably render a negative initial reading – if this work were ever acceptable, it would fail to be effective. Encountering something so reduced and unaltered and mundane is typically disheartening. This invariably leads to questions and doubts, which is where the work becomes duplicitous and nearly impossible to qualify – it interrogates suppositions and biases very effectively. This insertion, of an apt object into a space that will result in the displeasure or disquiet of an audience is the legacy of the readymade as Duchamp employed it. Unlike the argument people have since sublated it to, that it was an aesthetic device, and the mundane becomes art etc. etc. Attwood seems to perceive the impetus that Duchamp himself acknowledges: that he never chose these objects as the result of ‘aesthetic delectation’ (Duchamp, Tomkins, The afternoon interviews) but instead the most disinteresting of objects, mass-produced, that add to the ‘impersonal’ nature of their selection, as Duchamp states: ‘it’s a game between the onlooker and the artist’. Though clearly Attwood’s objects are not disinterested articles of industrial production in the same way, they may as well be – they are certainly reduced to interchangeable commodities: The Shock of the New with New Idea. That they are selected, chosen, and then barely altered at all, allows them to take on the character of ideas in this game.

It is also quite funny, something I am sure Duchamp would appreciate as well. Duchamp was an advocate of humour in practice and life, and Attwood’s wry perceptions follow in this path. Humour is still not overly present in the arts, and often art takes itself too seriously – perhaps even this essay takes itself too seriously. But the arts also often fail to realise how serious humour can be. A whole domain of understanding and sensibility is therefore often locked away.

The ridiculous fact that I was standing there, in this exhibition, in a room with a few pieces of plastic and paper that I could find almost anywhere else – perhaps even a juxtaposition that could exist in any art student’s house, estranged me from the situation. This sort of game is what I imagine must occur in Attwood’s practice: that he finds ideas and plays with them for a while. A magazine folded inside The Shock of the New? I wonder if he once used New Idea as a bookmark in a very similar way, and found something in that simple gesture. There is a tendency towards the one-liner in Attwood’s works, but even with this latest body of work, it is presented with a determination that questions and interrogates – not the subject necessarily, but certainty our own prejudices. It forced a degree of self-reflection and doubt that I didn’t necessarily want, but received none-the-less. The work is ultimately beguiling because of this.

The only striking aesthetic device in the space – that remains a deadpan appropriation – is the incredible change that the flooring gives to the work. Reminiscent of the suburban character that made Suburban Similes and Monument so effective, the flooring, in its cheap commonality and faux-marble finish, give a frame to the activity that occurs on it. It takes the quality of Jarrah flooring surround it, the seriousness of a place like Moana, and plays with that very image. It is their framing on this surface that makes the art books and magazine and DVD case marry up. The ideas of cheapness, falseness, and the references to a history of cultural or material capital are all invoked in this incredibly simple reframing of the space and its contents.

The most interesting part of Attwood’s strategy is his ability to let simple ideas alone. It is this deliberate, disinterested playfulness that marks him as an inheritor of Duchamp’s legacy, which is often abused, but here deployed with the same puzzling effect. He does not attempt to put more things in the space, cram it full to the brim, he leaves us with an absence of stimulation, and we are left to our own thoughts. Attwood’s practice allows us a space in the production of his work too.

[1] It is, for those who are interested: ‘ ‘frigid people really make it’ remarked Andy Warhol…So did this frigid work of art…[The Large Glass] was also a sad machine, a testament to indifference – that state of mind of which Duchamp was the master. Indeed, his finely balanced indifference was the divide between the late machine age and the time in which we live. The large glass was very remote from the optimism that accompanied the belief that art still had the power to articulate the plenitude of life, with which greater artists but less sophisticated men than Duchamp greeted the machine in those lost days before World War I.’ (Robert Huyghes. The Shock of the New )

by Graham Mathwin