Anya Gallaccio – A Responsibility Towards Objects
In a lovely essay for the catalogue ‘Chasing Rainbows’, Ralph Rugoff suggested that the only appropriate way for a text about Anya Gallaccio to behave would be to self-destruct after reading, like the message delivered at the start of Mission Impossible. The critic’s text would slowly decompose, falling apart in one’s hands and leaving perhaps only a few ink stains but no book to find shelf-space for and no document for the archive. What was left would be no more nor less than what one could carry in one’s head.
Rugoff’s prescription to the critic follows the logic of Anya Gallaccio’s work. In some of her best-known pieces, events are staged using organic substances which are then left to decay and decompose in their own, unpredictable fashion. Gerberas, roses and apples dry, dissolve and putrefy in rhythms which no one could predict with the same precision that initially quantifies them. They follow their own course of dissolution, sometimes accelerated by the addition of glass panels that one would usually associate with the preservation of an object or its display for longevity.
Gallaccio’s panels do quite the opposite, choking or stifling their inhabitants, gently fostering their decay. The flowers rot and collapse, generating ooze that drips off the glass, leaving odd shadows and stains on its surface.
Where contemporary culture is forever inclined to predict decay, Anya Gallaccio isn’t. Industrial farming gives us sell-by dates, physics gives us the theory of carbon dating by radioactive decay, and in the States a farm has been built where human bodies are left to rot outdoors so as to determine with exactitude rates of organic decomposition. In contrast, the only quantification present in Gallaccio’s work concerns the initial ingredients : 10,000 roses, 800 gerbera, 8386 narcissi, 1500 apples, 200 pinecones… evoking not only the lists of an artist like Ann Hamilton but, with broader brushstroke, the gargantuan catalogues of the fairy tales and folklore of our childhoods.
These lists lyrically offset the other side to gathering and collecting, the beautiful and abject vicissitudes of decay that Gallaccio stages. Where culture tries to encompass decomposition, her work responds by showing us both the unpredictable and contingent processes at play and also the renewed potentials of material that we consume so mechanically. If the figures evoke amassing and owning, the destiny of the material dispossesses us. And if we consume without giving things a chance to rot, now they have a platform on which to disintegrate..
This aspect of Gallaccio’ work has become, rightly or wrongly, something of a trademark. Her orchestrated decompositions have evoked for many an exploration of ephemerality, instability and transience. Like the vanitas to be found in the religious tincture of classical art, they evoke the spectre of our own demise, like that of all organic matter. We are witness to the grubby and brilliant cycle of life and death, with its changing shapes, colours and odours. Like biographies, Gallaccio’s works have two dates appended to them : the time of their assemblage and the time of their demise.
But these cycles of life and death are not entirely arbitrary. They have been engineered, framed by human hand. Gallaccio has made them, and then let them run their course. As she says, “I set up a situation and then try really hard not to interfere”. They have been called “wonderfully unreliable experiments”. And they ask the question, ‘What happens if you leave something?’
The 1988 Freeze piece ‘Waterloo’ poses this question in a very particular way. It is generally described as consisting of a rectangular floor space covered in lead, yet in fact Gallaccio included, against curatorial advice, the cast of a child’s cardigan at one corner, usually left out of or obscured in installation shots. This odd intrusion is in fact essential to the work, as Gallaccio explains, and it represented, among other things, a gesture of her artistic independence. If the rectangle evoked the copper floor pieces of Carl Andre, the cardigan showed that “I wasn’t an artist” : that is, someone inserted in the whole game of labels which the reference to minimalism would involve.
‘Waterloo’, indeed, is considered by the artist as her first true work, “the first piece of work I made”, and it is significant that a key moment in her trajectory was when Richard Wentworth told her in a tutorial to throw everything she’d done out of the window. After her anger had subsided, she says, “I realised it was a generous thing to say”, and perhaps we can see here a moment of realising the idea that it was possible to lose something. Up until then, she had been working on bricks made of compressed clothing and structures formed from gluing together shells. These compressions, in contrast to the work that would follow, were “about not losing”, about making things that “one could keep”, about holding onto things.
The subsequent work, in contrast, explores the theme of not keeping, of seeing what happens if something is left. Which is not simply to assume that it will return ‘to nature’. In a work like ‘tense’ (1990), for example, oranges are left to rot in a rectangular floor space, reminiscent of the spatial parameters celebrated by much minimalist art. The familiar object, the orange, is first situated in this unfamiliar space and then left to decompose, and yet, as Gallaccio points out, in its decay it becomes more of an ‘orange’ since it smells more orangey, in the same way that her chocolate works become more ‘chocolatey’ as they age. Curiously, it becomes more of a concept the more it disappears as a recognised object, in a gesture that revives all the debates about essential qualities that once so fascinated the philosophers.
‘Forest Floor’ confounds simple oppositions in a similar way. An 8 square meter floral carpet is neatly laid down in a bluebell wood, with trees carefully accommodated as in any proper carpet laying. This strange intrusion of a manufactured object associated with interiors looks marvellously and bizarrely at home on the forest floor. It reminds us of the manufactured, carefully cultivated concept of the forest itself, as well as our preconceptions about country outings, equally manufactured and conditioned. As Gallaccio says, despite our expectations, contemporary countryside dwellers aren’t really too keen on going for walks and they probably eat frozen food…
Although the artist had hoped to watch the carpet fabric decay and fade into its habitat, culture played a cruel trick on her when it turned out that the carpet was synthetic and so refused to decompose. Just as Gallaccio has said ‘I don’t do nature’, here nature ( or culture ) replied ‘I don’t do Anya’.
In another forest-based piece, pinecones were gathered and cast in bronze, then scattered in the original woodland location. Where other artists often investigate the resonances and properties of used and found objects, Gallaccio creates her own found objects, remainders and waste products that are the results of her own deliberate experiments and interventions. Rotten apples fall from a bronze tree onto a gallery floor, globs of wax spill over Plexiglas rings and blood drips through salt. Leftovers are given a new dignity in her work : rather than being equated with waste and hence removed from view, they are made to generate new spaces, new surfaces.
This creation of surfaces is a central preoccupation in Gallaccio’s work. When she threads hundreds of gerberas to make a chain in a piece like ‘head over heals’ (1995), she creates a surface through cutting and dividing the space of the gallery. The chain is an act of inscription, like a “drawing in space”. In her wonderful Serpentine piece ‘keep off the grass’ (1997), she sowed vegetable and flower seeds in the scars left on the gallery lawn by previous sculpture, and in ‘Glaschu’ (1999), she planted seedlings in grooves cut into the concrete floor of a Glasgow law court to a carpet design contemporary with the building’s construction.
Where we would associate a carpet with what covers up cracks, here the cracks constitute the carpet and invert the relations between what’s covered and what covers. The floral patterns emerge in exactly the places where we would expect weeds to sprout up, to generate a gorgeous tension between what’s inside and outside a given space. ‘repens’ ( 2000) extends this motif, with the interior pattern of a carpet formed from wild flowers and weeds in the grounds of a country house. In each of these works, cutting into a space creates a new surface.
These new surfaces can either follow the contours of an earlier surface, as with the use of chocolate paint, or radically break with them, as with the gerbera and glass pieces. Gallaccio has described some of her flower works as “paintings in space”, and her choice of titles like ‘red on green’ echoes this with their reference to Rothko. It is difficult, in fact, to avoid thinking of this latter artist when looking at the chocolate coatings Gallaccio has produced in different contexts. Their uneven and patchy surfaces evoke colour field painting, and the rough mixtures of opacity and transparency created by the chocolate bring to mind the ghostly qualities of Rothko’s later works.
Never one to neglect a remainder, Gallaccio has worked not only with chocolate but with the foil wrappers of chocolate bars that most of us discard without a thought. In ‘chrematis’ (1994), she used this gold foil to paper over the broken surface of a disused swimming pool in Tijuana. Like chocolate itself, the gold had painterly qualities, evoking among other things the use of gold leaf in pre- and early Renaissance painting, where it would often be used in combination with standard paints and precious stones to produce effects of light. Once again, she created a new surface from the holes in an old one.
These artistic acts are reparative. Gallaccio had initially intended to mend the swimming pool after its destruction by an earthquake. In the end, she worked not only with gold foil to cover the fractured points of the surface, but also with flowering Pulmeria, which she planted in gashes left by the quake. Gallaccio has spoken of what she calls a “responsibility towards objects”, and it is no accident, perhaps, that in the Serpentine piece, her flowers and plants burgeon in the places left as scars. As in ‘chrematis’, she generates surfaces from wounds to the previous surface. She makes things grow in the places they have been damaged.