Catalogue Essay – Dick Evans,’The Swan and The Spectre’ – URA – Istanbul – 2009


The Last Man – Essay for the catalogue Rooms in Daylight, used like dark woods for the exhibition The Swan and The Spectre at URA Gallery Istanbul

I’m in Evans’ studio in south London. A photographer is here to document the work The Swan and the Specter and the flash bulbs are going off. Evans chooses a moment to hand me a reproduction of a Diane Arbus image shot in Disneyland in 1962. Taken at night in wistfully kitsch soft focus Castle in Disneyland, Cal.62 captures the facade of a fabricated European castle – complete with swan-upon-a-moat. The archetypal castle is illuminated by affected moonshine that does not disclose any onlookers.

Presumably the original structure no longer exists, and forty years on, Evans revisits the scene and converts the image into a three dimensional representation. Without demystifying Arbus’ subject he embraces its theatrics and conjures a conundrum that is neither image nor wholly an object. Costumed from polystyrene and coated entirely with glistening volcanic sand, Evans’s remake disallows one to walk completely around the structure reminding one that it too is but a façade. It sparkles seductively but with an ulterior motive. Thinking back to holidays in Costa Whatever, of miles of inert coastline under flat skies the experience at times was not unlike being in vast, expanded morgue. Evans seems to have gone one up and found one devoid of heat and made from gothic black sand. From its shores a castle seems to have appeared like a mirage…or apparition.

The spectres in The Innocents, a film Evans much admires, appear suddenly when the new governess Mrs Gidddens uncovers dark secrets about her late predecessor and her employer’s dead valet. Believing they have returned as demons and have possessed the children she is caring for, the apparitions become more frequent when she presses children on it. It isn’t clear whether the children are possessed or Miss Giddens is delusional but the faces that appear without will at windows and over lakes seem to be stand-ins for sublimated memories and displaced moral repression.

“ROOMS IN DAYLIGHT, USED LIKE DARK WOODS” is line from the film that is uttered in a formal Victorian style out of synch with the speech of the times used by the characters. Like a linguistic demon, it returns to the lips the prim nanny who, living with the memories of the sexual goings of the valet and his lover, lets it slip as she comes to terms that her attempts to sweep past events under the carpet have been in vain.

Similarly, The Swan and the Specter revisits us as an embodiment of the darker associations with childhood that we tend to keep at arms length. As an antidote to the ‘pure as the driven snow’ white exteriors of the castles that Disney peddles, our charred structure is the demon brother, which, like a septic sponge, has absorbed unspoken abjection. The scale of the work is difficult to pin down. Is it an enlarged sand castle, or has a life-sized one shrunk under a malicious spell? Or perhaps, it has physically embodied the size in was it perceived in the distance as a mirage, lodged on retina of the beholder as an entity that can never be reached. Stuck in some kind of limbo between worlds of the real and the imagined, the living and the dead, The Swan and the Specter comes to stir sublimated memories that we might prefer to remain well and truly buried.

The monochromatic palette is a rule of thumb for Evans, and it makes for a similarly tainted world in which an array of objects, situations and mise en scène laced with subtle existential presence emerge. Scenes such as T25, 2007 in which an abandoned floppy rucksack nests on a pile of black synthetic sand. Over it looms a light used to accelerate growth in horticultural cultivation, that’s proximity to the bag is as invasive as an integration lamp – and just as suspicious. Although it seems to point the finger, it to is complicit in the scenario as it becomes apparent that the type of horticulture might be of the psychotropic kind.

Drawing on a shift made in the collective psyche in recent times that has seen the ubiquitous rucksack go from banal accessory to a sinister and feared object, the vignette is an unpleasant reminder of the relationship between drug culture and violence. It is not clear whether the sense of threat that Evans’ sculpture prompts is real or is the kind of super-skunk induced paranoia of the user. Like the hysterical figure of Mrs Giddens whose suspicions might be well founded, it might also be the case that the mind has fallen victim to psychotic hallucinations.

The sculpture Black Grape, (2006) fashioned from similar inert terrain as The Swan and Specter, freezes the moment of becoming giving a neat spin on a trend evident in British catastrophe science-fiction popular at the turn of century. In M.P Sheil’s The Purple Cloud for example, the author slightly tweaks natural benign everyday phenomena, imbuing it with a creeping otherness. Exploiting one’s sense of awe – philosophical or otherwise –novels such as this upped the ante on nineteenth century ideas of the sublime. When many of the novels were made into films, the genre almost fared as a ‘ fear industry’ that according to contemporary film academics exploited sublimated social fears of the start of a new century.

If Evans uses a similar techniques, than he does so to possible to address displaced or unresolved ontological issues which in some critical circles have but all been dismissed. To ‘talk Existentialism’ might be as fashionable as wearing the proverbial black polo neck, but Evans is restless with the notion.

‘Last Man’ literature is a term given to a sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction that typically focuses on the lone survivor wandering recently deserted cities or finding himself in an empty rural village. The cause of evacuation is almost always unknown, and the dilemma of the protagonist is to try and make sense of his predicament against a ticking survivalist clock. The parallel with the Sartrean imperative that Man is alone in the world is striking, and illustrates a constant process of (self) discovery.

A wasteland such The DX Project offers the perfect opportunity for one to act the last man, as one treads blackened vegetation and attempts to decipher gnarly debris caught in twisted fences. In the name of a ‘ project’ that has had obvious catastrophic results, The DX Project is an example of overtly representational exploits to explore the void contextualising the process through a mise en scène of abandonment. The proposition is simple but effective. By erecting fences that mark a set of limited boundaries, Evans then goes and rigs them to receive radio transmissions. In modifying the dumb structures to receive infinite soundscape it is as if he has given life to the structure – and its debris. However, without any decipherable traffic passing through the installation’s veins the result is a hum of white noise that exasperates the sensation of isolation and helplessness.

The lone thinker. The drunkard. The madman. The flâneur. The autodidact. The ‘last man’ is just an extension of the solitary figure that gained prominence in ‘ solipsistic lit’ and it is the kind one imagines to have been incarcerated a solitary life-sized cell constructed by Evans in 2009.

On the Indestructibility of our Essential Being by Death takes its name from a chapter in ‘On the Suffering of the World’ by a figure of brooding brandy soaked philosophy himself – Arthur Schopenhauer. Recalling Orphe’s underworld, it imitates – perhaps unwittingly – stage scenery of early cinema, captured within a contemporary hard-edged steel unit. A melancholic moon is squeezed in like a dumb appendix, playing its part pictorially in the background of another deserted castle. Wax dripped over bricks has built up like lime scale, and is subjected to a constant lick of milky water that runs down drains into gutters to nowhere.

Fighting awkwardly for prominence are various abandoned articles of clothing and discarded objects. Leather jackets fashioned from white resin has grown some arteries and together with a folded futon covered with slithering varicose veins have leapt ontological categorisation to join the organic order. Elsewhere a discarded boot and a glove with long exaggerated spikes lies near scattered fragments of porcelain. With the evidence in mind, could this place be the final dwelling of a rock star – the last rocker perhaps – a figure perceived to embody a lifestyle of reckless abandonment that to the contemporary eye might look passé? Is it a parable of lost identity, that because of a shift in contemporary standards of excess, a last ditch to regain kudos results in his drugged psyche fusing with his leather gear?

Object and subject fusion – designed to upset the status quo – is an old trick, and one well used in conventional horror and pulp apocalyptic visions. Ham-fisted engagements with the ‘moment of discovery’ aside, Evans uncovers many interpretations of an elusive subject we might label Being. However, surfing through romantic literature, British horror films and unfashionable philosophy, his findings turn out to be articles of artifice themselves. That is not to say he is a po-faced ironist, on the contrary, he might (rather like his predecessors) be said to suffer from niggling feelings of unfinished business with Being – even if it has now been relegated to the special effects department.

Cameron Irving, 2009



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