16 November 2007–13 January 2008, South London Gallery, London
Thomas Zipp’s Planet Caravan. Is There Life After Death? a Futuristic World Fair, takes its title from a song by the British heavy metal group Black Sabbath, and draws on classical, scientific and pop-cultural epistemologies, combining painting, drawing, sculpture and appropriated photographic imagery.
In the third incarnation of a work shown earlier this year at Kunsthalle Mannheim, and Museum in der Alten Post, the centrepiece is a large chapel-like structure containing a granite font inscribed with the words LATET ANGUIS IN LUMEN (a snake lies hidden in the light)—a modification of Virgil’s ‘Latet Anguis in Herba’ (‘A Snake Lies Hidden in the Grass’).
The font contains mushrooms growing, not from water, but from sawdust, beneath a sealed glass lid. A lamp hung from the ceiling illuminates the font and the surrounding walls—which are lined with black canvases depicting a mountainous panorama. Interpolated into this landscape is a series of numbers of ascending value, so that the votive fungi are to be read in relation, not just to the modified Virgil lyric, but to a numerological system. The significance of both is cryptic, for Zipp does not deploy this information didactically, preferring to integrate it into the expressive timbre of the work.
That principle is applied faultlessly throughout the installation, particularly in the freestanding presentation panels scattered around the exterior of the chapel, each representing an epistemological model by which mankind has attempted to understand reality. What is interesting about these is not their fidelity to the depicted episteme, be it cosmological, poetic, scientific etc, but the slippage that occurs through the use of painting as a means of conveying it.
The temptation is to think that when the pictorial space is treated conventionally, that is to say illusionistically, the representation is more decipherable; and that the more liminal the representation the more cryptic its message. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this inconsistent fidelity is central to the work’s appeal. We are offered, variously, devices that recall abstract expressionism, the conceptual poetics of Marcel Broodthaers, the deadpan approach of Magritte, the assemblagist slapstick of neo-Dada, the blitheness of Kippenberger, the sombre pedagogy of Joseph Beuys, the restraint of Tuymans, the voids and informes of endgame postmodernism.
Described thus, Planet Caravan might sound overly schematic. Fortunately, there is madness in Zipp’s method, a madness bequeathed by painting’s manifold idiosyncrasies—here marshalled with the adroit timing of a Royal Variety Performance. If Zipp were a mere artist, the work might have taken on a prosaically conceptual tone, a po-faced ticking of intellectual boxes; the fact that he is so instinctively a painter—a person trained in the manipulation of coloured mud—forestalls this.
Although the work’s signature refrain—the presentation stand—recalls a mercantile format, Zipp’s method is not the simple transposition of art historical cornucopiae onto the eclecticism of the ‘world fair’. His scholarly interests are clearly diverse, but he does not covet eclecticism for its own sake. His material is not ‘nominated’; he does not so much cast around for ‘tropes’ to paint as set tasks for painting to accomplish. Zipp’s painting is painting as an applied art: rather than ossifying the medium with the formaldehyde of over-intellectualisation, he uses its mercuriality to emulsify differences of informational, aesthetic and epistemological register.
And no matter how object-based the work gets, it remains defiantly pictorial. Interspersed with the presentation stands are lumpen, pretzel-like sculptures that, in their synthesis of Moore, Hepworth and DeBuffet, seem like sarcastic representations of a received notion of ‘Modern Art’, the kind of thing we might find, perhaps, at some far-flung 1970s Expo, effete signifiers of modernity—or what Rancière might call a symptom of modernatism, which might be defined as that condition by which art asserts its separateness from other cultural activities: that condition by which the ‘modern’ is enforced as an eschatological regime rather than occurring as a natural, inaugural phenomenon.
As the most recent of numerous projects in which artists have erected structures to partition their work from the white cube’s regime of modernity, Planet Caravan interrogates the past with the language of the modern; that is to say, interrogates periods in which art and other cultures were more integrated with the very mechanism by which art sought to separate itself from them.
This approach goes way back: through Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room, 2002, the Rothko Chapel, 1970, Oldenburg’s The Store 1961, all the way to Duchamp’s Étant Donné, 1946-66. But such partitioning, we may contend, simply reaffirms the modernist sanctity it seeks to disavow. Thomas Zipp’s concern here, is one of integration rather than partition.
Sean Ashton is a writer based in London