A transitive verb requires an object to express a complete thought. Obfuscation is exactly this type of verb: a verb that needs to transfer its action to something or someone in order to make sense.
The soles of my shoes are squeaking against the Hunterian’s wooden floor. I am at once aware how excruciatingly audible I am in the presence of Impey’s quietly pensive objects: the sound my soles are making as they peel from the polished wood is a rubbery-rasp rendition of the word ob-fu-scate, mildly accusational, but refusing to settle and attach itself to any object in particular. Pristine white walls with visually minimal and theoretically dense works in contrast, a rational underpinning of objects described in black exhibition text circumscribed by white paper—the obfuscate word ineffectually drifts around the gallery, playing vagrant in a world where specificity is king .
A squat mechanical animal titled Exta (2019) stands in the centre of the main space. Its body is an unclothed armature of steel squares and rectangles with perfect corners, a purified version of animal anatomy which does away with the messy complexity of reality. This skeletal structure speaks the language of minimalism, or perhaps of museum display design. Its geometric forms translate as an attempt to demonstrate an idealised or objective animal body, a body without organs. Mounted at the head of this creature is a single horn, maybe a bird (as interpreted by the gallery attendant), and dangling from each corner are solid cast objects that look like metallic shrivelled flesh. Limp and lifeless, these could be casts of anatomical samples pulled out of a jar of formaldehyde when in reality they are simply casts of plastic vents used to circulate air in car engines. Despite knowing this, having already scrutinised an etching in brown ink of Prometheus Eaten by the Eagle by Charles Rogers (1769), I’m primed to see the bones and flesh of animal sacrifice.
Rogers’ drawing is a copy of another by Luca Cambiaso, depicting the Titan Prometheus having his liver eaten by an eagle as punishment for secretly bestowing humanity with the technological gift of fire. Being an immortal, Prometheus’ liver grew back each night, only to be devoured again the next day. A nasty predicament, serving to remind humanity that there can be excruciating costs to technological progress, particularly where vested interests are at stake. According to Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Prometheus fashioned man in the likeness of gods using clay and water which the goddess Athene breathed life into.
High up in the corner of the ceiling is Nesting (2019), a squiggle of blackened wire, obviously of no use to an egg since it would fall straight through the gaps. The wire is a by-product of the electroforming process Impey has used to make the leg-forms of Exta (2019), a mystical sounding construction process in which wax forms, coated in electrically conductive paint, were left in a bath of chemical electrolyte for several days. With the application of electricity, positively charged ions migrate towards the negatively charged leg and a pure crystalline metal structure slowly forms, a structure that eventually becomes strong enough to stand without its supporting wax.
In 1730 Stephen Gray began to investigate electrical properties of the human body, choreographing a public performance in which he instructed an orphan boy to climb up some silken cords. By placing a positively charged tube at the boy’s feet, the negative charge in the extremities of his body caused particles of gold leaf to leap into the boy’s fingers. By the early 19th century public interest in Animal Electricity or Galvanism was widespread. In 1803 a man named George Forster was hanged for murder in London, his body publicly dissected and used to demonstrate the intimate relationship between electricity and the vital spark of life. According to a contemporaneous newspaper article:
‘On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened.’
This terrifying account must have enthralled readers who were already perturbed by the flimsy distinction between the categories of life and death. Mary Shelley was a girl at the time of this gruesome demonstration, and her introduction to Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus cites experiments in Galvanism as presenting a possibility of imbuing a man-made creature with ‘vital warmth.’ Where Prometheus succeeded in bestowing his creations with the artifice or tekhne that distinguishes humans from other animals, Victor Frankenstein failed. Unable to look his creation in the eye through shame and fear, he is unable to bestow the gift of compassion, and is hounded by his monster as well as his conscience.
In the pages of Frankenstein, Mary Shelly’s critique of highly abstracted creative power is charged by a displacement of feminine experience. Complicated technical processes act as a surrogate womb, but co-dependency between progeny and progenitor would pull the rug out from under the concept of objectivity. The empty cathode waste nest is still there up in the corner. Instead of cosseting an egg it is treating the gallery as a host environment and the only living sound is the squeaking of my shoes.
Jessica Ramm is an artist and writer based in Glasgow. Her writing conveys embodied responses to objects, material processes and social situations while also attending to the inner life of emotion, intuition and symbolism. In her reviews, essays and exhibition texts Jessica seeks to identify problems artists encounter in their work and to look at how these problems reflect wider social and political issues.
Alex Impey is a visual artist who lives in Glasgow. A graduate of The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL, and of the Master of Fine Arts at Glasgow School of Art, he was awarded Glasgow Sculpture Studios’ Gordon Foundation Graduate Fellowship for his MFA degree show in 2011. Impey’s work, which takes in sculpture, installation, drawing, writing and video, has been featured in solo exhibitions at venues such as Hangamura, Sadogashima, Japan (2017), Collective, Edinburgh (2017), David Dale Gallery, Glasgow (2014) and Raum fur Kunst, Lucerne, Switzerland (2012).