Exhibition view, Moon Under water, MCA (Malta Contemporary Art), 2009

Rupert Ackroyd puts his constructed-sculptural approach to matter through the materialist strategies of consumer culture. His battles with weight and form, in cut-and-shut assemblages, monumental structures and modular installations, make humanoid opponents out of iconic pop-cultural symbols and the domestic effects of his showroom-styled arenas. But don’t expect an anti-consumption rant—the viewer is consistently pulled between the different associative territories of the studio and shop floor, the gallery plinth and the soapbox. Ackroyd conveys—through specific combinations of elements—the tragi-comic coalescence of brand and social, high-art and mass-market ideals, mindful of the individual’s susceptibility to and culpability within the concept-to-product cycle.

Second-hand stuff may have become an art production staple again in recent years, but there is little in the way of historical slack between the familiar forms and objects Ackroyd employs. The pervasive sense of yesteryear evoked by particular domestic, art and design sensibilities appears purposely generated in every case to stir up debate on the contexts one associates them with. For all the up-to-the-minute metaphors and experimental material play in evidence, the restrained formality of Ackroyd’s practice makes it hard to pin him to a particular career point. In fact, he is only just out of recent graduate territory having completed his MA at the Royal College of Art, London, in 2005 following the BA sculpture course at Winchester. Since then, he has accrued exhibition credits at international venues such as Malta Contemporary Art, the Russian Club in London and is now represented in the UK by Dicksmith, a gallery in the East End of London.

Ackroyd is concerned with the external processes that influence our contextual relationships to things, specifically the designs behind the display and marketing of objects as commodities. His quietly subversive variety of object theatre appears directly informed by institutional and commercial rationale—those that determine the desirability or essential nature of given items to everyday life. The monument, museological display, domestic mantle and shop diorama provide critical structure for his intimate, borderline forensic, study of how one material facet can affect another. Yet, despite the air of control, the happy accident is still given room to surface; via the floating notion of an unexpectedly poetic manufacturing mishap, for example, an unconscious street-side arrangement of junk.

The London-based artist may reduce pre-existing modes of display to the point of austerity, but personal recognition of symbols and clutter, or the humour of utility, come undone, engage with his perspectives on particular cultural oddities. Take ‘T-Rex’, 2008, a lumpish, minimalist concrete animal form (with a yet-to-be-assembled head), caught between two and three dimensions. It’s a broken monument to the king of Palaeolithic beasts as resurrected through toon iconography and food product promotion (see ‘Turkey Dinosaurs’, a 2007 Bernard Matthews range designed to increase uptake of poultry products in the face of Avian Flu). Or the perfectly titled ‘Third Place Shelving’, a doorway sculpture unit based on the generic eaterie’s bland arrangement of stuff concerned with what happens to the meaning of fetishised or historically pertinent objects within brand display. Like mention of a third leg or eye, access to another dimension is implied, in this case, perhaps, through a portal at the intersection of café/cultural and boardroom/society interests.

Exhibition view, Moon Under Water, MCA (Malta Contemporary Art), 2009
Exhibition view, Moon Under Water, MCA (Malta Contemporary Art), 2009

Ackroyd’s attention to detail suggests hours spent observing the peculiar environmental dynamics of workaday commercial venues and tidy suburban settings. His creation and handling of ‘original’ and ‘borrowed’ objects describes the sense of dislocation that moving between places, or coping with the increasingly complex referential territories the (appropriated) object and (reconfigured) context relationship induces. I recently had the pleasure of stumbling across his ‘Coffee Table (NatWest)’, quite literally, en route through Dicksmith’s pocket of Liste 09, Basel, in June. This seemingly harmless combination of porcelain piggy banks (the kind given away in the 1980s as incentive for young savers), and a glass-topped 80s-style IKEA table, is sharp in every sense: salient comment on the culture of borrowing, as regards both economic wealth and collective nostalgia.

Any propriety implied begins to pale the closer one gets to an impudent large-scale work or ventures into an appropriated set-up. Ackroyd is, perhaps, best known for installation works built out of the absurdity of the branded scenario. IKEA, as business model and lifestyle choice, has provided fertile ground for his interest in market-made culture. In a talk scripted on the subject, first given as part of the Russian Club’s salon event Cabinet Particulier, 2008, Ackroyd acutely conveys the ritualistic nature and implications of the IKEA retail experience and the ‘cult’ behaviour it encourages. One can trace the material mutation of such lines of enquiry through his works to date: from the point-of-sale presentation of Ackroyd’s MA exhibition Innovations, to the site-specific direction of Moon Under Water, 2009 at MCA, Malta, a unit-styled historical repository for local design devices.

‘Domestic lite’ is how Ackroyd describes the first of his retail outlet sculptural series, the aforementioned Innovations, a still highly relevant point of departure into his world of artifactual consumables. While this description segues neatly with the project title, connecting the world of superfluous inventions (the late Innovations catalogue) with that of mass individualism (IKEA’s affordable design), it belies the subtle register of his modifications of everyday things: the summoning of uneasy states between function and expression, humour and critique. Each hybrid element of this multiwork appears about as useful as the latest mail-order gadget and as self-consciously styled as any interior design product. But whether an abstracted marble figurine improbably balanced on an ashtray, or a potted-plant radio, the overall mood manifested, here and elsewhere, hovers between the shop floor and the loftier heights of the gallery, just beyond corporate reach.

Rebecca Geldard is a writer based in London