‘I hadn’t heard of any of them, so I tried to remember them so I could Google them when I got home… It was getting hard to keep all the things I didn’t know inside me.’ This sentiment, expressed by Oskar Schell, the precocious nine-year-old inventor, Francophile and protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005, is similar to the initial impulse provoked by Michael Fullerton’s most recent installation, Pleasure in Nonsense . The space is populated by six skilfully painted portraits of a motley cast of famous and unfamiliar characters, two discreet sculptures that share the installation’s title, a triangulated triptych of a bunch of roses in various stages of completion, two screenprints of a scene from a tabloid photo-story and a reproduction of a textbook table summarising cases of psychological dysfunctions and suggested therapeutic treatments. The portraits depict familiar subjects such as hairdressing pioneer Vidal Sassoon, and more obscure ones like Judith Miller, a former New York Times journalist, who became known for exposing the CIA worker Valerie Flame.
While it is tempting to read the elements of the installation as parts of a narrative, it’s tricky to establish any definite and meaningful relationships. Is the woman in the painting ‘Rupert Murdoch’s third wife (Wendy Deng)’, 2007, pictured because she has her hair cut by Vidal Sassoon? It turns out that the woman in the painting is not Wendy Deng at all, but a Page 3 girl—another of Murdoch’s ladies. The assemblage of individuals in the installation is cryptic and there are few apparent clues as to the motivation behind Fullerton’s selection of his subjects.
One way of tackling the enigma is to consider the eponymous sculpture composed of four condoms inflated with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. This piece, together with the title of the installation in its original context (Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All too Human, 1878) suggests that, in the absence of lengthy explanations about the links between its components, this show could be seen as a eulogy to the absurd. Nietzsche writes that pleasure in nonsense derives from the ‘overturning of experience into its opposite…in such a way that this event causes no harm’. Such a liberation from the shackles of necessity brings delight. On my visit to the exhibition, one of the condoms had lost some of its gas and become shrivelled, a deflation that chimed with the presence of the table of pathologies and two portraits whose titles referred to relationship therapists.
The apparent complexity and variety of elements in Fullerton’s installation together with the fact that unfamiliar and familiar faces and names might somehow be related, triggers an urge to seek a mystical, secret substrate that might lead us to an understanding. On the other hand the title, Pleasure in Nonsens e, stirs up a conflict between the desire to go home and Google it all in order to reach that understanding, and the temptation for instant gratification: inhaling the laughing gas and, as Nietzsche advocates, flipping the necessary over into the arbitrary, liberating ourselves from the inexorable master of reason. But the conflict creates a wonderful tension, allowing the opportunity to find pleasure in its nonsense and ability to arouse our curiosity without giving everything away.
Ellen Mara de Wachter is an artist based in London