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Installation view Precursor

Despite its minimalist formality, Nicolas Deshayes’s new installation Precursor’, 2011, mediates densely packed tensions. These conflicts arise from the binary oppositions the artist weaves between both material and form, and theoretical and personal reference points, which move the work beyond its aesthetically industrial tradition.

Scale is key: of the work in relation to the viewer, and its occupation of the gallery’s tight corridor-like space. Four large panels, each in a different mottled pastel colour, almost cover the length and height of one wall. They appear to be made of black-core phenolic, the industry standard wipe-clean resin composite used to construct public toilet cubicles. The installation possesses an awkward physicality. Even when backed up against the opposing wall, one can never quite survey the work in its entireity and, consequently, it appears to dominate the viewer. It is a symbolic representation of the power industrial material can exert over its end users. The panels resonate with a number of art historical references in relation to their size, form and colour—not least to Mark Rothko’s later muted works, with swathes of powdered black, blue, cream and brown. Deshayes’ meditative intensity and evocation of spirituality is rendered through the prosaic and scatological nature of his materials.

A number of frames are attached to individual panels with hinges. Each hold a series of textured, vacuum formed, plastic sheets, their surfaces wrinkled and bubbled by the heat used in the process. Three of these—two yellow and one white—are hinged vertically, while a further five yellow framed sheets are attached horizontally, positioned below the three former vertical appendages. A final white sheet, again horizontally attached, bridges the gap between the two groupings. While their kinetic nature seems to invite the viewer to interact, the precise, symmetrical composition appears resistant to touch, movement.

Installation detail Precursor 
Installation detail Precursor

Mounted onto another wall, is a photograph taken inside the artist’s studio of his pin-board. Tacked onto the board is various reference material: an obscured black and white photograph, an image depicting a drought ridden landscape of cracked earth (echoing the textures of Deshayes’s vacuum formed sheets), and a standard A4 print-out that documents one of 20 untitled ‘Photosculptures’ made by the late Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow in 1971. The utilisation of an earlier artist’s work should be understood here as a chemist’s reference, where a ‘precurser’ is a catalyst for a reaction that produces a secondary compound. Szapocznikow’s work—originally presented as grainy silver gelatin prints on baryte paper, and captured stretched, shaped and chewed gum sticks—is intimated as the origin of this installation. Formally seductive, ‘Photosculptures’ evoke Szapocznikow’s tragic personal history of trauma and ill health (she grew up in various Nazi concentration camps, witnessed her fathers death at a young age, and eventually lost her life to breast cancer aged 47). This biographical reference elicits a certain conflict within the makeup of Deshayes’s work. The gum’s comic materiality is sharply contradicted when one reflects on Szapocznikow’s biography. The spectre of illness haunts the installation material’s suggestion of sanitation.

Such a reference is not merely an aside. The body and its well-being have been previous subjects of Deshayes’ work. His 2008 sculpture ‘System Sustained’, for example, features a totem of four concrete breezeblocks, each brick sandwiching four circular vitamin-C tablets in a precarious stack. ‘Public Work (1 and 2)’, 2009,meanwhile, comprises two stainless steel urinal troughs, each sporting three evenly-spaced urine splashes suggested by an appropriately shaped silhouette of overlaid vinyl. In older work such as these two pieces, the messy effluvium contrasts with the shiny pristine surface of the urinal. Now, for ‘Precursor’, Deshayes uses materials from the same industry and juxtaposes them with Szapocznikow’s investigation of corporeality. Sexual undertones stalk Deshayes’s practice—previous exhibition titles include Cultural Wood and Stiff Peaks, both staged in 2010—and his use of inorganic material, with its purposeful tastefulness and various attributes to combat natural human functions, is testament to the Freudian veil we attempt to draw over our desires and biological drives. With sex, piss and illness forever prevalent, industrial design can never quite succeed in fully masking the dirtiness of human nature.

Oliver Basciano is a writer based in London