The elaborate ambiguity of London-based Phillip Lai’s collection of works in the solo exhibition, A metal bar fell on someone’s head or something, is a subtly humanistic bricolage of formal and conceptual elements. Altarpiece to the exhibition, ‘Untitled’, 2007, a large colour photograph of a teen male and female, backs turned, acts as a binder to the individual sculptural elements on show.
The piece immediately implies the action-response of human interaction that overarches the exhibition, referring to the effect of the artist’s hand and the potential for movement and use in the static works on show. Captured in the photograph the models pose slumped forwards, one with her hands, as if tied, pulled awkwardly behind her back. This suggestion of restraint and its physical implications provide an anxious, fragile structure to the exhibition.
Opposing the photograph is an aluminium, scaffold-like construction, the physical element of Lai’s complex ‘Keynote’, 2007. In this work the gallery acts as a former for a construction which mimics the shape of the space, although slightly smaller and withdrawn from the volume it emulates. Facing the photograph, the structure suggests a framework that could support the weight of a single person in a continuation of narrative in reference to the image.
Enigmatically, a film, part of the ‘Keynote’ piece, is intentionally undisplayed. This absence is not evasive but understatedly romantic, giving a depth to Lai’s work that offers insight to those to whom this is revealed: the film captures the upside-down suspension of a clothed male figure. To this extent the fact that this relies on intimacy and disclosure results in a sensitivity toward his use of materials in this and other works. The scaffold rests together with small pieces of denim and other materials clamped between the joints, foam strips hang perpendicular from the construction.
The relationship between the photograph and structure-based piece sets a precedent for the other works in the exhibition. Interaction, or the suggestion of it, is overwhelming, specifically the suggested potential for sound and its evident ‘lack’.
‘Find Random Places’, 2007, divides the floor of the gallery almost equally in half. On one side sand covers the concrete floor while on the other plywood panels, slightly raised in the centre, suggest a potential fall, padding the floor and inadvertently displacing the sand. A large metal eyelet with accompanying cable tie is screwed into the floor amongst the sand, producing an uncertainty in all that is viewed within the space, requesting greater attention to the other intricate elements of the exhibition.
A smaller ‘Untitled’ work rests on the floor, a stack of yellowed sheet-foam providing a low plinth for strips of metal. This work provides an aesthetic balance to the post-conceptual ‘Keynotes’ and an uncertainty to the pictorial work which suggests an avenue of concealed narrative. Lai’s gentle aesthetic approach in this show creates an intimacy his subject matter, while his post-conceptual ‘Keynotes’ diverges to explore the role of aesthetics in contemporary conceptual practice.Collectively these individual elements share the same frangible beauty that repeats an accord of absence.
Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP