These new works by Rebecca Ackroyd are tense. Bruised and intestinal ceramics rest on top of resistantly-nostalgic resin casts of a car seat from the artist’s childhood; then on the walls, orthopedic steel-rebar interjects liquidly-impervious silk and gluey resins; it’s neatly chaotic.
On first sight this leaves a troublingly absence, with everything bodily obliterated except the formal quality of their impressions. But in removing this corporeal grounding, Ackroyd draws us into these assembled casts and silks and of what it feels like to make this work. Departing from an earlier interest in formalism, these new works – part of a practice of thinking through doing – feel freer, but they also suggest a violent way beyond the previously gangly and fragile metalwork in works such as Almost There (2012, left) or the deadpan flatness of drawings like Nape (2013, right).
When we first started talking about the work in her studio I mentioned Lana Del Rey, the sort of suburban, anodyne sadness that she expresses. Ackroyd’s work isn’t exactly the sort of suburban masculinity some of the part of this show with its boy racer car parts might refer to – but in this calm violence of suburbia it instead lead to some another quote; “growing up in a place like this, it seems like there’s a blanket over the whole world.” This was Jim White, the Southern, American, Singer-Songwriter talking about growing up in the Deep South; growing up in the slow expanse of the sub-urban had the same effect. Like a blanket drawn across the horizon the suburbs enclose these experiences in their hyper reality, it’s both comforting and claustrophobic.
But it was this violence – of silk on rebar, of scattered parts, “piercing, and slashing” – resolving in some sort of post-crash narrative that drew me to recall the feeling of suburban tension in Ackroyd’s work. The works don’t try to represent suburbia, rather, in placing us among this uneasily tense para-urbanity, the clear process of layered materials and false-colour reliefs press back into memories of that space. Of course I came with expectations, but the objects in this show encapsulate everything I’m drawn to and tried to move away from in the suburbs when I came here to London. Similarly I think this reading is only possible given that Ackroyd too has opened up to the same desires when making them.
Reading these remembered fragments soft-focus is on: the objects, scattered, pierced and slashed, recall some sort of collapse, this inevitable narrative inserts you into the hole left by this unseen ‘burban accident. But as objects themselves the artworks also become the material of an ongoing practice of tactical re-forming. They are the traces of that feeling of figuring-though and experimenting with identity that is so tensely suburban.
Perhaps it was after returning from a study exchange in Japan — where Ackroyd was also perhaps more than a bit impressed by the deep profanity of represesed sociality and self hood in Mike Kelley’s L.A. retrospective at MOCA — but it is in these new works in which Ackroyd’s work explicitly begins to think about these desires. “I found that really inspiring. I suppose the whole experience made me think about desires and teenage desire, and fantasy…when I was looking at it that really took me back to being at school and I just thought oh god that feeling” (Rebecca Ackroyd, 2014) — That feeling of school, teenage desire, and fantasy. It’s like “…that kind of weird thing where you have all these feelings about things, but you’re not meant to show anything, and you’re always trying to fit in and always trying to repress something.” It is work, not about, but of that weird age in that weird place where you’re not really an adult yet, but nor are you a kid anymore. About being drawn back in.
The calm violence of fragmented car parts and pierced silk points at this deliberately awkward tension, yet at the same time it is what opens up that specifically indeterminate narrative — “when I first took one of these out of the mould… it looked really violent and I kind of didn’t know how to feel about it, I mean just felt really uncomfortable…and the more I made them, that didn’t really go away.” Instead this narrative is just it. The cloying simulation of shopping-centres and miles of privett never merge with the ultra-reality of boredom into one comfortable image. It’s seductive and grotesque. The ambivalently violent absence of other bodies is it. The suburbs encloses all experience like a blanket and the tension of the ‘burbs is totally awkward and totally lived as awkward.
Recent trends in philosophy aiming themselves at the age of global networks, advanced-capitalism and data that’s always-on point consistently to a sort of objective dis-embodied, ambivalence in objects and things. For these philosophers, this is a post-anthropocene era in which the limits of our understanding from our human-centred vantage point has to be exceeded. In this broad church, often going under Speculative Realism, the Kantian mirror of the human subject as a the measure of the world of objects is either shattered or turned around, “away from the subjects to the world: the world is in a relationship with itself.” (Timotheus Vermeulen, Frieze, 2014). Objects don’t necessarily have any relation to the subjects that once created them. While reinvigorating and re-centering modern philosophical debate, it is also massively compromised in its “…tendency to treat social and economic discourses as mere side aspects of organic evolution, or a disregard for issues of race and gender.”(Ibid).
The suburbs have always embodied for me a similar ambivalence. I grew up there, and on the edge of the city, the suburbs are captured by the fear of capture: a certain passive aggression that comes with the claustrophobic comfort of living on the edge of the roamy-freedom of ‘the great outdoors’ and the compacted otherness in the city but never truly needing to engage in either. Projected outdoors, a privately public space, this always felt like it was inflected by a specifically male fear; mobile phone: holstered; body: protein-fuelled and primed; car: fast and clean (always clean). Its delineated and gendered spaces drew a deep distinction between indoors and out – between the car-space, the pub and the internal privacy of the family-centric home is prefaced on a deep disconnection with materiality of that environment. But at the same time these objects invoked both the blankness and possibility of the suburbs. It’s violent safety was deeply inflected by objects and our relationship with them.
Ackroyd’s work points instead to an alternative strand in the deeply anthropomorphic contingency of objects and our relation to or through them. As critic of SR and one of the founders of neo-materialist feminism Rosi Braidotti said recently; the body is “immersed in radically immanent relations. You don’t think in a mind that fantasizes a relation between being and knowing” We cannot step outside of the “slab of matter that you inhabit.” And so while the world of thinking-objects, advanced-capitalism and data mean that Braidotti can also claim that while we are all “already post-anthropocentric” we cannot and shouldn’t de-couple being in a body to perceiving that world. Things in the world are not separate to bodies, but coterminous and continuous. Likewise, the objects in Ackroyd’s work are anything but ambivalent to the narrative they are part of.
The work is purposeful… “I wanted it to be closer to me, or to be more like it was something that feels like its coming from me” even though for a while it made her feel uncomfortable and a bit sick: “I now feel comfortable enough where i don’t feel like I need to over-explain it, I just don’t feel like I need to.” Here then, in the muted awkwardness of these deliberately anthropomorphic objects, was the suburban melancholic sadness I was reminded of – like the crash of material (it has to be mentioned that Ballard was an influence) when I’d first seen the works collided in the corner of the studio; was that ceramic bone marrow or a severed big-bore exhaust. It’s hard to say.