“This is taking the mickey and we want the top of our mountain back.” So said Ian Stephens, managing director of Cumbria Tourism, in response to Oscar Santillan’s The Intruder, part of his current exhibition at Cøpperfield Gallery. This diminutive work’s conceit is that it constitutes the ‘highest inch of England’, the apex of England’s highest mountain, Scaffel Pike. The artist’s gall in swiping this emblem of the English countryside has drawn criticism from broadsheet and tabloid journalists alike, garnering an unusual amount of publicity for this curious exhibition in a little known gallery.
Artists have always pillaged the landscape in the figurative sense, Stephens has argued, but Wordsworth and the like never physically altered it. Santillan, clearly upset by the charges of insensitivity toward the environment, compares his action to pocketing a pebble and maintains that he did not use force to remove the fragment of rock. It’s an appropriately absurd debate for an exhibition which delights in the absurd at every turn. Santillan questions the ways we try to quantify the world, pushing them to extremes to reveal their inadequacy. In this way, perhaps, he can be compared to Wordsworth; his wonder at the irreducibility of nature.
The works on show are bewildering in their scope, speaking to themes of evidence, translation, relics, the physical and immaterial worlds. The Wandering Kingdoms, a set of Toyobo printing plates which reveal the inverse image of musicians hidden in woodland, are rooted in ornithological history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we are told, ornithologists had to train in musical composition in order to ‘record’ bird song in musical script. Markedly different to the contemporary world in which everything can be recorded, these early attempts to capture bird song were fundamentally creative, a romantic vision which Santillan pays homage to in these ethereal plates.
Another history tapped by Santillan is that of Nietzsche and his struggles to master a defective ‘writing ball’, an early form of typewriter, which the great philosopher apparently purchased with anticipation, hoping that it would enable him to write books ‘opposite’ to those he had previously produced. The body of work that has come out of the artist’s archival research, Afterword, presents a tiny piece of paper, torn from one of Nietzsche’s manuscripts, that was used by a medium to connect with the philosopher one hundred years after his death, alongside a film and two prints connected to the typing ball. Inspired by Nietzsche’s determined attempts to use the typing ball, described by the philosopher as efforts to teach his fingers to “dance” with it, Santillan filmed the medium who conducted the séance performing a dance. Also shown are two prints which reproduce the collected errors for which the typing ball was responsible, testament to this errant machine’s incursions into Nietzsche’s work.
The inventor of the writing ball, Santillan discovered, had a family immersed in spiritual world, which provides a neat connection to the séance. The exhibition as a whole is inflected with these seemingly chance resonances and connections amid a tangle of facts and fictions. Meaning is presented as a temporary alignment, leaving us with the impression that everything could easily have been otherwise. Mysticism is a recurring theme in the artist’s work – Zephyr (2013–14), not shown here, tells the story of how Santillan posthumously realized Jung’s desire to see ‘the civilizations of the jaguar’ in a journey involving a replica of Jung’s three-dimensional birth chart, a vacuum cleaner and a shaman.
Shaggy dog stories which question the veracity of historical narratives and Enlightenment ideals have long been a mainstay of contemporary art, but Santillan’s work still has the power to perplex. His positioning of the object; the mountain-top, the archival fragment, as a relic, a conduit between the spiritual and the scientific, says something profound about the conflicting narratives we impose upon the material world, the relic being inherently bound up with both proof (‘here lies…’) and the mystical. The exhibition is also about translation, a related concept in that it is about the passing of one kind of information into another. The ‘relics’ shown or evoked here are conduits for translation: the typewriter, the notated birdcalls, the fragment of paper, all involve information passing from one medium to another. And they ask us to question what gets left behind.
Oscar Santillan:To Break A Silence Into Smaller Silences – Copperfield Gallery – until 9 May 2015
Words: Laura Purseglove photo courtesy of Copperfield Gallery © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved