PRINT January 2001

Matthew Higgs

THE BRITISH ARTISTS OLIVER PAYNE (B. 1977) AND Nick Relph (b. 1979) recently achieved the rare distinction of, respectively, being failed and dissuaded from pursuing their undergraduate art studies at Kingston University. At a time when British educational institutions are actively seeking to bolster enrollment, Payne and Relph’s situation is all the more puzzling given that they are the authors of two of the most compelling works seen in London for some time: Driftwood, 1999, and House & Garage, 2000, shown simultaneously at the fig-I gallery last summer.

Payne and Relph make films that approximate the language of documentaries. Embracing wholeheartedly the dramatization of reality that the true documentarian strives but inevitably fails to avoid, Payne and Relph set about creating densely layered filmic essays that chart the ebb and flow of London’s urban and suburban malaise and bring to mind earlier documentary works as distinct as Robert Smithson’s seminal photo-essay The Monuments of Passaic, 1967, and Dan Graham’s persistently influential video Rock My Religion, 1982–84. Driftwood, filmed on video in central London, is a tightly scripted twenty-five-minute dérive through the concrete jungle, witnessed via the sidewalk-level lens of its skateboarding narrator. By turns romantic and bilious, the video borrows liberally from the psychogeographical musings of London literary chronicler Iain Sinclair, its underlying theme the routine alienation of contemporary urban life. Driftwood revels in the psychological potholes of a city struggling to embrace the future yet burdened by the legacy of its past.

House & Garage eschews the metropolitan savvy of its predecessor. Set in the hinterlands of the capital’s southwesterly suburbs—home to London’s white-collar commuters—and shot in video, 16 mm, and Super 8, it adopts a more intuitive, often contradictory style; think of Wolfgang Tillmans’s encyclopedic eye set against a sound track provided by Erik Satie. Reminiscent of the short films that the late Derek Jarman made to accompany the Smiths album The Queen Is Dead, House & Garage’s thirty-three-minute kaleidoscopic spectrum mirrors the social unease of its disenfranchised subjects, frustrated youths ultimately at loggerheads with their parents, a benign generation of weekend joggers and amateur line dancers. Wistfully melancholic, often hilarious, House & Garage acts as a rite of passage for its youthful constituents, climaxing with reverse footage of a millennia1 firework display played out over a barely audible take on the Sex Pistols’ “No Future.”

Currently filming Jungle, due to be completed this spring, Payne and Relph have set forth on an expedition into Britain’s remote rural heartland. Pitched some somewhere, according to the artists, between The Blair Witch Project and City Slickers, inasmuch as it will embrace the former’s sense of vérité and the fish-out-of-water absurdity of the latter, Jungle promises to be a sardonic lament of the fading of Britain’s farming aristocracy, its subtext an exposition of the malignant sense of fear that lies beneath the surface of the rural idyll.

For those frustrated by a British art that may increasingly appear to be little more than a succession of conceptual one-liners or prurient double entendres, the precocious depth, willful complexity, and reckless ambition of Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s project inspires—even at this early stage—a renewed optimism.

Just over a year ago, MATTHEW HlGGS was named associate director of exhibitions at London’s ICA. A lecturer at Goldsmiths as well as at the Royal College of Art and an artist in his own right, Higgs has produced artist’s editions for the likes of Chris Ofili, Frances Stark, and Elizabeth Peyton under his Imprint 93. Last year he organized “Protest & Survive,” with Paul Noble, at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery (see review, p. 135); Higgs’s “City Racing 1988–1998,” a look back at the eponymous South London artist-run space, opens later this month at ICA.