London

Godbold & Wood

Actualites

A cowboy takes aim but never fires, and the Indian’s arrow never leaves its bow. A pony girl rides on a diplodocus, chasing and being chased by a giant tortoise. Everything is out of scale. A man hang-glides from a pterodactyl, and perched on the back of a hippo, a blonde holds a hand grenade. Everything is out of time. Ostrich and zebra cavort before a backdrop of tenements. Everything is out of place. The Lamb of God sits atop a stone egg in front of the Seamans Institute. A fox lies dead in a road tunnel. An elephant takes rose hip tea from a china cup.

The tea is real; the elephant is plastic, an articulated toy attached to a motor. The protagonists are all toys or confections (marzipan fish and sugary cats), twirling mindlessly on motorized plinths and rotor arms. These absurd scenarios played themselves out repetitively—and repetitiously—in 20 boxes that lined the gallery walls. The gallery was blacked out, and the only light came from the boxes themselves. Each box is a cell, and most have photographs mounted on the rear wall, depicting buildings and architectural details from the neighborhood of the gallery. So there are Indian Wars in Limehouse, red Indian chieftains and elks in churches by Hawksmoor and Wren, gorillas among the converted warehouses.

There’s more. Each box is viewed through its front wall of glass, which is a Fresnel lens. No two elements in any box can be seen clearly at the same time. The toys go in and out of focus as they revolve. The lens distorts, reveals, and obscures. The viewer is always trapped between focal lengths, caught out by freakish optical aberrations, prismatic halos, and inverted images. Step back and an entire scene disintegrates into a pullulating, globular, lurid abstraction.

The installation, called “Endangered Species,” was by Godbold & Wood, who have worked together for four years as “artists in collaboration,” as they describe themselves. The word “collaboration” indicates their active relationship with the organizations that mount their installations as well as their creative partnership with each other. I first saw their work in 1986 in the Soho area of London, where they had installed a peepshow in a shopfront, echoing the cheap porn shows in the vicinity, but with a flickering image of Christ visible in the darkened interior through a small window (The Enticement of Weightlessness). Here, two years later, in this gallery in Limehouse founded in 1987 to foster artworks that use London’s docklands as their subject matter, Godbold & Wood made the surrounding neighborhood into a thematic leitmotif for all 20 works. A passage from an 1868 issue of The Times, quoted disparagingly by Matthew Arnold ten years later, was framed and hung on the wall. It referred to the East End as “the most fluctuating region of the metropolis. . . . always the first to suffer: for it is the creature of prosperity, and falls to ground the instant there is no wind to bear it up. . . . in dull times withered and lifeless. . . . There is no-one to blame for this: it is the result of Nature’s simplest laws!” This neighborhood, downstream on the Thames from the City (London’s financial district), is currently becoming gentrified and tarted up as a ghetto for the rich and the aspiring. The docks are lifeless now, but the “Big Bang”of 1986—the deregulation of London’s stock market, opening it up to new traders and causing a boom—has sent shock waves along the wharves and warehouses, cleaning up and clearing out the neighborhood to make way for its new residents. Among the poorer holdouts, unemployment is high, and so is resentment: “Yuppies Out” and other hostile graffiti have been spray painted on the walls and construction partitions all over the area.

Godbold & Wood are not social workers. Who are the “endangered species,” and what comment are they making? It is hard to tell. Everything is conflated, obscured, and elaborated, complicated both visually and conceptually. Perhaps this is the point. We are all misplaced, mismatched, caught between mangled perspectives. The anomalies of modern urban life are obvious. The contradictions of these unmanageable scenes mirror life. It’s all a metaphor—but when isn’t it? The exhibition forms a seamless concurrence with the confusions outside, but it is as symptomatic as much as it is symbolic. There’s as much or as little meaning here as you want, and a sense of nothing being made out of something. That too could be seen as a paradigm, but maybe it’s only a frisson of meaning, another aberration.

Adrian Searle