Bill Woodrow


Since the late ’70s, Bill Woodrow has transformed salvaged objects through a process combining archeology with clinical surgery. He has often amputated and transplanted consumer appliances in order to promote new meanings. The new pieces on display here, which have been made over the last 18 months, have changed most conspicuously in terms of the material used—it is now fabricated, rather than found. In lieu of objets trouvés, Woodrow uses production-line sheet metal that he welds himself. Sheet metal is cut up and soldered in an almost deliberately rudimentary manner. In the earlier works, consumers’ delights were not only carved up, but were also converted, if not perverted ; Woodrow’s iconoclastic attitude was witty and incisive. The new pieces seem to lack that sort of cheek. Woodrow’s desire to build afresh makes itself very clear: the visual language is flamboyantly symbolic as well as literary, yet the literary aspect of the imagery belies the complexity of the symbolism. For example, several configurations recall childrens’ pop-up books, with their fairytale architecture and echoes of mythical monsters. This pictorial effect is made more remote through the mixing of metaphors. The distancing effect is accentuated by the use of “floating” words, either inscribed onto surfaces, almost in the manner of graffiti, or hoisted up like ensigns, as if to send messages.

In these pieces, Woodrow pursues a state of ironic absurdity. Island, 1988, is made up of curvilinear metal containers lying on the floor in wedges, somewhat like geological maquettes. The only signs of life are a tin-pot little house, a windblown tree, and cords that link up to images of boats. The graphic imagery is almost banal, yet the symbolism is rich, because of the ambiguous nature of the cords: are they shackles or life-lines? In The Glass Oar, 1989, a globe is wedged into a boat, which is sealed and perched against a cactus tree. A beautiful transparent oar is supported by a network of rigid wires engraved with ambiguous words such as “power,” “affectionately,” and “source.” Corporate Identity, 1989, features a snake emerging from a metal box and winding its way around the outline of a house, in order to devour the letter “Y” from the golden word “EVERYTHING,” which is lying on the floor. In the bottom of a black box lie two other golden words: “I CHERISH." A tiny door cuts into the base line of the house and a crab scuttles along the top edge. The Last Fruit (The Tree of Idleness), 1988, portrays an uprooted tree whose dead metal branches sprout door frames, lit up and leading nowhere. The last fruit is a golden TV set. Future Perfect, 1988, shows a turtle rearing up at a tape measure that is unleashing a stream of tanks. A padlock hovers threateningly and a key lies abandoned on the floor. The complex iconography requires considerable speculation; any apparent sense construed from the disjointed words can be but illusory.

The ubiquitous umbilical cord of the earlier works has been cut. The link between cause and effect (or source and representation) was already parodied in those works. As in certain hieratic forms of theater, stylistic conventions are used here to accentuate the satire. Previously, the general butt of Woodrow’s derision was consumer waste. These works aim at a more precise target: namely, Thatcherian economic policy. Like Flemish 17th-century vanitas paintings, which the Encyclopedia Britannica defines as being composed of “objects . . . often tumbled together in disarray . . . suggesting the eventual overthrow of the achievements they represent,” these works imply a moral warning against earthly actions and pleasures. Not that Woodrow would ever exhort the spectator to consider morality and repent. He prefers to leave interpretation open to the individual and to enjoy a diversity of reactions.

Virginia Whiles-Serreau