Rodney Graham

Lisson Gallery | 27 Bell Street | London

Sitting on a plinth just inside the entrance to Rodney Graham’s recent show was a scale model of a turn-of-the-century mail truck. Like its life-size counterpart realized for an installation in a Rouen arboretum last year—a movable camera obscura that will be repositioned to document a new tree each month throughout the year—Model for Camera Obscura Mobile, 1996, is fitted with lens and bellows; one photograph taken in this way with the original wagon was exhibited alongside the model. The piece signaled Graham’s conception of the gallery as a modern viewing chamber that meshes the scientific and analytical with the sensuous and spectacular. The building’s architecture lent itself to this task: the two front spaces meet the outside with floor-to-ceiling windows, lenses through which the world can be projected onto the gallery’s surfaces.

The building opposite the gallery is a school, which was relevant both to the inverted tree, photographed on a college campus, that hung on the back wall of the downstairs gallery, and to Aerodynamic Forms in Space I–II, 1977/1996. The latter is a series of prints of “aeronautical design errors,” each showing parts of a model-plane kit assembled so the planes will “not work.” Originally shot twenty years ago in a studio across the road from a schoolyard, these photographs found completion here by being exhibited under similar circumstances. Children’s Trollies, 1993, painted metal units displayed on the floor of the gallery, recall Donald Judd’s later polychrome sculptures. There is a small gap between two of the units in each trolley, into which Graham has slipped a single Dr. Seuss book. Minimalism has been “ABC art” since its beginnings, but few have wielded the term to prise open its forms, allowing content to spill out.

In an earlier homage to Judd that did not appear here, Jokes/Case Histories, 1988, Graham inserted the two eponymous paperback volumes of Freud’s writings into a green-and-yellow wall unit. His interest in Freud was again revealed in Schema: Complications of Payment, 1996, a videotape, a collection of posters, and a painting, all concerning the exchange of money between Freud and his erstwhile colleague Joseph Breuer. The work centers on Freud’s accounts of his own “Botanical Monograph Dream” in The Interpretation of Dreams, a text Graham has used before. Surprisingly, this was a dream that Freud did not analyze on waking; instead he daydreamed, deferring analysis to the evening and thus opening up a gap between fantasy and its interpretation. It is into this gap that Graham has reached, constructing the “unconscious” of Freud’s interpretative processes. He introduced the theme of the older Breuer’s refusal to allow Freud to settle his debts to him as he wanted—complicating it instead with the settlement of a further debt owed to Freud by Breuer’s niece. Graham’s research is painstaking, drawing on letters and other material to build a scenario that, while rational, suggests a use of facts that is so overdetermined as to teeter on the brink of madness, or at least a total loss of the ability to decide what is or is not appropriate to think in relation to a work.

The nonfunctional arrangements of Aerodynamic Forms, the fissures in Trollies, and the space opened up by postponed analysis in Schema all contribute to the charting of the Modernist unconscious. This is also tapped in Coruscating Cinnamon Granules, 1996, a work that inserts a domestic space into the gallery—a projection booth whose dimensions correspond to those of Graham’s kitchen—and then expands it to cosmic proportions. A black and white film loop shows an electric hot plate heating up and then cooling while cinnamon is sprinkled onto it. As the spice burns, one can see pricks of scintillation all over the screen, both while the ring’s elliptical spiral is glowing and when it has been switched off, but is still hot. The scale of what one sees is at once clear and ungraspable, its limits indeterminate.

Michael Archer