Matthew Tickle

The English landscape is one of the most worked over in the world—barely a square inch of it has escaped the attention of landowners and developers. Arguably, England’s most important and ambitious contribution to the visual arts is “garden design,” whereby entire forests, hills, and lakes can be created and destroyed in the twinkling of an eye.

Matthew Tickle seems to confront that state of affairs head-on in his new installation, ironically titled IDYLL, 1999. Tickle created a mock woodland in Matt’s Gallery, an installation space on the ground floor of a former industrial building in London’s East End. Entering the gallery, one was stopped in one’s tracks by a mass of light-brown plywood columns (sixty-three in all), distributed in such a way that they simulated the irregular distribution of trees in a forest. The columns extended from floor to ceiling and were rectangular, almost square in circumference, their proportions echoing the two concrete pillars supporting the ceiling.

The far wall of the gallery is pierced by a tall window, which looks out over a canal and, beyond that, toward a wasteland presided over by derelict gas cylinders. Since the installation was not artificially lit (Tickle removed the lighting system), its appearance was affected by the time of day and the weather. In the evening, floodlights mounted on the exterior of the building lent IDYLL an eerie, backlit glow.

One of the main virtues of Tickle’s installation lies in our uncertainty of whether his mise-en-scène represents a colonization of “white cube” industrial architecture by nature, or the cultivation of nature by means of a Minimalist topiary. Is this the revenge of nature or the revenge of culture? The easiest answer would be to say that it is a peculiarly modern accommodation between the two. One thinks of those postwar mass-housing developments, in which enormous high-rises are situated in “picturesque” clusters amid landscaped parks.

IDYLL wasn’t configured quite like that, though, for some of Tickle’s columns were packed uncomfortably close together. Moreover, the “nature” analogy implies that the columns could keep multiplying until the space became claustrophobic, even inaccessible. We are surely meant to feel the sort of anxiety that Surrealist writer Louis Aragon expressed in Le Paysan de Paris (1924) in relation to the erection of statues. Aragon feared a Malthusian explosion of public sculpture, which would eventually make it impossible to move through the streets and fields: “Humanity will perish from statuemania, that’s what. The god of Jews, who feared competition, knew what he was doing when he prohibited graven images. Great private symbols exercising their concrete power over the world.” IDYLL, too, is about the struggle for personal space in the world.

James Hall