Birmingham

Ceal Floyer

Ikon Gallery

On the eve of her exhibition at Ikon, Ceal Floyer performed live at the nearby Symphony Hall. Her scheduled contribution to the early evening concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was simply but sensationally billed as A Nailbiting Performance, and it was exactly that. As the audience awaited the orchestra’s appearance onstage, Floyer strode from the wings onto the conductor’s podium and proceeded to examine her cuticles, bite her nails, pull at her fingers, and occasionally look up and around her with laboriously feigned indifference. She did so for a good five minutes before quitting the stage to good-natured applause from a bemused concert audience that, adrmttedly, included a sprinkling of enthusiastic art-world well-wishers.

Floyer’s performance had much in common with the projections and object-based work for which she is best known: the twisted literalism of the work's title, the elaborate working through of a simple premise, and the crucial element of reflexivity and double take. Her trenchantly unconvincing performance of stage fright did not obscure genuine performer’s nerves. The parallel can be seen even in the show’s earliest work, Light Switch, 1992, a 35 mm slide projection of a light switch onto a wall just inside the entrance to the gallery’s first room. This luminous image emanated from a freestanding, elevated projector in an otherwise dark and empty space. The work’s self-explanatory tide was at once misleading and accurate. True to her word, Floyer indeed provided us with a light “switch,” a replacement of the real apparatus with an entirely undeceiving illusion. To speak of Floyer’s work in terms of illusionism, however, would itself be deceptive and illusory, given the painstaking measures she takes to lay bare the tricks of her trade. Jeremy Millar, in discussing Floyer’s work, has made a useful distinction between effective imitation or mimicry, on the one hand, and “impersonation,” on the other, where the viewer’s pleasure depends on an incompleteness, if not a failure of illusion. In Floyer’s work, what you see is what you see, and also, crucially, not what you see. Her characteristic point of departure for the diversion of the everyday into the absurd is a point of linguistic pedantry. Thus, the apparently brimful but suspiciously lightweight Garbage Bag, 1996, is exactly what it says it is, despite the fact that it is filled with air rather than actual garbage.

Similarly, the video projection Downpour, 2000—close-up footage of rain taken on a blustery day—is a working through of the literal implication of its title, which cheerfully ignores the fact that most downpours don’t actually pour straight down. The image gamely struggles to remain aligned with the constantly shifting angle of precipitation of the windblown rainstorm, despite the fact that this means that the framed slice of the world beyond is tilting crazily this way and that. Downpour’s rigorous literalism distantly echoes Fichte’s legendary dismissal of any incongruities between his philosophical system and the real world (“So much the worse for the facts”), just as the madness in Floyer’s method recalls the systematic irrationalism of certain earlier conceptualists (Sol LeWitt, say, as read by Rosalind Krauss), for whom a joke and an idea were by no means mutually incompatible categories.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith