Crowe and Rawlinson

At Liverpool’s FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s work was billed as an “exploration” of faith in contemporary society, but the four technically ambitious video works on view evidenced a more reflexive and less easily summarized field of operation. The single-screen, large-scale video projection The Fireworks (all works 2007) documents a great idea: an outdoor firework display staged inside an art gallery (the same gallery at FACT in which the video was subsequently shown). The show’s title, “At 25 Metres,” refers to the official safe viewing distance for publicly purchasable fireworks. The Fireworks, then, was a thoroughly reckless exercise. Rockets smash into walls, sparkling fountains rain down gold and silver needles, and as the opening salvos give way to a furious climax, accumulating smoke turns the space into a fog of diffused color and changing light. Wide-eyed, the viewer gorges on the optical feast and trembles with the sound amplification. Perversely packing an ambiguous image of irresponsible pleasure, danger, violence, and brilliant extravagance into a small, dark physical container, the work certainly lends itself to thematic “readings-in”: for instance, the issue of the white-cube gallery’s relationship to spectacle culture, or “the way in which munitions of a different kind have become a staple of our visual culture in recent years,” as FACT’s handout sententiously intones; but such readings only function to contain the poetic image’s explosive power.

The Carriers’ Prayer, another single-screen work, shows a cluster of “scally fireworks” arranged in what looks like the altar area of an Edwardian church building. Beloved of English youth in the urban northwest, these straggly objects consist of knotted-together plastic bags. Ignited, in this video, they whoop bizarrely and send flaming dollops streaming upward—or rather, downward, because the plastic stalagmites are actually stalactites dangling from a “floor” that’s really a ceiling. In fact, the church is a full-size model, purpose-built upside down, and the video footage has been inverted to make it look right side up. The fiery prayers appear to be rising heavenward, but they are in fact dribbling burning plastic. However, the artists have downplayed this fact, which seems a mistake; it so dramatically expands and destabilizes the image’s potential reception, complicating its more obvious topical references (say, to religious fanaticism) with issues of form and structure.

Two Leprechauns and The Name of God intertwine expression and inscription with miscommunication. In the latter, local Christian, Islamic, and Jewish youths stand before the camera and write their deity’s name with sparklers; but because they are writing in reverse (from the audience’s viewpoint), and the sparklers’ lines of light do not persist, the viewer is effectively “cast out” of the work— “exorcised” by the participants’ emphatic, ritualistic-seeming gestures. In Two Leprechauns, the artists, dressed as a couple of those mischievous elves, hail one another in Hebrew and Arabic spoken with an Irish brogue. An “evocation of a stubborn belligerence” defining the Middle East conflict, maybe (FACT’s leaflet again); but the work’s effectiveness is underwritten by its sheer bizarreness and the chirruping, solipsistic leprechauns’ capacity to annoy.

Yes, newsworthy “issues” (or problems, rather, such as urban delinquency, terrorism, religious sectarianism and fundamentalism, the Middle East crisis, and so on) are metaphorically figured in these works. However, a caveat of Gaston Bachelard’s seems useful here: Metaphor, for him, is “fabricated,” short-lived, “a crude polemical instrument”; in contrast, poetic images are the “pure product of absolute imagination” and inextinguishable, because they confer being upon the reading subject rather than vice versa. Crowe and Rawlinson’s practice launches a genuine poetics, and beneath the surface of the “issues” lies a compelling meditation on the friction between instrumental metaphor and poetic plenitude.

Rachel Withers