Sam Keogh, Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe (detail), 2021, mixed media installation and performance. Installation view. Photo: Rob Harris.

Sam Keogh, Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe (detail), 2021, mixed media installation and performance. Installation view. Photo: Rob Harris.

Sam Keogh

On three separate nights during the opening week of his exhibition “Sated Soldier, Sated Peasant, Sated Scribe,” Sam Keogh gave a live performance outdoors. Script in hand, he unraveled the flamboyant story of an artist undergoing questioning by UK border guards, who suspected the traveler of attempting to smuggle cigarettes through London Stansted Airport. In doing so, he wove fiction together with fact: The guards had mistaken a series of folded paper collages by Keogh for cigarettes; these very collages were installed in the Centre for Contemporary Art’s basement as part of Keogh’s show. As Keogh read, he addressed three stand-ins for the guards—human-scale cutouts of a pig, a unicorn, and a clock—that had been taped to a curtain-like backdrop. Over the course of his twenty-five-minute, Irish-accented monologue, the artist touched on a variety of subjects, many pertaining to the concept of time. A cluster of ceramic human-body parts lay at his feet—a leg, a chest, and a head—a reclining proxy that tapped into the theme of doubling that courses through the artist’s work.

Initially the installation was silent, but beginning three weeks after the opening, and for the rest of the three-month exhibition schedule, Keogh’s voice played through speakers installed near the exit to his show, behind a painting based on a Situationist-style poster reading I DIDN’T GO TO WORK TODAY. The script was thus reperformed—disembodied and differently present. The collages formed a total installation, while the artist’s voice emphasized the polyvalent character of the images. We heard about the act of covertly drawing during university meetings held on Microsoft Teams; about Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1567 painting The Land of Cockaigne; and about the set of six fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries, “The Lady and the Unicorn,” held at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. We also heard about the pig in Bruegel’s painting and saw it taped to the backdrop for Keogh’s live performance. Both artists depict it with a carving knife lodged in its skin, trotting along a boundary. Pigs signify cops. In post-Brexit Britain, the police reinforce white supremacist social and property relations.

Quoted by Keogh from the Cluny tapestries and appearing on an indoor curtain hanging were the words MON SEUL DESIR (my only desire). The text was barely legible in the basement gloom; spotlights illuminated parts of the installation to dazzling excess while leaving others dim. The artist spoke of violent desires, from gorging on pig flesh to wrenching out the unicorn’s horn. The horn, materialized, was also propped against a wall, symbolizing disappointed desire: We passed it on entry to the installation, fresh from an encounter with a human-scale ceramic model of the fallen white-shirted figure in Cockaigne, its hollow inside painted in a deeply serious and riotous multicolored palette, matching the rich full spectrum of colors of the collages, as well as those of How to Win, an anthology of writings and images that features Keogh’s text “Ford Fiesta.” (Published by Tories Out Propaganda Unit six months after the most recent UK general election, the book includes a text and graphic design by artist Sophie Carapetian.) The Cockaigne figure also had a hole in its head, into which the horn would fit. Set apart from the figure, the horn resembles a bleached-out and twisted cousin of one of André Cadere’s barres de bois rond (round wooden bars), 1970–78.

Keogh has spent more than a decade knotting together plays of associations before loosening them for audiences. On this occasion, he delved into the appetites for pleasure and sabotage he imagines once to have been enjoyed by the millefleur weavers of the “The Lady and the Unicorn.” Their freedom to improvise meant that they could siphon money and materials out of the commissioners of their work. Perhaps this speaks to Keogh’s own terms of service in London. His theatrics appeared indebted to theoretical arguments regarding the need to work the gap between productive and aesthetic labor, as in Marina Vishmidt’s 2014 essay “All Shall Be Unicorns,” which also underscores the need to break the capitalist’s clock.