Steven Claydon’s tribal ‘artefacts’ – on show in Glasgow and on the Isle of Bute – cast us all as magpies drawn to exotic treasures
Steven Claydon: The Archipelago of Contented Peoples – Endurance Groups Common Guild, Glasgow ***
Steven Claydon: The Archipelago of Contented Peoples – Introduced Species Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute ****
In 1961, Michael Rockefeller, a fourth-generation son of the American dynasty, disappeared while collecting artifacts for US museums in the Asmat region of Netherlands New Guinea. His body was never found, but rumours circulated that he had been killed and eaten by indigenous peoples who practised cannibalism.
A decade later, another American, artist and activist Tobias Schneebaum, went to live among the Asmat people and helped establish a museum there dedicated to their culture. In his book, Wild Man, he describes living as they did, including eating human flesh. Interviewed by film-makers in 2000, he said he had met Asmat cannibals who described finding and eating Rockefeller’s body.
Neither of these men are directly referenced in Steven Claydon’s exhibition at the Common Guild, but they lurk in the background like restive ghosts, and offer clues to themes: consumption and being consumed, artefacts and cultural appropriation, how objects change their meaning in new contexts and whether they retain their significance.
Claydon, who was shortlisted for the inaugural Hepworth Prize for Sculpture last year, is a bit of conundrum. He has a sculptor’s sensibility for forms and materials: the works are meticulous and well-made, with a sculptor’s attention to balance, space and weight. The heavier objects sit on gym mats, leaving a delicate impression of their weight. LED spotlights are used both as lights and as additions to sculptural forms. But his practice is research based and conceptual. His assemblages of found and made objects and images are clearly working through ideas but they avoid any conclusions. He skirts issues of colonialism and the appropriation of indigenous artefacts by the West, prefering to create a miasma in which ideas float freely without ever being pinned down.
Tribal artefacts are everywhere: solemn god icons peering down at a plinth, which is actually a camera lens coated with gold, displaying a collection of gold teeth; figures tied round the necks of gas canisters (which are empty but would contain the gases released by the putrefication of flesh), or perching on top of frames; and, perhaps in the most overt examination of consumption, chewing on gold-coated pill packets.
He also plays with the works’ sculptural qualities. The largest piece in the Common Guild show consists of two great beams resting in a metal frame (resin made to look like wood, as the exposed ends reveal), each topped with the head of a Polynesian canoe, also resin, but made to look like ancient wood, which in turn was made to look like the heads of crocodiles. A replica grenade balances on one end.
And then there’s the Pink Panther. Claydon gives us a clue about the philosophical basis of the show with a quote from French theorists Deleuze and Guattari on how mimicry is “a very bad concept” because it appears to link two things which are not, in fact, the same. They continue: “The pink panther imitates nothing, it reproduces nothing, it paints the world its colour, pink on pink…”
So perhaps nothing here is what it seems, nothing is a metaphor for anything else. The rigour in Claydon’s forms and ideas sets up expectations that the work can be decoded, if only we had the right clues. Certainly there are histories and associations implied here which are not evident to the viewer, but there is also a wilful opacity which defies our attempts to get the measure of it.
It is interesting to bear this in mind as one approaches Claydon’s companion exhibition at Mount Stuart, the spectacular neo-gothic country house built in 1880 for the third Marquess of Bute, and host every summer to a residency by a contemporary artist. The resulting works can be placed anywhere within the house or grounds, but must contend with the lavish decoration of both; the house, in particular, is beautified to the nth degree with carving, tapestry, stained glass and the family collection of paintings, furniture and artefacts.
Claydon’s works seem to highlight the aspect of collection (conveniently, there is also currently an exhibition of family treasures, The Art of Power, at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, with a small offshoot here in the dining room, which is lined with Ramsays and Raeburns). The grounds are a kind of collection too, with trees and plants sourced from all over the world. Claydon’s silver-plated god icon from the Pacific, laid on a table in the library next to an inkwell, makes one look harder at the other objects: that dragon-shaped samovar, for instance, perhaps once imbued with meaning and purpose, but bought at auction as a rich man’s play thing.
The guiding figure in this show is not Rockefeller or Schneeman but Princess Ka’iulani, the last heir to the Hawaiian throne, who was half-Scottish on her father’s side, and spent quite a lot of time in Scotland. She heralds, perhaps, a show about connection and communication, about ties between those Pacific islands and these in the north, one archipelago and another.
In the Marble Hall, three tall “slit-gongs” from the Vanuatu islands – wooden pillars embellished with figures and used as drums in rituals to contact the ancestors – are paired with three tetragonal structures about the shape and size of phone boxes. For added quirkiness, the two smaller slit-gongs have been on a journey to a hyperbaric chamber where they have been taken to the depth of a Pacific trench.
In the Wee Garden, a tall tree-like sculpture with a mask facing to each of the four winds looks somewhat like a mobile phone mast (the gardeners have been quipping that it might improve their phone signal). In the chapel, the sculpture seems to be in a dialogue with the room itself, mirroring its “double-skin” structure, gothic screen work and the votive figures of saints on the altar. And, for those who would care to walk so far, in a beehive-shaped well some distance off in the Mount Stuart grounds, a mask smirks out from the darkness, a happy little deity who I hope gets left behind to puzzle future generations of visitors.
In the rich context of Mount Stuart, Claydon’s work takes on fresh resonances, even as it throws fresh light across a historic collection which has remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years.
Endurance Groups until 9 July; Introduced Species until 29 October