In an increasingly fractious and borderless world, we have fewer systems with which to measure our experiences. Even artists and musicians, traditionally guides through experience, have, for the most part, been happy for their work to be absorbed and appropriated by the same contemporary models of material power that have created problems for their audiences. Power and art happily legitimising each other in a merry dance of death.
In the gap between what we do (consume, wage war, pollute) and the consequences of these actions (distant industry, international wars without domestic pain, disposable products that will outlive us), there exists a significant moral vacuum. Traditionally, in politics, such a vacuum has been filled by the lazy but easy rhetoric of the far right. There are other artistic ways to fill this vacuum however. Reassert the humility of existence and the democracy of death. Question privilege and imagine ourselves differently.
With the work of Lenka Clayton, I see an attempt to explore this equality of soul. The world she envisions is constantly rearranged according to more generous principles, offering us the chance to see the familiar through with new eyes. In ‘Berlin’, a 2 x 1.5 metre municipal map of Berlin is studiously cut up in to 39 categories and then gathered together in sealed bags. A bag of schools, all the graveyards together, the roads- now leading nowhere, all huddled together in a trite, but permanent pause. Here the houses stumble and pile on top of each other in a bag, whilst the open parks have more space in their bag by virtue of their scale and infrequency. It allows us to consider the city differently, regain a sense of wonder for our environment. She deconstructs the received order of authority and cheekily reauthorises it according to a different logic.
In ‘Herd’, another piece, stuffed animal heads from taxidermy museums are rehung in a corridor according to the original height of the animal. Their overly shiny eyes intruding through walls, less willing to be dusty and contrite above us in artificial peace. As you walk down the corridor, their horns now at waist height or near your eyes, become a danger once again. The violence has been rediscovered, and some dignity restored.
Finally, in ‘Qaeda quality question quickly quickly quiet’, George w bush’s infamous ‘axis of evil’ state of the union address is meticulously cut up and rearranged alphabetically. At once a gesture of joyful naivety and innocence, and also laced with the darker implication that this might be a more coherent way of finding meaning in the string of half-truths, platitudes and dangerous hyperbole. Once words such as ‘American’ are separated from sister words like ‘people’ we can start to consider the priorities of the political scriptwriter and examine in a more scientific way, the immediate structures of power. In a speech that is supposed to be about the contemporary state of America, there are few mentions of words such as ‘poverty’, or ‘teacher’. Instead we have countless ‘Americans’ and almost as many ‘terrorists’. In a nation in which you are more likely to die from eye cancer than a terrorist attack, it is clear what discourse this government is engaged in. To suggest that that is the work’s motivation however is to do it a gross injustice. It is a simple formal device that could just as easily be used to rearrange the lyrics on a Beatles album or the small print of a credit card application form. Other than its choice of subject, it makes no other formal allowance for content. It could just as easily be appreciated by the right wing as the left. Furthermore, it is extremely funny. The traditional artistic portrait of bush points out his inarticulate truisms, platitudes and fumbles. His perceived power is weakened by the perceived humiliation, but as Bergson pointed out, in casting someone as buffoon one no longer sees them as dangerous. Spitting Image’s representation of the queen on the toilet hardly caused a wave of republicanism in the U.K. In Clayton’s piece however, Bush remains, in principle, in tact, only his silences excluded and the intended meaning muted. The process again allows us to see the familiar from a position of the unfamiliar. A chance to see language and speech as a thing of wonder, not, as in this case, to encourage violence. The absurdity and simplicity of the structure allows us to rediscover the wonder of innocence. This sense is of course heightened by the sheer technical and moral feat of deconstructing, making and re-editing pieces such as these. Clayton’s total commitment to the rigour and principles of the process in each instance (no short cuts), constantly reinforces the wonder in the work, and creates a totally rigid structural and moral integrity.
In a world where sense of scale and measurement of experience have long been destabilised by the hijacking of the language of morality by governments, Clayton’s work remains a powerful force of commitment: commitment to find clarity, commitment to ask questions, and a commitment to see value in detail.
– Modern Painters July/August 2006 “Matthew Herbert on Lenka Clayton” Matthew Herbert