Ceal Floyer


Art Monthly, Issue 193, Feb 1996

At the opening of her exhibition at the Showroom Gallery, Ceal Floyer was looking agitated. Nothing unusual in this, of course; many artists are nervous when new work is presented to the public. What was unusual was the fact that Floyer was concerned, not that people might miss the complex meanings in her work, but that viewers wouldn't realise how simple it was.

But eventually viewers do realise, because this 'moment-of-realisation' is frequently found in Floyer's work. It's when you figure out what it is that you are looking at: both how simple it is - the 'is that it?' sensation - and yet how complex it is when you put your brain into I-am-now-looking-at-a-piece-of-art mode. An early exampleof this is Untitled installation (194 Goldhawk Road) of 1993, where, as the viewer, you wander through empty white corridors before encountering a room: bare, save a small slide viewer on a plinth. On this is a slide of a pair of scissors, blades open, ready to cut. On exiting the room perhaps you might also notice the small, black dashes which form a broken line running around the edges of the door and walls - even the apparently blank ones that you had just walked past. This line, of the 'cut here' variety, suggests a transformation of the space from a solid masonry construction to one of flimsy paper. But the most powerful sensation is the conscious back-mapping of this experience over the top of the perfectly ordinary experience that you originally had: of walking past blank walls.

This transformation of space also occurred in Mousehole, from the 'Making Mischief' show, where an A4 sheet of plain typing paper rested against the skirting board of an otherwise empty room. The image on the paper was a cartoon drawing of a mousehole, effectively suggesting a variety of ways of perceiving reality, but with each of these fragile possibilities in danger of blowing away at any second. At least it suggested that if you actually noticed it, for this 'not noticing' is another tactic of Floyer's: the works are frequently subtle to the point of virtual invisibility. For Floyer would sooner people didn't see her works than have to make them inappropriately grandiose. For example: the brass 'push/pull' plates on the set of doors leading to both the Fine Art and English departments of Goldsmith's College, which she had re-made so that they read Pushed and Pulled. It is testament to this invisibility that they are still there. As is another work left over from her degree show: Hole, a six milimetre hole drilled into one of the college's plate glass windows, carefully 'repaired' with Polyfilla, an example of the illogicality of logic when divorced from some form of sensitivity. (Or is that just a train-spotterish way of missing the fundamental humour in Floyer's oeuvre?)

The slighter these works become, materially, the closer to the edge Floyer plays. There is no easy option, no falling back on an impressive physical presence; if they don't grab the viewer's critical imagination, then there is no other level on which they can work. They don't even rely on emotive subject matter, as her reductive impulses mean that many of her works are generated by the context in which they will ultimately find themselves. Thus, when given artist's pages in the 'General Release' catalogue at the Venice Bienale, she opted not to reproduce some previous works, but to take on the concept of artist's pages. The result was two blank pages. Blank, except for the page numbers of course - they were a given - she had merely added the 'th' to the digits. Thus, the '46th' and '47th' pages were Floyer's. Another page of hers was the one in her project for the generally book-oriented Imprint 93 press: a one page book. The page, of course, was blank. What was Floyer's intervention, then? This single page had a dog ear: the top corner folded over. That's a Ceal Floyer book. A Ceal Floyer exhibition consisted only of a mechanical counter, whose infra-red beam traversed the centre of the space registering the number of visitors: her first gallery project, Untitled installation (Showroom Gallery). Or how about the A4 sheets of paper that have each had an outline cut into them: that of a pair of scissors, blades open. These are her drawings, but she has not drawn out the image and then cut around it; she was observing the implement whilst cutting, thus he tool is creating an image of itself in action. There are many sheets of these, and one day perfection will be reached. Maybe.

However, most of Floyer's popular works incorporate some form of illusion. But the illusions are always so obvious in their construction that they somehow refute the very possiblity of illusion. A perfect example is Door, seen in 'Just Do It' at the Cubitt gallery. When entering the space you notice at the far end a door with an inordinately strong light pouring through the gap between it and the floor. Facing the door, on the ground, is a projector. At first you wonder where the projection is - it cannot be behind the door. Not finding it, you check that the projector is actually on - it is. Finally, it dawns on you that the light at the bottom of the door is not coming from behind the door; it is coming from on the door: an extremely thin strip of light is being projected onto the door's surface. This is an astonishingly effective illusion which, when I watched, took people between about 30 and 90 seconds to work out, even though, in a sense, it was obvious: the projector was in no way hidden - it never, ever is in Floyer's works - and it was only two metres away from the 'screen'. This gives Floyer the chance to innocently claim 'but that was no illusion, I was never hiding anything; it was just a strip of light projected onto a surface', like a magician with sleeves rolled up and hands held out, and yet the illusion was perfectly believable. To parallel this was the fact that an elaborate, yet deniable, meaning could be read into the work: the door as portal to another level of reality, with the white light - traditional symbol of spiritual goodness - gleaming out to us. It seems to suggest that, if only we could remove the mundane barriers of the material world, the truth would flood out and we would, literally, see the light. But would Floyer back-up this reading? Of course not; this is, after all, just a door with light from a bulb falling onto it. The 'illusion' that we perceive - that there is something beyond - is only what we have deluded ourselves into believeing by obstinately refusing to piece together the logic of the obvious. People standing around puzzling over what may lie beyond the door look staggeringly stupid when you have already 'worked it out'. We may find it hard to resist these traps of 'meaningful' readings that Floyer has set in her work, but the doors of perception remain firmly shut.

Viewers who obstinately read artworks literally which, unsurprisingly, exasperates most artists, would please Ceal Floyer - what is aimed for is a finely balanced paradox of the obvious literalness of the work, coupled with the pressing urge to read further into meanings which present themselves so shamelessly. Maybe this is the crux of the work: the furious tension between literal, matter-of-fact mundanity and the imaginative construction of meaning - a tension dependent on simplicity of presentation. And it doesn't come much simpler than Floyer's. But this simplicity, although stripped to the point of the obvious, never merely states the obvious. And nor is it ever just dumb, although the brutality of the logic can sometimes seem without intelligence. No, this simplicity is closer to an aesthetic, but not that of an artistic tradition; it feels closer to the transparent elegence of a mathematical formula. Why? Because with apparently little effort they describe complex reasoning to an astonishing degree of precision. This analogy should not be pushed, but it does go to show that simplicity, self-reflexivity and reduction do not necessarily lead to throwaway one-liners. Perhaps we could say that all Floyer's works are one-liners that you could write a book about.

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