“It’s all a bit weird” said a middle-aged man as he hurried past me at the RA Schools show last week. As a fellow middle-aged male he might have expected me to agree but he did not wait for my reply. Having thought about it since, the overall weirdness quotient of this show was in fact quite low but the two artists that struck me as the most and the least weird were my particular favourites. British-Chinese/Vietnamese artist Will Pham’s film An Viet (Well Settled) was a touching insight into a staple subject of mainstream documentary TV: the fate of migrant communities in the UK. The weird ambiance of Charlie Fegan’s video installation matched the weirdness of his sources: an obscure political/mystical tract on unemployment by the notorious artist, Eric Gill, better known for his erotic art was allied with an unloved, deteriorating public sculpture, Draped Woman, cast in concrete by an obscure Czech artist, Karel Vogel. It languishes on the verge of the A4 Great West Road in West London but is now listed.
Will Pham evidently possesses the key gift required by documentary makers: he can get his interviewees to be uninhibited under the scrutiny of his camera. The highlight of his 20 minute film are two people talking to camera who seem to be relaxed by Will’s reassuring off-camera presence. One is the son of the Vietnamese exile, Vu Thanh Khanh, the founder of the An Viet community centre in Hackney serving refugees from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He reads passages from his father’s autobiography occasionally choking with the emotion and eventually leaving the room in distress. Another is a young woman who describes her work with the centre and her feelings about culture and personhood. As a Scandinavian who reads French, working with the UK Vietnamese community she has come to realise that being a person is more significant than being a member of a cultural group. Pham takes the deliberate decision not edit out an interrupting mobile call but allows us to see her all too human flash of excitement at the received message.
In the closing sequence a young Vietnamese couple make hesitant moves as they attempt ballroom dance steps together. As their movements become more fluent we are implicitly asked to ponder the balance between the migrant’s competing need to assimilate into the host culture while honouring their own cultural hinterland.
Inevitably your appreciation of an artwork is enhanced if you have some personal connection to its content. I own a copy of the obscure 1933 Eric Gill pamphlet Unemployment quoted at length in Fegan’s three minute video NO BLACK MAGIC? so I was probably a step ahead of most visitors to this work. Gill’s diatribe against the advent of a future dominated by “machinery” highlights the idea, now commonplace, that the leisure time it generates might be available for life enhancing cultural pursuits (HIGHER THINGS according to Gill’s emphasis). As if to illustrate the location of the sublime in the everyday grind, Fegan’s video is a reverse tracking shot through an A4 pedestrian underpass. In the closing frame we emerge onto the opposite side of the dual carriageway with the erotically charged Draped Woman sculpture just visible in the dusk as the rush hour traffic roars past her. We are given a better impression of the sculpture as Fegan has produced a scale replica adorned with discarded flowers and a drink carton. Gill’s grooming of his teenage daughters by using them as life models and his subsequent sexual abuse is well-known and both his misogyny as well as his anti capitalism is apparent in Unemployment.
So many questions are thrown up by this atmospheric and unsettling artwork. What is the legacy of an artist with such a disturbing biograph? Can an artist be both enlightening and antedeluvian? How should we treat his work? Would we be right to censor it? Do we value public art? Can concrete be a sensuous medium? Why are some public sculptures valued and others left to languish?
Hopefully more people will read Unemployment and visit the Draped Woman as a result of the exposure they have gained through Fegan’s work.