British Sculptor, Installation and Performance Artist
Pembury, Kent, England
Bridge of Orchy, Argyll and Bute, Scotland
Summary of Angus Fairhurst
The "quiet man" of the YBAs, Angus Fairhurst's sophisticated and often understated practice nevertheless reveals an artist interested in poignant mediations on life, society and individual experience. Whilst his work has been somewhat overshadowed by his young suicide, it often used associative visual cues like animals and magazine images to investigate questions of self-awareness, vanity and the life of an artist.
Like many YBAs Fairhurst's relationship to the established art market in the 1990s was originally antagonistic, the new generation of artists attempting (and succeeding) to shake up the stuffy and conservative network of galleries and curators that barred their entry. Although content to let other, more brash, artists lead the way, Fairhurst provided essential underpinning to the efforts of the YBAs as co-organizer of the original Freeze exhibition and as the occasional studio partner of both Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas.
- Fairhurst's work orbited around recurring visual motifs used in a variety of contexts. The clearest example of this is his use of the image of the gorilla, which featured in sculpture, photographs and installations. Fairhurst spoke of the visual tension between the powerful animal and his own lithe frame as one which fascinated him.
- Fairhurst's work often implicitly critiqued wider society, particularly the art world and the disingenuousness of advertising. Some of his most highly regarded work used unwitting participants to show this, using London gallery staff to illustrate the insularity of the artistic industry or the silhouettes of glamourous models to show the visual manipulations of magazines. His work also shows evidence of a deep and abiding connection with nature and the natural world as an alternative to modernity.
- Whilst his work is often now read within the context of his suicide, Fairhurst's work regularly deploys surreal humor to illuminate his point - making the viewer laugh due to the inherent ridiculousness of the image in order to provoke thought about the nature of society or culture.
- Like many YBAs, Fairhurst was connected to a parallel world of pop musicians and actors who were similarly famous and prone to raucous partying in Soho (London). The interrelation of art forms was common, with imagery from pop culture having a strong reciprocal bearing on artworks, album covers and films. Publicity strategies more often associated with rock stars were also employed by visual artists, amplifying their cultural presence. Collectively this reflects a cultural period after 1997 known as "Cool Britannia", where British culture reasserted itself globally and economically.
Progression of Art
Gallery Connections is a largely performative piece engineered by the artist and featuring unaware participants to generate its content. Having rewired two telephones, Fairhurst dialed unsuspecting art galleries in London so that they would answer the phone at the same time. The work consists of recordings of the telephone conversations between confused gallery employees who both believe the other placed the original call. In these conversations, Fairhurst remains silent, whilst the speakers become increasingly agitated. It later emerged that several of the gallery representatives, utterly bewildered by each other, became so suspicious of the call that they believed themselves to be under government investigation or surveillance.
Although the immediate reaction to Gallery Connections is that it is humorous, echoing a prank call or other practical joke, what Fairhurst is actually doing in this piece is making a serious comment about the inward-looking nature of the art world. According to his tutor, Michael Craig-Martin "it epitomized the narcissism of the art world" and highlighted the tendency of its inhabitants to speak only amongst themselves. A key criticism levelled at the art world by the YBAs was that it was too insular and insufficiently bold in seeking out new work. It could be argued, however, that the movement fell prey to its own success, and was eventually subsumed by the same system it rebelled against.
Gallery Connections was initially "displayed" as a published transcript in a contemporary arts magazine. It is now regularly placed on display at Tate Britain in the form of a transparent desk, inside which the audio equipment that plays these recordings is visible. This exposure of the inner working of the equipment is in contrast to the clandestine nature of the piece's creation, symbolically exposing to the public how the confusion they hear has been engineered by the artist. It's similarity to stereotypical spy hardware also references the galleries' suspicion of surveillance. During the piece, one gallery gives its contact information, and later listeners have themselves called the phone number, continuing the piece even after Fairhurst's death.
This work is one of Fairhurst's most widely celebrated pieces. It led critic and artist Matthew Collings to describe Fairhurst as "the brains behind the YBAs", whilst the art critic Jessica Lack writes that Gallery Connections, in its wit and astuteness, "encapsulated everything that was brilliant about the YBAs". Nevertheless, as an audio work the piece does not conform to conceptions of art that revolve around the visual. This is reflective of much of Fairhurst's work, as the Evening Standard magazine noted when it explained that "A good deal of Fairhurst's art was less for your eyes than your mind."
Metal, wood, glass, walkman, amplifier, speakers, headphones, cables and audio - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Pietà (first version)
Pietà (first version) is a photograph of the artist lying limp and naked in the arms of a stuffed gorilla. His pose mimics that of the dead Christ in his mother's arms, the classical Pieta form seen in much Christian art of the Renaissance period (Michelangelo's Pietà of 1499, for example). The scene was created at the centre of the Clerkenwell studio shared by Fairhurst and Lucas - a frequent working arrangement, with the side-result that the two would often appear in one another's artworks. In his right hand, the artist grasps the camera's cable release in order to take the photograph. With his eyes closed and the protective cradling and downcast face of the gorilla, the suggestion of death is an unavoidable connotation of the image.
In this work, Fairhurst returns to the gorilla image, which he had used previously in his art to express human characteristics. Fairhust spoke of the contrast between the gorilla - "this big hairy masculine thing" and himself - "a skinny lanky geezer", as being one of the most interesting aspects of his continued return to the image of the animal. This contrast is most clearly demonstrated in A Cheap and Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit (1995) (a video of the artist emerging from said costume). Whereas Fairhurst sometimes depicts the gorilla suit as a prison, in Pietà (first version) it appears to be protective or nurturing. As the artist explains: "Pietà is an image of tenderness, about the struggle between the alter-ego - the gorilla - and the self".
The photograph speaks to the fragility of the human body - a preoccupation of Fairhurst, who once recounted to Damien Hirst his experience of seeing an elderly man on public transport: "The other day I saw a frail old man get on the Underground, having been hit by time. He must think 'how dare time have done this to my body so that I can no longer jump on trains as quickly as my mind does?'"
The image took on additional connotations of frailty and a macabre dimension after the artist's death. Before completing suicide, Fairhust sent the image to Alex James the former bassist of Blur and friend of the artist. This was one of many postcards he sent to friends around this time - perhaps an expression of his own mental fragility and an indication that he was considering ending his life. On the back of the postcard, Fairhurst wrote "You really are one hell of a lucky bastard".
Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
Underdone/Overdone is a series of thirty paintings in primary colors based on black-and-white photographs of thickets in Epping Forest. Beginning with the image of crossing trees in a single color, Fairhurst has overlaid the woodland images over one another at random and in various combinations over a sequence of thirty pictures. With each additional layer, the shape of the trees becomes less recognisable and the works tend towards abstraction. By the time of the final canvases, the image has become entirely obscured by a dense mess of colour, moving the work firmly into the abstract and away from the figurative. When displayed together in a gallery, the transition is both obvious and almost overwhelming to a viewer, the dense mass of colour looming down from the walls of the gallery.
The motif of the trees reflects Fairhurst's affection for the outdoors: he was described by his friend chef Fergus Henderson as "very outward bound", for example. Again, however, the work has now taken on a more disturbing connotation in light of Fairhurst's suicide by hanging from a tree in the woods. It was in fact Henderson who introduced Fairhurst to the woodlands of the Scottish Highlands where Fairhurst would come to take his own life. In line with this more sinister interpretation, by layering images to such an extent, Fairhurst has turned the benign and recognisable into the unknown and little-understood. Some critics have gone as far as to call this effect "psychologically disturbing".
Much of Fairhurst's work explores the boundary between forms and formlessness, and in doing so perhaps embodies the contradictory nature of Angus Fairhurst the man. Sadie Coles of the Sadie Coles gallery believes this to be the case - describing him as "romantic and pragmatic, doggedly practical and shamelessly abstract, modest and proud, funny and sad, and to quote one of his titles, Underdone/Overdone."
Acrylic silk-screen on panels - Various collections
The Unprinted series is a set of three photo-etchings showing silhouettes of women superimposed on top of each other against layered backgrounds of abstract color. It is difficult to separate the foreground and backgrounds in these images, which seem to contain elements from both indoors and outdoors and contain few recognisable elements outside of the women's bodies.
The subject matter is derived from magazines, which Fairhurst had used previously to make collages such as the series Three Double Pages from a Magazine, Body and Text Removed (2004). For these previous collages, Fairhurst cut out shapes within the printed images and layered the results to reveal fragments of images beneath. Here, however, the revealing process is done through the exposure of the photo-sensitive emulsion that is then etched on to the surface. This leaves none of the texture of the magazine remaining and with only color to differentiate the various layers. In both examples of Fairhurst's collage and construction works, the process is "low-tech", in contrast perhaps to the digital manipulation that might usually be expected of magazine images.
In these images, as in other work like his Underdone/Overdone paintings, Fairhurst is experimenting with the tension between the recognisable and the abstract. The title of the series -Unprinted - highlights Fairhurst's interest in negative space, and in exploring the potency of what remains once particular elements are removed. The negative space in the image also suggests perhaps a lack of substance to the images usually printed in magazines, which are photoshopped and airbrushed to present the "perfect" female form.
As art historian David Hodge has observed, it is interesting that the female form is still recognisable in all three etchings, notwithstanding how much detail is obscured through Fairhurst's process of reprinting and layering. It is still apparent that the women in the images are styled in the fashions of the day, with high heels and glamorous hair, for example. Hodge therefore makes the argument that the work could be read as a comment on media representation. However, whereas advertising presents to the viewer an apparently perfect and coherent image, Fairhurst reveals his interventions by making his manipulation of the image unavoidable. It is for this reason one critic writes: "In our high-speed image-based culture, Fairhurst's work is more relevant than ever".
Photo-etching on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom
The Birth of Consistency
The Birth of Consistency (2004) is one of a series of bronze works from the mid 2000s that feature gorillas in absurdist scenarios. The gorillas in each sculpture are stylized, taking the form of the animals but made clearly of pitted and moulded bronze. Fairhurst makes no attempt to render a realistic gorilla, but merely a recognizable one, a shorthand physical form that echoes its impressionistic use in his art. In The Birth of Consistency, the gorilla is portrayed as looking at its reflection in a mirrored pool, which it simultaneously pulls towards itself. As such, the gorilla emulates the mythical Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection. This therefore could easily be read as a comment on the narcissism of artists or the art-world. This work is one of numerous examples of Fairhurst using the gorilla to make fun of human nature - particularly vanity, as in this case. With hindsight, this is a poignant topic given that Fairhurst is often referred to as the least self-confident of the YBAs and the least enamoured with fame. The theme of reflection also recalls a description of Fairhurst as the moon to Hirst's blazing sun (by the Evening Standard).
The gorilla in this work is self-conscious, a quality perhaps shared by the artist, whose ability to make fun of the art world in which he worked was a key characteristic of his public and private personas. As well as confronting its own image, the gorilla could be seen to be considering its status as an artwork. In lifting up the pond, the gorilla is revealing the deliberate artifice of the scene - this action reminiscent of Fairhurst's comments about dissembling images, even implicitly referencing his magazine collages. The title, "The Birth of Consistency", suggests that by becoming self-aware the gorilla is able to reproduce certain effects, a metaphor that might refer to fame itself, or the wider YBA movement.
Bronze, stainless steel - Walker Art Gallery
Biography of Angus Fairhurst
Angus Fairhurst was born in Pembury, Kent on 4th October 1966. Remarkably little has been written about his early years before he attended art school, which reflects the relative paucity of information available about his life when compared to YBA peers like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. As Michael Glover wrote shortly after his death in 2009, "Fairhurst, in short, was the partially forgotten one". What is documented is that Fairhurst's interest in the art world developed from an early age, and that he wished to pursue it as a career. Between 1978 and 1985, Fairhurst attended The Judd School, a highly regarded and prestigious grammar school in Kent before moving to Canterbury Art College in 1985 in order to pursue his artistic practice. Canterbury's teaching staff at this time included Stass Paraskos and Erin Hurren, artists in their own right who encouraged an innovative and experimental approach to artistic education. Fairhurst's time here in 1985 and 1986 led to his application and acceptance at Goldsmiths University, an environment that would profoundly impact on his career.
Fairhurst appeared to remain close to his brother Charles and to his mother Sally throughout his life, both of whom attended his funeral.
Education and Early Training
Fiarhurst arrived at Goldsmiths College in late 1986 and graduated in 1989, a remarkable period in the institution's history that produced a generation of British artists who shaped the art world of the 1990s. Dubbed the "YBAs" (Young British Artists) by the media, Fairhurst was part of its core group and at the heart of the movement. from the beginning.
At Goldsmiths Fairhurst worked closely alongside Gary Hume and Damien Hirst. All three were inspired by Michael Craig-Martin, an influential lecturer in the fine art department whom many of the YBAs cite an influence. He also was exposed to and inspired by the work of Julian Opie (an artist some years his senior). The influence of Craig-Martin and Opie can perhaps best be seen in the colors and graphical arrangements of Fairhurst's paintings and screen prints of this time. Like these artists, Fairhurst was interested in popular culture, and would often work with images that he found in magazines.
Another key collaborator of Fairhurst in this period was Sarah Lucas (also considered a major part of the YBA group), who described Fairhurst as "very much loved by all his friends" and "a lovely man" who was "funny and kind". Whilst their personalities and attitudes to publicity were often opposed - Lucas has been called the "rude girl" of British art, whilst Fairhurst is often referred to as the "quiet man of the YBAs" the two had a romantic relationship for six years during this period. The Evening Standard magazine similarly described Fairhurst's friendship with Hirst as "a magnetism of opposites. Fairhurst was tall, lanky, witty in a cerebral way ... while Hirst was short, foul-mouthed and in your face". The two worked and socialized together, often drinking with Lucas and Francis Bacon (a much older but revered figure amongst the YBAs) in London's Soho.The same article suggests, in a rather poetic turn of phrase, that "Angus, beside Hirst's blazing sun, was more moon-like", also suggesting that that Hirst was the more dynamic half of the friendship, whilst Fairhurst was more reserved.
In February 1988 Fairhurst organised his own exhibition of student work, which has widely come to be seen as a precursor to the seminal exhibition, "Freeze" a few months later, which Fairhurst organised in collaboration with Hirst and first brought the YBAs to the attention of the art world. Several critics have claimed that without Fairhurst's show the YBA movement was unlikely to have come to be. Following the success of Fairhurst's show, the artist "handed over to his more flamboyant friend and seemed happy to slip into a supporting role", although the exhibition was still something of a collaboration between the two. Fairhurst and Hirst installed lighting and painted the walls of the disused Port of London Authority building that Freeze was held in together, and Fairhurst spent much of the summer of 1998 distributing the exhibition catalogue to galleries and bookshops. Fairhurst seemed to be much more comfortable in this less public and more practical role, with Hirst providing the public face.
Although often in the background, according to the gallerist Max Wigram Fairhurst was in fact "the brains behind the YBAs... He was the one that the other artists used to go to write their catalogues, to make sense of what they were doing and put it into words ... Maybe he helped everyone a bit too much to the detriment of his own career".
After graduating from Goldsmiths, Fairhurst's career continued to develop off the back of the success of the Freeze exhibition. The organizers had managed through the support of their tutor Michael Craig-Martin to convince the collector Charles Saatchi to attend and who purchased work, as well as major players within the art world like Nicholas Serota and Normal Rosenthal. Each of the artists featured benefitted immensely from their inclusion, with several (including Hirst, Gary Hume and Lucas) rocketing to nearly unheard-of levels of fame for a British visual artist. Whilst Fairhurst did not immediately reach their level of public notoriety, no doubt in part due to his personality, his career began to take off and develop both nationally and internationally. Other notable exhibitions including Some Went Mad and Some Ran Away, Brilliant! at the Walker Art Center, Apocalypse at the Royal Academy and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida at Tate. His work in the period after his graduation was characterised by distortion and practical jokes and encompassed a range of media including video, photography, painting and sculpture, all of which would continue in his later career.
Between 1995 and 2001, Fairhurst expanded his artistic range to include performance art in the form of a conceptual band. The band first appeared supporting Pulp at Brixton Academy and, whilst it had all the paraphernalia of a generic rock band (instruments, amps, lighting etc), did not actually play any music. The band instead mimed to a selection of pre-recorded music whilst posing in the manner of musicians. One audience-member wrote: "At an Art Festival, we saw ... a conceptual band show with Angus Fairhurst as the singer ... [The band] played the familiar riffs of some well-known songs and Angus never sang a word."
Whilst the other YBAs became increasingly financially successful and well-known, Fairhurst lived and worked away from the spotlight. Although originally sharing a studio with Hirst, he eventually relocated in to Clerkenwell, and maintained a modest house in Rotherhithe (two unassuming neighborhoods in the south London). Fairhurst's lack of confidence, as opposed to artistic merit, is generally blamed for the disparity in the level of success and fame enjoyed by his peers. A friend of the artist suggested that "he found himself out of his depth" and that he "lacked self-belief". This was in contrast to the approach of Lucas, who despite being "not the best of the YBAs" does not "feel inferior. Angus was different, a fish out of water."
Some critics have suggested that In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Fairhurst's 2004 exhibition alongside Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, was an attempt by the two more famous artists to bring attention to their friend. An illuminated sign by Fairhurst, reading "Stand Still and Rot" was thought by some viewers to refer to the artist's career, though its position over the entrance to the exhibition might also suggest simply a humorous invitation to come in, in-keeping with the barbed humor of the YBA group. A similarly prankish and subversive installation was his series of Gallery Conversations (1991-6), in which he would connect two telephones, call London galleries and record the confused exchange. This could easily be read as a sophisticated comment on the insularity of the art world at the time, and the cycle of publicity that many of the YBAs were both subject to and capitalized on.
Many critics are at pains to point out that Fairhurst's strong friendships with Hirst and Lucas continued, in spite of their different levels of success and notoriety. Common to most accounts of Fairhurst's life is that he was happy for Hirst and Lucas to take the limelight whilst enjoying his own more modest achievements. Although sharing in many of their drunken exploits around London, his demeanour was calmer than his peers, and he would often feature as the voice of reason or moderation in anecdotes of the time. The art dealer Karsten Schubert, for example, speaking of the relationship between Hirst, Lucas and Fairhurst recounts that she "started to talk to Hirst and he suddenly flipped, calling me every name under the sun. Fairhurst grabbed him and dragged him away". Schubert then remembers that when she "got back to London I went to thank Fairhurst in his modest studio in Clerkenwell. There were several Sarah Lucas cigarette sculptures around, an indication of their closeness".
Fairhurst also enjoyed both friendships and romantic relationships outside of the YBAs. One of his closest friends was the chef Fergus Henderson, whom the artist described as having a "soothing presence", remarking that "he's not at all pushy, so he's totally unthreatening", perhaps in contrast to his artist contemporaries. It was Henderson who introduced Fairhurst to the Scottish Hebrides by inviting him on yearly holidays there. He saw in Fairhurst a love of the remote outdoors, commenting: "He's very outward bound ...There's a mountain goat in him".
In early 2008, a solo exhibition of Fairhurst's work was held at Sadie Coles HQ in London. On March 29th, the final day of the exhibition, the artist boarded a train from London to the remote Scottish Highlands - a journey of more than 10 hours. It was here that he hanged himself from a tree in the woodland near the village Bridge of Orchy.
There have been some who suggest that Fairhurst's failure to sell any of his works in the exhibition was the final straw that prompted his suicide. Sadie Coles has however never confirmed whether or not Fairhurst sold anything, and according to friends and family it is likely that he had been contemplating ending his life for some time. Before his death he had recently sent postcards to many of his friends, one of which featured his Pietà work of 1996 - a lifeless figure of Fairhurst being cradled by a gorilla. This he sent to Alex James, the bassist from Blur, with a message on the back: "You really are one hell of a lucky bastard".
The Evening Standard magazine took a cynical view of Fairhurst's suicide, reporting five weeks later that his death, "when his body was spotted high in the tree, became international theatre" and suggesting that this could even have been the artist's intention. The magazine even went on to add "A mile of copy has appeared in the newspapers, more than Angus Fairhurst the artist ever earned in his lifetime. Angus's death, as strong an image as Marc Quinn's limbless Alison Lapper Pregnant in Trafalgar Square, has become instantly more famous than his life".
Death is a recurring theme in the work of many of the YBA's, with Hirst in particular utilizing death imagery throughout his practice, having previously made a video of how to commit suicide, as well as exhibiting corpses in installation Adam and Eve, dead animals in Mother and Child Divided, and including many other examples of skulls, reliquaries and memento mori. Fairhurst's death is nevertheless widely reported to have come as a shock to the art world and especially to his friends and contemporaries. The Evening Standard additionally suggested that it might mark the end of an era in British Art, reporting that "The YBAs are young and carefree no more".
Fairhurst's funeral, held in the Kent village where he was born, was well attended by his fellow artists as well as by family and other friends. One attendee described it as "uplifting" and "wonderful" in its religious (Christian) nature. The artist's brother and schoolmaster, as well as Hirst and Lucas, were amongst those to express their admiration for Fairhurst and regret at his sudden departure.
The Legacy of Angus Fairhurst
Of all the YBAs, Fairhurst is remembered as the modest and quiet figure in contrast to the brash personalities that typified the movement. Friends and colleagues described him as quiet and shy - "a sweet man" - but at the same time as "funny - sarcastic without being cynical". It is generally thought that he was happy to be known as the most understated of the Young British Artists. One friend commented: "He was an absurdist, but he wasn't interested in "playing" the YBA role in public or playing at being famous. It wasn't important to his sense of achievement." As a result Fairhurst is the least well-known of the YBAs, in part because he lacked the confidence of his counterparts but due also to the fact that his work is difficult to pigeonhole. His tutor, the artist Michael Craig-Martin commented: "His concerns remained constant but the forms and media his work took were diverse ... His art was not "identifiable" in the way that the others' were", thus it was less commercially viable. It is this quality to which the art critic Jessica Lack referred when she called Fairhurst's art "frustratingly unquantifiable".
Although he was not outspoken, Fairhurst was recognized for his wit and inventiveness and has been described as "the art world's secret weapon". His humorous works often provoked smiles from viewers, whilst his modesty - often a rare trait amongst internationally renowned artists - gained him friends from all walks of life, including artists Mat Collishaw and Tracey Emin, the musician Jarvis Cocker, dancer Michael Clark and chef Fergus Henderson.
Following Fairhurst's death, former Tate director Nicholas Serota described the artist as "always deprecating about his own talent, but he made some of the most engaging, witty and perceptive works of his generation and was an enormously influential friend of other British artists who came to prominence in the early nineties."