Important Art by Angus Fairhurst
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."
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".
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."