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 - Tate
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 - Tate
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 - Tate
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