In 1988, Surrey Quays—one of several former dock-yard complexes along the River Thames in an area of East London known as Docklands—became the site of Freeze, a renegade art exhibition curated by then–Goldsmiths College art student and enfant terrible Damien Hirst. For this exhibition, Hirst brought sixteen current classmates and recent graduates together to breathe new life into a dilapidated warehouse with the goal of finding an alternative to exhibiting their works within the highly political academic and gallery systems. What couldn’t have been predicted was that this show would also resuscitate a stagnant London art scene and attract international attention to a select group of emerging artists who would eternally be imprinted with the epithet “Young British Artists” or YBAs.1 Although the show would not garner much critical press when it opened, it all but insured the infamy of its participants, including artist-of-all-trades Angus Fairhurst.
Fairhurst works in a multidisciplinary fashion, turning variously to painting, drawing, photography, video, animation, and sound-based and live performance pieces. A common thread running through his artworks is his interest in constructing stunted narratives that frustrate expectations by never reaching a climax or point of resolution. The product of cyclical and repetitive actions, his time-based works address the constructs of “before and after” and the tendency for the mind to jump ahead to form foregone conclusions.
In 1995, the Walker Art Center organized the exhibition “Brilliant!” New Art from London, to which Fairhurst contributed two hand-drawn, animated videos, edited in ten-second loops and displayed on monitors. In Strange Loops (Catching and Dropping) (1995), no sooner does a naked man fall from above into the arms of a gorilla than he is dropped again. Similarly, in Strange Loops (Stripping) (1995) the beast peels the expressionless man’s skin from head to toe, like a banana. This editing style reveals the artist’s view of the cyclical nature of time and history: “You can’t avoid loops. That’s the way things actually operate.”2 Also on view was A Cheap and Ill-fitting Gorilla Suit (1995), an installation that included the eponymous costume hanging flaccidly from a hanger and a video in which the naked artist is seated at a table sewing pieces of furry material together into a gorilla suit. He then puts it on, stuffs it with newspaper, and violently jumps up and down until the whole thing comes apart at the seams and falls off, rendering him naked again.3
For years, Fairhurst had been creating sketchbook drawings of the misadventures of an anthropomorphic ape (the artist’s alter ego), which he kept in his private collection until he felt he was ready to “get the peccadilloes out in public.”4 In all of these works, the projection of human qualities onto an animal and vice versa has served as a practical means through which the artist has been able to mine the human condition as well as represent the baseness and brutality of mankind and so-called civilized society. However, there is also a decidedly comic aspect that resounds with the existential dark humor of Samuel Beckett, an influence that Fairhurst readily acknowledges.5
The notoriety of many of the YBAs must be attributed in part to the intense media coverage surrounding the controversial 1997 exhibition Sensation, which was organized by London’s Royal Academy of Arts and toured to New York’s Brooklyn Museum in 1999, highlighting the collection of art patron and advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. ↩
Fairhurst, interview by Walker research fellow Marcelo Spinelli, in Richard Flood, ed., “Brilliant!” New Art from London, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 35. ↩
The installation also included a set of computer-generated bubble-jet prints of stills from the video A Cheap and Ill-fitting Gorilla Suit. ↩
Fairhurst, audiotaped interview with Marcelo Spinelli, March 11, 1995, London (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩
See Clarrie Wallis, “In the Realm of the Senseless,” in Gregor Muir and Clarrie Wallis, eds., In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, exh. cat. (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 101. ↩