Safe (1999)


Safe. The word suggests comfort, security and trust. It alludes to an emotional and physical space where danger has no place, where secrets are kept and fears are allayed.

Safe (1999) is the title of a recent work by sculptor Christopher Braddock that explores the possibilities and limitations of such a space. Through both formal and conceptual means, Braddock explores the notion in all its contradictions, recognising that to be safe can offers certain freedoms, but playing it safe requires caution or reserve and requires us to reside within set boundaries and play by others’ rules.

The work was exhibited in a small, narrow room at the Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland, in which Braddock hung a row of square tin boxes along the wall. Commercially constructed by a tin smith, the boxes shared their shape, size and substance with biscuit tins, or metal safes where personal valuables are stored – repositories for the precious material evidence of memory and experience.

Yet experience cannot always be measured by material things and Braddock’s sculpture also engaged with the possibility of emotional and spiritual safety. The work brought a sense of the private, secret space of the confessional into the public, secular space of the gallery through a series of references to Catholicism. As the metal commonly used to make inexpensive, mass-produced Catholic votive offerings, Braddock’s use of tin connected the work to the iconography of this belief system, a system where prayer and worship encourages a sense of personal security and comfort. Further to this, Braddock embossed a mutation of the confessional’s grill on the lid of each box. These were rendered in the shape of a cross constructed from four phallic shapes, their forms made explicit by a series of holes drilled through the metal sheet. Hung at ear height, the placement of the tins immediately suggested an alignment between the objects and the physical presence of the viewer. As they entered this narrow space, and proceeded to move past each of the boxes, there was a strong temptation to press one’s ear – or mouth – to each grill, in order to hear – or speak – a request for forgiveness. The banal seriality of the boxes also gestured towards the unnerving suggestion that these requests for atonement might become, through repetition, a hollow rehearsal of words, or worse, a pathological compulsion.

What form do such requests take? And who stands in judgement of these admissions of guilt? Are our secrets safe with them? The questions and anxieties raised by a work such as Safe exist in a world where there is little doubt that the culture of confession has moved outside the traditional boundaries of the church confessional and into our everyday lives. Braddock’s show in Auckland coincided with philosopher Jacques Derrida’s lectures in Australasia on the theme of “Forgiving the Unforgivable”, lectures that were presented, as Derrida put it, in the current global context of “many asking for forgiveness for crimes against humanity”. It is a context of pre-millennial moral anxiety and surveillance, where Bill Clinton’s sexual aberrations are judged alongside the ethnic cleansing carried out in Kosovo in the name of religion.

Braddock’s artistic project, at the heart of which is an extended critical dialogue with the rituals of institutionalised Catholic devotion, is thrown sharply into relief against this backdrop of the secularised culture of confession and confusion over what we might still be able to believe in – if anything. Braddock is, in his words, “a believer”, and was brought up as an Anglo-Catholic, but this does not necessitate taking a blind leap of faith. His position has more accurately been described as someone “involved but poised on the edge of institutionalised religion … displaying a profound distrust of fundamentalist strains of belief with restricted attitudes toward, for example, issues of sexuality and authority.” Such a critique also has much to say about the secular world and the boundaries it draws up in order to delineate between the guilty and the acquitted.

In his pursuit of this critique, Braddock works obsessively with a repertoire of personal symbols. He has worried over them and played with them for several years now, formulating them into his own sculptural language with the use of stencils and moulds, transforming a small number of basic forms into a large number of configurations. The result is a series of forms which are, to the viewer, both familiar and unsettling. They occupy a space between the formalist and the figurative, the sacred and profane, the public and private, typified by the formation of the phallic crosses in Safe. In these forms, the corporeal, sexualised body is merged into the institutionalised symbolism of Catholicism, where the body is traditionally denied. In doing this, Braddock challenges the boundaries that formalise such rigid categorisations, suggesting that there might be passages between them. His sculptures offer the possibilities of moving away from these institutionalised limitations to a space where the languages and remainders of each system begin to merge, giving prominence to that which is denied or disapproved of by the dominant system.

Pinched (1999), exemplifies these concerns on several levels. From a distance, it appears to be dense, stiff, priapic. But such solidity is deceptive – a trick of the eye. Close up, Pinched exudes not strength, but the delicate, shimmering glitter and shine of Christmas tree decorations, which in themselves are the result of the commercialisation of one of Christianity’s most sacred days. To create this effect, Braddock has delicately, lovingly, pieced together a series of tin heart-like shapes like a delighted child dressing a favourite paper doll, interlocking each form by linking up and carefully folding over small metal tabs that protrude from each form. The result is a fragile corset for which there is no torso, an armour that tightens itself around a body whose presence can only be imagined. All that remains are the repeated, partial forms of Braddock’s obsession – it is with them that his pleasure lies.

The flux between the apparent stiffness of this work and its actual lightness and fragility also suggests a critique of sexual roles and privileges within the hierarchy of the church. The apparent phallic strength of Pinched is, simply, a masquerade, giving way to a hollow structure that offers little behind its glittering faÁade. But it is in such trickery that this work gains its strength, for that which is absent is as powerful as the structure that surrounds it. Braddock knows his tower is built on unstable ground, almost to the point of declaring outright that the entire structure of belief it is built on is pure fiction. Yet he resists this temptation and continues to construct it, offering it up for display. Is this an act of blasphemy, or veneration? We might be tempted to suppose that it is both, allowing Braddock to have it both ways. By memorialising something that might never have existed, In constructing a work such as Pinched, Braddock applies the logic of the classic Freudian fetishist, allowing him to simultaneously assume an ironic, critical distance whilst engaging in an act of devotion. He then stands back to admire his glorious display.

Fetishism is also a subtext to Votive Mutations (1999). Hung from stainless steel hooks protruding at various heights from the gallery wall, strange tin forms bound up in deep purple ribbons were presented as memorials or offerings, resembling the phantasmagorical sight of valuable commodities on display in a shop window. The rich colour of the ribbons had liturgical associations, reminiscent of the power and authority of a bishop’s dress. They were also suggestive of bookmarks placed neatly between the pages of well-thumbed Bibles, marking out verses to be read and contemplated. Bound up in these rich purple bands, which speak of religious devotion and solemn engagement with Biblical texts, were the forms of sexualised body parts – the penis, the buttocks – tangled up with imagery from traditional Catholic votive objects.

Julia Kristeva has contended that “when you have a coherent system, an element which escapes from a system is dirty.” This accounts for the mixed metaphors in Votive Mutations. In denying the body, particularly with respect to aspects of its sexuality, the institution of the church sets the body apart from itself, excluding it and assigning it as abject and base. In response, Braddock reinscribes a place for the excessive and the abject body within the system by offering his mutations up for adoration in the same way icons are presented in the niches of churches. Votive Mutations then becomes an art of excess, an art that attempts to represent that which exceeds the structures of institutionalised devotion. The effect is similar to that achieved in Pinched, with the tensions created between the sacred and profane providing the work with its power.

In his discussion of abjection and trauma in The Return of the Real, Hal Foster observes the dangers in “the restriction of our political imaginary to two camps, the abjectors and the abjected, and the assumption that in order not to be counted among sexists and racists one must become the phobic object of such subjects.” Braddock avoids such binary oppositions by placing a certain amount of faith in the notion of transformation. At a time when the definition of the body is being reimagined by the sciences of cloning and genetics and a cure for the AIDS virus has not yet been found, Braddock’s sculptures encapsulate the state of flux and fragility that characterises the physical body in our age, but they also assert a certain idealism. This is evidenced in the work by the expression of the belief that transformation from the profane to the sacred, or from an outside to an inside, (or margin to centre) is still a possibility.

Duct I-V (1999) is interesting in this conceptual context. In this work, small tin ‘dishes’ were set into the walls of the gallery, situated close to the floor at various points around the gallery. At the centre of each, drilled holes formed a vent through which something (sound, air, waste?) might pass through. Unlike the confessional grills in Safe, the function of these tiny passageways was unclear, other than to facilitate an escape from, or to, the gallery space. Although they were only the size of a hand, their presence opened up the space, allowing it to breathe.

Such passageways are reminiscent of the work of American artist Robert Gober, whose sculptural projects have included drains and washbasins set into and against the gallery wall. Gober’s dysfunctional objects “were psychologically charged emblems of memory, signifying the traumas of growing up aware of his homosexuality in a rigidly Catholic, suburban, nuclear family.” While these artists share a Catholic upbringing, Braddock’s work has a sense of ironic distance and ambiguity to it that sets it apart from Gober’s personal psychology. Nor does he explicitly engage, as Gober does, in a gay politic, though his work can certainly be read in part as a response to institutionalised Catholic attitudes and prejudices towards homosexuality. Where these artists are most clearly aligned is in their interest in the possibility of transformation, and the ability to abandon the prescriptive and move into another space altogether. For Gober, this is suggested in his allusions to cleansing, or rinsing clean, enabling a ridding of, or at least a rewriting of, the past. For Braddock, the transformation is not quite so literal, nor as personal.

Perhaps his position is most clearly expressed in a work such as Votive Mutations, where anxieties surrounding the body, and the notion of unquestioning faith are bound up in these strange, fragile offerings. These objects, with their confused forms that lie between the secular and the sacred, might just be the perfect talismans to accompany us as we collectively embark on our obsessive bid to tell all, hear all, confess our sins to anyone who might listen or bear witness to them. Underlying all of Braddock’s work is a conviction that it is possible to forgive these sins; to move from playing the role of guilty to that of the absolved – as long as we are prepared to embrace the possibility that there might just be more than one truth, and more than one authoritative voice asserting it. We cannot always play it safe.

Kyla McFarlane
Eyeline 2000