Vent (1999)

Christopher Braddock’s works in pp 10-18 bring to mind ventilation covers that are perforated in patterns of small intricate holes which in themselves recall a variety of appliances: plug holes, speakers, apartment intercoms and air ducts. Their indented forms are reminiscent of fleshy imprints that might call to mind the body. The use of these forms in multiple is echoed in the installation by a sound track of repeated liturgical verse.

This essay explores the view that a search for meaning around such an installation is contextually-based and virtually limitless: “To interpret the aesthetic object is inevitably to measure its participation in the multiple codes which govern the collective consciousness”. 1 In this light, I wish to discuss a number of possible interpretations of Braddock’s works, as if to peel back layers – a kind of archaeology of interpretation (to borrow from Foucault’s terminology). 2

Braddock’s vent works (entitled Vent) are positioned low in the walls where air ducts or air conditioning vents might well be positioned. They therefore seem redolent of ideas of a passage of air or breathing the air, both in the gallery and behind the walls: a cavity experienced, not through sight, but by the notion of air travelling through it.

The works seem to deliberately play on assumptions that art would not be hung so low on gallery walls and that vents do not ascribe to popular notions of what constitutes art.

Most viewers, myself included, would naturally avoid misinterpreting the vent works as real vents because the objects are removed from a functional context of real ventilation covers. This is due, among other things, to the context of an exhibition and to a similarity with past works by Braddock, i.e. an association to other works previously accepted as art.

These vent works could therefore be said to aspire to symbolic status. Not only are meanings amplified by associations to (but dislocation from) collectively understood functional roles, but there is also a spiraling of further interpretation around the context which results in considerations of the symbolic meaning of air, breath, wall cavities and bodily shapes.

To arrive at this point leads me to speculate that the passage of air is testimony to the cavity and the idea that we experience an inner secrecy by means of the air that passes through it. One could imagine that this interpretation has ramifications for our experience of the body: we do not commonly see and experience our inner breathing organs other than by way of breath. The breath becomes symbolic of life: to breathe life into somebody. Breath externalises the precious airflow necessary for internal organs’ survival. Given that the works carry body references in their imprints of buttocks or heart-like shapes, an analogy from the body of the building to the human body would seem appropriate.

These imprints are also very iconocised and one wonders at the religious aspects surrounding them. This leads me to speculate that an investigation of the body might give way to an interrogation of the body of the church and its absolutions.

An accompanying sound track reinforces such interpretations and leads to an even more complex set of associations. The sound of breathing and a repeated litany of confession (in the artist’s voice) are overlaid with the sound of tin being cut – a process implicit in the making of the works. 3

If the artist’s intentions were to be considered in a method of interpretation, the following statements made by Braddock in a recent interview are interesting:

I recall the deep voice through the grill of the confessional. The dispatch of penance for the heart’s confidences and out-flowings of guilt. Father from Father were discernable by smell of breath and sound of voice. I remember the Priest’s power to absolve…

I recall, in my childhood, insect traps made from jars covered with greaseproof paper sealed airtight with rubber bands. Only the perforated holes carefully punctured with nail or needle offered air to the specimen inside. I remember the power to allow breath…. 4

The use a repeated litany in this installation might be seen to parody the kinds of liberation that mantras are designed to foster. Insights such as this suggest an ironical intention and raise questions as to whether such litanies encourage exorcism or entrenchment?

One could also suggest here that the artist is attempting to divert attention from a personal and uncomfortable negotiation with those very patriarchal types evident in the works. Further to this, given that childhood memories are evoked when discussing these issues with the artist, one could ask how much Braddock is aware of these dynamics in the work.

Nevertheless, a point could be made here that personal recollections defer to a collective consciousness within specific cultural contexts.

Added to this scenario of interpretation are the language systems relevant to visual art’s particular histories. The multiple vent works could be seen to rely on Duchamp’s readymade gesture and the minimalist serial object. If this were the case, they are implicated in a risky nod to a patriarchy of modernist precedents that might be seen to echo their ecclesiastical counter-parts. An alternative view might be that the vent works are a handmade appropriation of the Duchampian readymade in their reinvestment of the readymade with a strategy of artistic intervention. So strategies of appropriation might be seen as a response to ideas that the readymades “…were intended to mark the end of art as we know it…” 5

It has been my intention to reveal layers of interpretation. In following this process I am arguing that to pursue meaning is a process by which one problem solved discloses another and that “it is the nature of works of art themselves that they should support and favor [such a] process of interpretation” 6. The movement is outwards towards collectively understood social dimensions rather than inwards toward subjectively held private truths. 7 The limits of such interpretation depend upon cultural contingencies and an individual’s desire to know.


Bann, S (1996) ‘Meaning/Interpretation’ in Nelson & Shiff (eds) (1996) Critical Terms for Art History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.87
Foucault, M (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Tavistock
3 the litany of confession is adapted from: A Manual of Catholic Devotion (1950), London: Church Literature Association, p 109
4 Braddock C, (email interview with the author, August 23, 1999)
5 Carrier D (1989) ‘Art Criticism and Its Beguiling Fictions’ in Art International 9, pp 36-41, as cited by Jones, A (1994) Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp, USA: Cambridge University Press, p 205
6 Bann, p 87
The artist wishes to acknowledge the assistance of David Merritt in recording Vent 1999.

Vents II-III, 1999, tin, Gow-Langsford Gallery, Auckland
Vent IV, 1999, tin, (close-up) Gow-Langsford Gallery, Auckland
Safe, 1999, tin, (detail)

– Caspar Millar