Originally found a firstsite paper and afterwards in Freianlage

 

Andrew Bracey

By Judith Palmer

 

 

 

In 1907, German impresario Carl Hagenbeck opened a revolutionary new zoo near Hamburg: the Stellingen Tierpark. For the first time in zoo history, Stellingen presented wild animals uncaged, roaming in apparent freedom, artistically arranged across stylised rocky landscape settings. From the distorting perspectives of the interlocking concrete terraces, rival species seemed to enjoy a harmoniously close co-existence, suggestive of the pre-lapsarian wilderness. Ingeniously constructed moats offered visitors the thrill of proximity to even the most fearsome of beasts, in an awe-inspiring illusion of unfettered nature. This zoo without bars became known as the Freianlage, or free enclosure.

 

In 2005, Andrew Bracey began to construct his own Freianlage: a playful menagerie of creatures, painted onto scraps of mdf, corrugated cardboard and sea-scoured beach-glass. Like Hagenbeck, Bracey took care to display his exhibits in appropriately evocative habitats: a knob of blu-tac makes a meerkat mountain; the bowl of a set of kitchen scales makes an ideal penguin pool. The zoo has always been an artificially constructed meeting place for wild animals and city dwellers: a mock wilderness in the midst of the urban environment. Bracey’s Freianlage acknowledges the artifice, whilst easing the menagerie into its surroundings with the aid of domestic props.

 

The works in the Freianlage series aim to understand and replicate the essence of the zoo-going experience, recreating the pleasures and disappointments of engaging with animals in this way. To view polar bears, you must peer through the glassy curve of a jam-jar; to spot the owl, blink into the gloom of a cardboard box. Examined through a model-maker’s magnifying glass, (Dance, 2005), a painted monkey slips in and out of sight, offering up tantalising glimpses of tail-tip or ear-tuft before mischievously disappearing from the observer altogether. In Getting Started (2005), a jumble of animal portraits are propped randomly along a shelf. Tapirs rub haunches with hippos, each jostling to catch the viewer’s eye; while other (less confidently-painted) beasts shrink from view, hunkering into a hiding-place in the background. Scale is in constant flux: a pachyderm’s trunk is the same size as a parakeet’s beak, a jaguar is dwarfed by a treefrog. The shifting perspectives of receding and advancing genera mimics the visual confusion of first emerging through the turnstile, as the zoo-visitor attempts to wrestle with the conflicting choices on offer.

 

The growth of zoological gardens in the nineteenth century mirrored the rise of the public art museum. Both institutions became emblems of civic pride - essential amenities for any self-respecting municipality – salubrious places of edifying enjoyment for all decent folk. Both remain pillars of Sunday afternoon culture. Freianlage reminds us of the links between gallery and zoo, and the parallels between how we consume works of art and works of nature. A 1985 study at London Zoo revealed that spectators stood in front of the monkey enclosure for an average of 46 seconds and spent 32 minutes in a pavilion containing a hundred cages - probably about the same time it takes to scan glazily past a wing-full of art treasures, before succumbing to exhibition overload.

 

The visual saturation of contemporary life is central to Bracey’s work. In Various Titles (2004-5), 750 matchbox-sized canvases are crowded together, Victorian salon-style up the walls. Flitting from subject to subject, these mini-paintings pluck their imagery from everywhere – pop videos, holidays snaps, furniture catalogues. Slipped between the saccharine and the banal, more poignant images manage to filter through – a pre 9/11 New York skyline, a torture victim at Abu Ghraib. Bracey exhibits all the canvases with equal legitimacy. It is for the viewer to apply discernment and add significance. The miniaturisation process seduces the viewer into closer engagement. Unable to keep the work at arm’s length, the viewer becomes absorbed and enfolded.

 

From a distance, Clout (2003-4) appears as a constellation of brightly coloured dots. Only up close do you realise each dot is a separate teeny painting, painted onto the head of a roofing nail, hammered into the wall. Supermarket logos vie for attention with football club insignia, pricetags, fastfood slogans – the garish afterglow of 21st-century-life in hyperdrive. The eye darts around, blocking details out, then zoning in on something familiar; focusing in on an individual image in the same way a lion might pick an antelope from the herd.

 

“It’s like flicking through a Sunday supplement, where you pass over most things,” says Bracey. “In this culture we live in, we’re used to moving between things, using the remote control, and only giving a small snippet of time to anything. It’s like the way the internet works. You click on a site which takes you somewhere else.” No two visitors will take the same route through the images. Depending on eye-height, colour preferences, cultural associations, attention span, everyone will browse differently, picking different patterns from the flock. “You couldn’t see all of them,” says Bracey. “It’s about trying to give everybody a different experience.”

 

The mechanisation of the nail-making process in the eighteenth century was one of the major breakthroughs of the industrial revolution: a pivotal moment in the history of mass production and mass consumption. This historical footnote brings a certain irony to Bracey’s Clout, with its painstaking individuation of so much mass-produced ironmongery. It’s as if he’s trying to turn back the tide of globalisation, in a crusade against sameness, and a return to the unique hand-made object. Although mass-media imagery forms most of the source material on works such as Clout, Various Titles, and Getting Started, this over-familiar iconography is re-personalised through the act of painting.

 

In It’s Still, Still Life (2003) Bracey breathed life into a series of plastic pound store garden ornaments. Decorated with his trademark spotted paintwork, the ornaments were re-ornamented. Dotted with red, pink and green acrylic, these plastic-moulded squirrels and caterpillars became even more artificial, even more abstracted from reality. Yet paradoxically, when this jauntily-painted fauna was introduced into the landscape to frolic in woodland and meadow in a series of photographed interventions, the figures revealed a vivacity they had altogether lacked in their dowdy mass-produced plumage. Despite the absurd patterning, the act of hand-painting had restored an energy and variation to the animals which rendered the synthetic somehow more natural.

 

The inherent tensions between the man-made and the hand-made, the individual and the crowd, the artificial and the natural are recurrent themes. In Healthy Snacks (2002-3), Bracey spray-painted thousands of pistachio shells in jelly-bean colours, displaying them, like Felix Gonzalez Torres, in sensuous candy-mountain spills. Beneath the shiny artificial surface, however, knobbly bits or organic brown shell still insist on poking through, refusing to hide their origins. Showing an impressively obsessive diligence, Bracey ate a packet of nuts a day for a year, to complete the piece. As with much of his practice, the component-parts accumulated naturally before it became apparent they were taking shape as an art entity. Palette (1998-2006), an on-going endeavour, gathers all the paint scraped off his palette since 1998. Slowly accreting like a coral reef, the different strata of purples, tangerines and aquamarines give a forensic insight into the nature of past work through the story of its residue.

 

“I like to draw attention to the significance of what people might consider worthless,” says Bracey. For Migrate (2005), Bracey has assembled a collection of found objects – bits of roadside detritus picked out by his magpie eye on his walks through the city. A crumpled cigarette packet, a discarded name-badge, a twisted set of spangly devil’s horns lost on the way home from some Halloween revelry: these shards of past-lives and hidden narratives are rounded up and put out to view. But as the seasoned zoo-visitor should know, not every silent cage is empty. Look closely enough, and Migrate reveals itself as an aviary. A flock of little painted birds has settled imperceptibly amongst the random bits of broken plastic and everyday fragmentation . A woodpecker clings to the needle on a forgotten mending kit; a kingfisher waits on the stem of a shattered wine glass. Like the robins who build nests in post-boxes, and the starlings who know how to imitate Nokia ringtones, Bracey’s avians are learning to adapt to the modern world.

 

Commissioned by firstsite on the occasion of Freianlage by Andrew Bracey, 10 February – 18 March 2006

© firstsite, Andrew Bracey and Judith Palmer