Ice creams shared between lovers?
Kisses that draw blood.
A rejection that leaves the room tepid...
A parasite to a host, which loves the needing. A host to
a parasite, which keeps holding on in spite of it all. They attach and then withdraw...
So suffocating, so co-dependent, growing fatter but less satisfied with each other with every encounter. How can it play out to an end? It stonewalls.
- Abstract to Soft Serve.
Inhabiting the Enjoy gallery space in August 2005, Nicky Campbell’s work Soft Serve was a platter of subverted expectations. With its ambivalent title, Soft Serve suggests either the sweet and fatty spiralling ice cream, or a gentle serve when playing tennis. On the one hand the title connotes a fluffiness, something soft and sweet to be consumed. On the other it is an active soft serving, in terms of a loosening of theoretical constructs within the artwork. The words ‘soft serve’ establish an expectation of the work before we see it. However, these cuddly connotations stop at the title: the work itself is anything but cuddle-able. Soft Serve consists of a beautifully made, sleek and tar black ceramic leech half a metre long, a stark black shiny wall cast from an actual cliff and a real live leech in a jar.
Perhaps the title works to deflect the cold nature of the actual work with its coarse edges, its steely black surface and its seemingly perfect exterior. Instead of a picture-perfect image of lovers sharing a soft serve cone, the show rejects this insipid sweetness and focuses on the elements of their neediness.
Entering the gallery space we are protected from the outside, but the interior represents both security and confinement. By placing a cliff-like wall within a gallery, the visitor is dislocated. The imbued sense of threat in Soft Serve is perhaps influenced by the overwhelming fear of standing under a faux-cliff face with a slight overhang. (It was mentioned that the fake wall though intended for Enjoy gallery, had to be carted in through the window.)
The two dominant objects (stone wall and sculptured leech) in the room seems to be a representation of the two ‘lovers’ in Campbell’s abstract for the show: ‘host to a parasite’. So ‘co-dependent’ these objects are to one another. It is a snapshot of a lovers’ feud. The distance between them, even if only two metres, suggests a narrative of separation and nostalgia. Those few metres create a relationship between the objects. The twist is that the cliff is a construction. We can walk behind it and see that it’s made from various elements—high density urethane foam, criss-crossing framing timber, resin and fibreglass—exposing the artificiality of it all.
The everyday metaphor of a ‘leech’, a slippery slimy blood-sucking worm, is often applied to a person who clings, and drains. Through symbolic representation and the evocation of polar opposites, Campbell creates a love/hate element in her work. In turn, Soft Serve explores an ambivalent urge: to return to security, whether it is a person or a place, set against the need for freedom, to expand and explore.
In Campbell’s artist talk she noted her interest in the idea of ‘home’. Soft Serve can be viewed as exploring the ambivalent nature of home and the tensions that reside there. Such conflicts have been explored previously in contemporary art in context of postcolonial discourse. The artist Parmindar Kaur, for instance, explores the issue of home and subverts it. Kaur’s beds, set three metres high, create nauseous scale shifts and distort our sense of the comfort associated with bed. A sense of danger related to ‘home’ is somewhat subtler and redirected in Soft Serve.
What is new and exciting about this work is that it doesn’t present one meaning of ‘home’ but many, open for reshaping. Campbell doesn’t so much subvert the idea of home but makes us contemplate the inevitability of capturing its essence. In Soft Serve, this ‘home’ can be associated with one’s sense of belonging and manifests as a site for tensions to be explored. Home is a place where anxieties of security are fought out and where both safety and danger reside, according to critic Olu Oguibe in ‘Fresh Cream’. Taking this into account, perhaps these tensions are played out in the relationship between the leech and its home, in this case supposedly the stone wall. In the metaphor of a leech (at home) lie both sides of this tension, to suckle and to be repulsed, to drain versus to be drained, to become limp or to lack, to need and to hate the neediness. Here the leech’s object of ‘home’ is the stone wall which is ultimately experienced as inhospitable, but the resin leech seems to be glancing back, nostalgically.
Campbell has created objects that speak of the undeniable longing of being with something, or someone, which inevitably ends with being shut out. She ultimately interrupts the safety net of home when the stone wall, which is the host/home is revealed as a fake. We can walk around the work, examine its mechanics. What we seek in ‘home’ is a comfort the work suggests as an elaborate romanticisation. Campbell’s auto-paint shop alluring finish of the black larger-than- life leech contrasting with the real leech in the jar (not monotone, but with streaks of brown, white and black) is a window into the element of fantasy and illusion versus reality in the work as a whole. The wall looks like it belongs on a Lord of The Rings set where props are made as a substitute for reality, or even a substitute for fantasy, in other words, an idealised version of reality. In this way we can read the home as an image of problematic nostalgia. The narrative of the leech between home and home comer also plays out in relationships between couples, that is, the tensions between attraction and repulsion. There is a definite co-dependence evoked, and the cold stone wall that comes up to block our vision of anything else reminds us of the result when singles are prised from their couplings, cold and withdrawn into their separate spaces.
In terms of relationships there is an innate sense of longing and also suffocation. Soft Serve captures a snapshot of the temptation towards suction and the dissatisfaction we gain from co- dependence. Are we, just like the leech, addicted to the idea of safety and comfort, yet too scared of the sharp edges of the other person? Too scared to get too close? These pervading forces that Soft Serve surfaces, and makes us consider, gives the work an uncanny timelessness.
The element of push and pull in the work can be seen in the sense of movement in the resin leech and the stillness of the wall. The leech’s ribbed body shaped as if in mid-movement seems to be looking back at the cliff wall. The rippling movement in the sculpture of the leech, with its ribbed and shiny surface, reminds me of a Slinky, that you let walk down the stairs. The extreme height of the wall and its narrowness induces vertigo makes us feel isolated and insecure. Campbell does not want us to feel at home in this space, we are to feel detached but vulnerable to it still. Yet the pervading mood of Soft Serve is one of melancholy, stone cold and careless, rather than a crude pessimism.
With a work that addresses the issue of security, Soft Serve does not deliver a comforting and idyllic image of home, but instead uses devices that make us question the cycle of desire, need and longing. Like the barren cell of a relationship gone stale, this work acts out the draining effects of an illusory security.
The pleasure in this exhibition is that it is quintessentially a work which celebrates attachment and detachment, it is honest and succinct. With its overhanging and distant ambience and the playful means to which the artist has explored a human tendency to cling in relationships, Campbell succeeds in putting across an edgy work that is really not a Soft Serve in the branded sense, not so sweet, and not so edible.