There and Here
Andrew Ranville: Roots Radical, Corn Exchange Gallery, Edinburgh, 2009
On the uppermost branches of a Catalan conifer, some twenty metres above ground, there is a viewing platform. From there the green and rocky peaks of Montserrat stretch into the Spanish horizon. A wonderful place for hikers or local farmers to indulge in picturesque repose. A spot for solitary meditation, picnics or romance – so it seems. But there is a little problem. Without a ladder, stairs or lift, the platform – Perch (2008) – is all but unreachable.
The title of Small Footbridge (Portable) (2008) is descriptive. It is a takeaway bridge, made out of wood, rope and stainless steel. However, for all such emphasis on function the object is only about a metre long. The gap that it spans is covered by the average human stride.
Even the most accomplished skateboarder would find it impossible to surmount Tilt’s incline, which begins at some remove from the floor. The missing transition between ground and plywood gradient is but one of a number of obstacles built into this work. Another is the ramp’s suspension from the ceiling by ropes, making it sway under wheel and foot alike. The fact that it inhabits a gallery space, a seemingly ‘hands-off’ environment, makes it even less amenable. Similar impracticalities are encountered in Ranville’s Untitled ramps 1 and 2 (2007). The first of these is a three metre tall quarter-pipe with seven metres of wooden run-up. It’s a ludicrous proposition – just sixty centimetres wide and interrupted, twice, by bulbous speed humps. Only a superhero could physically complete the feat of ascent to complete verticality. Mere mortals would fly, face-first, into plywood. Still, the artist did not attempt to discourage foolhardiness on the part of visitors to Woburn Studios, London, generously providing them with a board. To look upon that tool was to find it comically unfit for purpose. It was a retro model: Stylish, but like a car lacking both suspension and power steering, equipped with bald tires. In any case, were it replaced by today’s standard hardware the task would have remained just as daunting. Unsurprisingly, the ramp went unridden.
The artist’s sculptures look as if they’re to be put to physical use. Strength and durability are signaled not only by wood – his main material – but, in a work like Tilt, by other components such as climbing carabiners and nautical-grade rigging. His objects are for the most part built to specification – able to take body weight – and yet their most obvious use has been ruled out. Just what is Ranville’s game?
The artist grew up skateboarding and climbing trees. Are these sculptures elegies to youthful play? Perhaps, but they are not without humor. Moreover, in explaining such works Ranville chooses to downplay his own biography. Thus, it would seem that their denied functionality isn’t melancholic. Is it a taunt? From persons with more than the requisite portion of spleen such objects may elicit frustration. But who has so pathological a desire to skate or climb? Though it figures the impractical, the difficult, this is not a backward-facing or vindictive art. Rather, it stages meticulously crafted, load-bearing, places to be. Furthermore, it implies ways to get there.
Both Perch and the ramp sculptures call out for passage on the part of the viewer – To the apex of Tilt; the top of the tree! – and this demand is met. The viewer performs a feat of mental gymnastics and so reaches the destination. This leap of imagination does not take the form of a jump-cut from the present scene to the next. It is a kind of cognitive long-shot; a fantastic representation of physical agility, daring-do and suspended physics. It is a bodily thought. The place to be suggests an exciting way there that begins right here.
Pathways (2007) links such mental and physical travel. This installation requires the viewer to walk beneath it, triggering a sensor that activates a Super 8 film projection. The looped sequence shows first-person camera movements down pathways around the Sydney Olympic Park in Australia. A timer limits the projection’s duration and so the viewer must not remain stationary for too long if they wish to keep watching. In so doing, their attention turns from represented movement on screen to ‘actual’ movement in the gallery space. Just as soon as this has happened pictorial space/movement is reactivated. This oscillation – itself kinesis – continues indefinitely. Other works by the artist also employ this technique. Ranville’s Attic (2007) installation granted the audience access to a previously unreachable architectural space. After climbing a ladder and entering a room, by crawling through a hole in the wall, visitors triggered a film of rollercoaster-like passage around various skateboard bowls.
Climb the Tree to be Taller than the Tree (2009) is a large photograph that depicts a huge coniferous tree. An eagle eye uncovers something poking out from among its top foliage. Nearly lost beneath the expanse of blue sky and amid flecks of green and yellow is an earnest looking young man wearing a light grey t-shirt. He has a straight back and the subtle makings of a satisfied facial expression. He gazes out into the distance. This figure at the summit of the scene is Ranville – out on a limb, some twenty-metres above ground with the breeze in his beard.
Ranville’s photograph shares something with Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by 19th century German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich. In this painting the eponymous wanderer stands at the edge of a precipice. Clad in black, hand on hip, he surveys a tempestuous panorama of fog and craggy peaks. He is a representation of archetypical heroism and individual achievement – standing above danger and struggle with impersonal forces. Indeed, the general implication of the figure’s ascent and position is emphasized by his being shown from behind.
Ranville’s climber and Friedrich’s wanderer are both images of triumph, but there are differences. In the first of these the artist is small – barely distinguished from the branches. By contrast, Friedrich’s figure – who supposedly represents the artist – dominates the canvas, placed right at its centre. The sky in Ranville’s picture is clear and the light all-pervasive, while the German’s brooding scene is suffused with the blue-greys of a storm. In so far as Friedrich’s image speaks of difficulty overcome by sheer will Ranville’s stands for sunny bounty. ‘The idea isn’t grandiose. I didn’t feel like I was on a journey to conquer anything’, he says. In a film that accompanies the photograph a camera, mounted on his arm, was left running for the duration of a similar climb. Its eye never captures the artist’s body. The artist’s corporeal exertions are given only in a visually obtuse manner. The representation of passage from the bottom of the trunk to the top of the tree is not put across as individual success or spectacle. Like the film component of Pathways it stages a first-person perspective that the audience can identify with. The artist describes it thus: ‘We’re in it together – I’m up in this tree but you’re here too’. The works thus function as a kind of response to Friedrich, and to Matthew Barney’s Field Dressing (1989) – a film display of this artist’s potent muscularity and physical prowess.
When asked about his influences Ranville says that he is more interested in people who aren’t artists, ‘like climbers who leave their bolts in the rock and create points on a path’. When pressed further he admits to an appreciation of Richard Long’s walks and Andy Goldsworthy’s installations. These are persons whose work does not primarily address the metropolitan. Following his ramp series, Ranville’s own practice is also increasingly engaged with the natural world. Beginning with wood as a medium for sculptural creation the artist now finds himself drawn to its source – the tree. His work’s material is becoming, as he puts it, ‘both the location and subject’ of his art. This is not to say that he is pursuing a formalist agenda. In fact, Ranville’s interest in the tree has much to do with its potency as a symbolic element. The artist is rightly aware that skateboard ramps cannot evade associations with bourgeois youth-culture. By contrast, trees are as much Siberia as suburbia, as much biblical as backyard. They can supply the idea of nature or antiquity – just two examples – but are also rich in present-day implications.
The issue of sustainability is one of such thematic pathways. Like many of his generation the artist is concerned with this issue. But how many of his peers engage with it in an interesting manner, or at all? Fairs and biennales, temporary commissions and traveling exhibitions consume massive amounts of natural resources. In his Future Installation (Grand Fir), an edition of three works, Ranville attempts to bring ecological and aesthetic values together. Collectors each receive a sapling from the artist, which they plant in a location of their own choosing. In due course it grows into a tree. At the time of this organism’s maturity, some fifteen years later, the artist will produce an sculpture in it made out of reclaimed timber. The root of each artwork is planting a tree – an act of care for our environment. The process of anticipating the future installation is a variant on the imaginary passage/leap previously discussed in relation to Perch and Tilt. The final realization of the piece is a manifestation of material and creative economy.
Ranville brings such a combination of ecology and romantic conceptualism to the current exhibition in the form of Future Island (Bald Cypress) (2009). The piece is a takeaway installation/sculpture that consists of a sapling housed in a planter-box to which a boat anchor has been attached. The tree itself is of a variety that thrives in a flooded environment. Whoever owns/purchases the work is encouraged to pitch it into a canal or similarly urban body of water. The fast-growing plant will be able to absorb nutrients through the specially designed box and, aided by the anchor, will subsequently put down roots. If left alone for long enough it will grow into an island.
If the piece is to be finished by the collector, according to Ranville’s stated intentions, then certain laws – against ‘dumping’, for instance – must be broken. The birth of the island necessitates a kind of ‘guerrilla gardening’, an activist practice that has emerged in recent anti-globalization protests – whereby the manicured grass of public squares is reclaimed/planted with vegetables. However, it must be noted that the artist is not cooly ‘quoting’ rebellion. The impulse behind Future Island is sincere. As a skateboarder, Ranville is well practiced at playing fast and loose with prohibitions against trespassing and vandalism. Yet breaking the law is not the point. It is merely par for the course when one is a connoisseur of canals, concourses, curbs and carparks, sets of stairs, hand-railings, benches in public forecourts, speed-humps and underpasses. To release the potential of these locations – to reappropriate them; to make them places to be, so to speak – something must be ventured. But why should the audience be concerned with their potential? The artist’s position is as follows: Since we live in such places their potential is our own.
As Ranville is wont to observe, today planners and developers design environments for ‘consumers’: ‘They want people to be apathetic about their motion through space; to control how people move’. Any inhabitant of central London can bear witness to barriers keeping one from crossing the road in a direct manner; sandwich-boards blocking already crowded footways; a profusion of fences, gates, and anti-climb paint on lampposts. Likewise, a Tate Modern exhibition of works by the Russian revolutionary avant-garde ends with one being spat out into a gift-shop. In such cases the horizon is proscribed – both literally and epistemologically. Ranville’s ongoing Trespassing (2004-) series of photographs is meant as a testament to new horizons. The fruit of a nighttime flâneurie – ‘climbing onto rooftops, sneaking over the connecting walls and levels of downtown buildings’ – they record what he calls ‘arresting interactions’ between ‘temperatures of light’ and architecture. Of course, the pictures also document arrestable offences. However, as with Future Island – and in the words Arthur Rimbaud – beauty is perfumed with crime.
Ranville’s architectural interventions, subverted natural features and photographs aim to give us itchy feet. He would have us climbing trees like children and scaling roofs like cat-burglars; exploring and discovering new vantage points. In Perch he tempts us with a paradigmatically ‘good’ view – overlooking countryside. However, he also suggests that there are other valuable positions in far less bucolic surroundings; down alleyways, over rooftops and behind chain-link fences. He acknowledges that seeking these out can be deemed trespassing, but that it is nevertheless worthwhile. He would have us off autopilot. As much as his works feature movement and interesting destinations they also emphasize a generative location – my body. Small Footbridge (Portable) hangs on precisely this issue. This work is not so much a disfunctional bridge as a signpost to one’s own stride. Likewise, his ramps are less impractical objects than they are thoughts of fantastic action. ‘If my work gets one person to really think about their feet touching the ground then it has done its job’ he says. Once this thought has occurred a question arises: Where do I want to go from here? Herein lies the political dimension of his art.