An artist having fun while waiting for catastrophe

By Alex Marshall

The artist Heather Phillipson’s latest work is a 31-foot statue of a dollop of whipped cream, with a fly on it.

This one hasn’t been easy. In March, the work was meant to be installed on an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, the latest in a series of commissions that brings contemporary art to the central London plaza. But on the day the installation was scheduled to begin, Britain went into lockdown.

Soon after, she was having conversations with the London city officials about whether the work could be installed during the pandemic at all. The work’s title, “The End,” didn’t have the best connotations at a moment when thousands were dying.

“It started to feel like there’d never be a good time, or a right time, for it to go up,” Phillipson said in a recent interview at her East London studio.

On Thursday, “The End” was finally unveiled. Phillipson said the work had been conceived in 2016, not long after Britain voted to leave the European Union, and she had wanted the creamy sculpture, which looks as if it could ooze off its platform, to look precarious, because that’s how the world felt back then. Recently, she added, things have gotten worse.

But people could read the statue however they wanted, Phillipson said: She would even be happy if they just saw it as a bit of fun.

“Personally, I’m drawn to stuff that baffles me,” she said. “If I don’t get it, that’s when I’m hooked.”

Enjoying being confused is central to the charm of Phillipson’s works, whose bright, over-the-top exteriors often belie their dark, urgent messages about environmental destruction or humanity’s treatment of animals. She is a vegan (since “before it was fashionable”) and her interviews are littered with talk of impending planetary doom.

“The End” is a more ambiguous piece, but a huge planned installation at Tate Britain is perhaps more typical: Phillipson will turn the museum’s central gallery into “a suite of deranged landscapes, addressing the earth as a thinking eruption, on the verge of termination,” she said. That work was supposed to be unveiled this summer, but has been postponed because of the coronavirus and is now scheduled for 2021.

In 2018, she staged “The Age of Love” at the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in northern England, in which she filled a floor of the museum with agricultural machinery and psychedelic videos of snails mating and swivel-eyed cats, all set to booming dance music. A critic from a local newspaper wrote that her work “speaks to our current environmental state, scaring us into working harder to change the world.”

That same year, Phillipson made a 260-foot-long installation on a disused subway platform in London. The work featured TV screens that seemed to be walking on giant chicken legs, and cartoonish egg sculptures, some of which appeared to be releasing bad smells. “It is all enough to turn you vegan,” critic Adrian Searle wrote in a review for The Guardian.

Phillipson insisted her work was not simply about her political views or lifestyle choices. “Yes, I’m a vegan, but I’m also a woman, a feminist,” she said. “All kinds of things feed into my art, because whatever ideologies I have will be in there at some level. But I’m not presenting an argument.”

Ekow Eshun, the chairman of the group that commissions works for the Fourth Plinth, as the pedestal in Trafalgar Square is known, said in a telephone interview that Phillipson was very good at “summoning the strangeness and discomfort and absurdity of the contemporary moment and assembling that into forms that are unexpected.” Her work also happened to be “extremely enjoyable,” he added.

Iwona Blazwick, director of London’s Whitechapel Gallery, which has commissioned work by Phillipson, said in a Zoom interview that her art managed to be both “hilarious and terrifying at the same time.”

“She reminds me of the Surrealists, actually,” Blazwick said. Like them, Phillipson juxtaposes unrelated items to give them new meaning. “That is what sets her apart, and makes her a great sculptor,” Blazwick added.

In her studio, Phillipson — who has no gallery representation and worked as an office administrator until about five years ago — seemed surprised by her recent success. She never expected to get the Fourth Plinth commission, she said. When she received an email in 2016 inviting her to submit an idea, her response, she said, was, “This is hilarious. There’s no way I’m going to get it.”

Born in London, Phillipson spent much of her teenage years in rural Wales. Her mother was a social worker and her father a musician who also made art and wrote poetry. (Phillipson is a prize-winning poet herself, has DJed at illegal raves and makes sound collages that have played on BBC radio.)

She said she couldn’t remember any specific moment that turned her onto art — it was always there, she said. Likewise, she added, she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t fear for the planet’s future.

But she insisted her worldview wasn’t actually just about doom and gloom. “The world is a disturbing place isn’t it? But there’s a lot of joy in there,” she said. Her works are “holding a position of conflict” between those points, she added.

On Thursday morning, Phillipson, wearing three Black Lives Matter badges, looked nervous as she waited in Trafalgar Square for “The End” to be unveiled. Her hands shook as she put on a face mask.

If she was still worried about whether it was a good time to unveil the sculpture, she needn’t have been. As soon as “The End” emerged from underneath a huge black sheet, the few passersby in Trafalgar Square stopped to gawk at it, then take photos with bemused smiles.

In interviews, three commuters and one tourist from Belgium all said they liked the work. “I love it!” said Cheryl Lawrence, a scuba diving instructor. “It’s colorful, it’s festive.”

When told about Phillipson’s political motivations in making the work, Lawrence waved the comment away. “The average person isn’t going to think about that,” she said: “It’ll probably just make them want an ice cream.”

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