Useful Magic: Francis Upritchard in the Attic
The attic occupies a special place in the western cultural imagination. It is a site invariably linked with history and the unconscious, a clutter of half-forgotten objects behind a locked door whose meanings often slide into the register of gothic horror. It is where Mr Rochester hides his mad wife. It is where the bad mother of the Virginia Andrews potboilers locks up her children. The image of the attic as storehouse for repressed secrets is cheerfully countered by daytime TV, which offers it up as a repository of hidden wealth. 'Cash in the Attic' [BBC1] and countless similar formats offer the promise that your unsorted junk might have antiquarian interest, or better still, resale potential.
A recent series of works by Francis Upritchard uses materials recovered from this domestic oubliette and its high-street off-shoot, the charity shop. Old sports equipment - hockey sticks, golf clubs, tennis and squash racquets, have acquired animal attributes. Brightly-coloured jackal, dog and monkey heads and snouts are grafted onto or growing out of tatty handles, the rackets de-stringed and sawn off so that they become horned sticks, the sporting relics of grandma's schooldays metamorphosed into something totemic and strange. These are objects which might be used in European animist rituals, for invoking and controlling the white man's neglected ancestral spirits - Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Fred Perry, generations of dead boys playing up and playing the game...
This is the artist as something more than a 'snapper-up of unconsidered trifles', an arranger or codifier of detritus in the manner of Tomoko Takahashi or Sarah Sze. Upritchard is performing a renewal, a re-energisation of the objects she converts. The legacy of generations of participation in consumerism is an attic-full of junk. Less often than in pre-consumer society are individual objects preserved and handed down, yet energies (libidinal, affective) are still invested in them, even if this investment is temporary, readily transferred to the next item, with its higher performance or greater fashion cachet. With their connotations of victory, physical prowess and social approbation these discarded sticks and bats and rackets are faint, etiolated descendents of the net and the hunting spear. As such there is a trace of ritual power in them, a trace Upritchard wishes to amplify.
Curios, nick-nacks, mementoes and trophies are, in Upritchard's art, the bearers of the last remnants of a magical relationship with the world of things. In Traveller's Collection (2003) a mummy is presented with 'grave goods' including tourist trinkets from around the world. Another mummy (Save Yourself 2003) has taken a packet of B&H Gold cigarettes into the afterlife. Clues to the exact nature of this relationship, and to the function of the objects she makes (which is emphatically not that of 'sculpture' as it has been usually understood in the twentieth century) can be gleaned from the names she has given to the sports pieces: Power Over Others (unreasonable) … For Exams and Court Cases … For Sexual Impotency … Protection From Jealous Enemies and Any Type of Bad Blockage … Health (Long Sickness Which You Don't Know Why?)... These are phrases taken from flyers distributed in London by African astrologers. In the world-view expressed by these entrepreunerial seers, human life is a negotation between the living, the dead and various other elemental and spiritual powers. In particular, individual affairs are frequently affected by the magical forces of one's enemies, by bad luck incurred through the transgression of various rules and customs, and by curses which emanate as an involuntary result of jealousy and anger. In such a system, the proximate causes of things are always secondary to their ultimate magical causes. You may fall over and break your leg because there was a crack in the pavement, but the question remains as to why the crack opened up, and what (or who) guided you to take that particular route to work.
So these are objects with a purpose. They are intended to have influence, to protect, to wield power. Their African cultural register is only one of a number Upritchard has deployed in recent years, the most important of which has been that of the Maori and Pacific islanders, a daring move for a 'pakeha' white New Zealander. A recurrent concern of Upritchard's engagement with Maori art (as well as her use of ancient Egyptian motifs, the Royal Family and European astrology) has been her construction of ritual objects to negotiate the boundaries between life and death. The presence of ancestors in the daily life of a traditional Maori community is in direct contradiction to the ahistorical and atomised subjectivity generated by contemporary capitalism. The marae is, in a sense, the opposite to the attic. Instead of being shoved upstairs, memory is present in every aspect of its architecture, the meeting house and dining hall which lie at its heart literally being the bodies of notable ancestors, roof beam as backbone and so on. Communication with the dead is regular, ordinary. Importantly for Upritchard, it is not frightening, unlike the pakeha world where death provokes sensations of gothic horror.
Fear is never far away in Upritchard's work, and her art can in some ways be seen as a form of bargaining, a contract with inhuman and terrifying otherness: "Death and Life-in-Death have diced for the ship's crew, and she (the latter) winneth Francis Upritchard." However, fear is always mixed with the comic and the absurd. Her mummies are small and slightly wretched creatures which lie stiffly on gallery floors and tables, moaning and quivering. For much of 2002 and 2003, she scoured the attics and fleamarkets of Germany for sixties and seventies hand-glazed pots and vases, which were converted into canopic urns, animal-headed vessels used by the Egyptians to store the preserved organs of mummified corpses. Always, mythologies are diverted from their grand contexts to form part of her personal symbolic language, more meanings she can weave together into a wry and witchy web of defenses against horror.
So what is Upritchard afraid of? Derived from a reading of ETA Hoffman's short story, The Sandman (1817) , Freud's essay The Uncanny (1925) offers one explanation of what happens when the contents of the attic are exposed. The German word heimlich has two sets of meanings: belonging to the house; friendly, familiar, comfortable; but also concealed, secret, withheld from sight and from others; hence secretive, deceitful. The unheimlich by contrast is the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, the weird, that which should have been kept secret but has been revealed. One typical experience of the uncanny lies in 'uncertainty about whether an object is living or inanimate', and for Upritchard, looking for safe passage between the world of the living and the dead, fear may consist not so much in one or the other, but in suspension between the two. Not death, but life-in-death. The unheimlich is everywhere in her work: rackets grow snouts, drawing cases are opened to reveal wriggling ghostlike creatures, half instrument, half spirit. Just as dead things come to life, living things may appear to be dead. Her use of taxidermy is striking, partly because her taxidermised animals look so thoroughly un-alive. A snake is stretched out straight, rigid as a ruler. Another is formed into an ouroboros, its tail in its mouth, a symbol of the cyclical nature of existence. Creatures become signs. Tools become creatures.
As Upritchard rummages through the attic, she brings forth uneasiness, both in cultural terms (the return of a repressed magical relationship with objects) and in personal terms. What do you do to protect against bad dreams, against things that go bump in the night? Her fear of a suspended state, a half-alive world where the past has been bundled upstairs, uncelebrated and unexorcised, seems also to inform the presentation of her work, which has about it a Victorianism, a clutter entirely at odds with the standard modernist gallery-space. Hints of the wunderkammer, the cabinet museum and the old curiosity shop suggest that the attic is being turned out, its messiness leaking back into the sealed space of the white cube. Ironically her deployment of art to stand against death takes her into the territory of some of the standard concerns of the classical western sculptural tradition. Instead of monumentalism or the immortalisation of the artist or subject - the last gasps of which can perhaps be seen respectively in Rachel Whiteread's Viennese holocaust memorial and Gavin Turk's presentation of himself as waxwork cultural icons (Elvis, Che) Upritchard opens up another path for the future. Through their intimate, useful magic, her objects offer all of us a way to escape the clutter of contemporary undeath.
this text was produced for Francis Upritchard's residency at the Camden Arts Centre, spring 2004.