Answers to Questions: John Wood & Paul Harrison Essay

06/04/2011 - 10/01/2011

Download PDF

Answers to Questions
Toby Kamps

John Wood and Paul Harrison, a British collaborative duo, make single-channel videos, multipart video installations, sculptural objects, and works on paper that elegantly fuse advanced aesthetic research with existential comedy. The artists’ spare, to-the-point works feature the actions of their own bodies, a wide range of static and moving props, or combinations of both to illustrate the triumphs and tribulations of making art and having a life.

In their not-always-successful experiments with movement and materials, Wood and Harrison employ exuberant invention, subtle slapstick, and a touch of lighthearted melancholy to reveal the inspiration and perspiration—as well as the occasional hint of desperation—behind all creative acts. Answers to Questions: John Wood and Paul Harrison is the first United States museum survey of work in video by this British artistic team and is curated by Toby Kamps, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Menil Collection, Houston.

Wood and Harrison describe themselves as performance artists and sculptors whose audience is the video camera. Meeting at the Bath College of Higher Education in 1989, the artists have worked together since 1993 and share a studio in Wood’s city of Bristol, two hours away from London. They have forged a creative partnership based on physical trust and equal ownership of ideas and roles—although they both agree that Wood, the shorter, stockier of the two, is the better straight man and often cast him as such. Each of their works begin with a simple drawing in which they work out the engineering and timing of their ideas. Their staging and filming, they say, always aims to be “straightforward” and “undramatic.” They eschew the dynamic camerawork and elaborate editing common in artists’ films today, employing a basic, do-it-yourself approach that highlights their physical activities and constructions, many of which include kinetic elements.

Usually made with a fixed camera, their low-tech works contain no special effects or gimmicks other than occasional tracking shots and cuts that give the appearance of seamless movement. The early work Board (1993), a dancelike performance involving Wood and Harrison making dozens of collaborative, acrobatic moves centered around a large sheet of MDF chipboard, which they take turns holding and dropping, highlights the artists’ physical virtuosity and genius for unlocking unexpected permutations in materials and gestures.

The visual and physical language Wood and Harrison have developed harkens back to the 1960s and works by video art pioneers like Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, and William Wegman that were casual and bare-bones, focusing on artists performing simple, oftentimes repetitive tasks in nondescript spaces. Like these predecessors, Wood and Harrison also are influenced by new theories of performance developed in the 1960s by dancers like Yvonne Rainer, who cultivated the idea that inspired amateurs, performing to the best of their abilities, were as valid as trained professionals. In Three-Legged (1997) a harrowing attempt to move in unison with legs tied together as in a three-legged race while a high-speed serving machine fires tennis balls at them, Wood and Harrison display the ways they learn, fail, and succeed together. Just before the machine runs out of balls, the exhausted artists discover that all they need to do to avoid getting beaned is duck.

In many of the works in which Wood and Harrison figure as protagonists, there is an element of archness—a tiny pregnant pause or twinkle in the eye—that signals self-awareness. In this sense, Wood and Harrison are heirs to intensely physical American silent film comics Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. They also acknowledge a debt to a legacy of uniquely British television humor built on the cultural embrace of the silly and the uptight found in comedy troupes like the hysterical Monty Python and the understated double act Morecambe and Wise.

Wood and Harrison are experts at marshaling materials and masters of the physics of everyday life. Whether in complex works like 66.86m (2004), a depiction of an elaborate grid of white-and-black rope and pulleys that, after much pulling, eventually traces the outline of a chair; or simpler works like Photocopier (2007), a simple stop-action animation made by shooting the tray of a Xerox machine as it fills with sequential images of a sailboat moving across a horizon; and Fan/Paper/Fan (2007), in which a piece of paper is balanced on edge between two fans and dances suspended, Wood and Harrison reveal a masterful understanding of the foundational principles of Minimal and Conceptual Art. They consistently use the bare minimum of materials and effects to shape their ideas. The studied neutrality of their performance spaces, the spare geometries of their props, and the recurring interests in grids, sequences, and a clear, illustrational quality in their work indicate that they are steeped in the culture of reductive and idea-based art.

The history of film is another inspiration for Wood and Harrison. They admire the elegant staging and pacing of Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime, a low-key, nearly dialogue-less physical comedy set in lobbies, apartments, and restaurants in high-modernist buildings. And the eight-minute tracking shot of a pileup of cars on a highway in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Weekend (1967), is the inspiration for the 27-minute Shelf (2007), a series of static and moving tableaux made from household hardware and toys arranged on a shelf, filmed and edited so that it appears as though the camera is moving along an endless shelf. As the lens moves serenely past them, these objects perform their own mini-dramas: a tugboat sinks; a toy train hits a car straddling its tracks, pushing it to a waiting ambulance, police car, and tow truck; and a row of alarm clocks go off in succession, creating a cacophony of electronic chirps. Developing its own logical momentum as it progresses, Shelf suggests that everyday objects have lives of their own that need only be seen with fresh eyes to reveal themselves.

Through their efforts, no matter how absurd, Sisyphean, or masochistic, Wood and Harrison reveal the inventive play behind all art, even its most ephemeral strains. The creative sparks Wood and Harrison throw off in their simple, self-effacing video works are the raw material of human culture. They trigger the small epiphanies and perspective changes that make life worth living. Grounded in a reverence for the quotidian, Wood and Harrison’s unique blend of the absurd and erudite, high and low, philosophical and funny, captures both a sense of wonder and the necessary thrill of risk and experimentation in art and life alike.

Toby Kamps, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Menil Collection, Houston