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Bought boldly off-the-shelf Ami Clarke’s neon sign VACANCY (2007), provides a rich ‘Narnia’ like theoretical entrance to the vexed open question of what so called contemporary art is "all about" and where if anywhere its exponents and their artefacts might be leading? From the outset it asks us as convened viewers to do more than act out the usual rites of semantic divination, or just marvel at her bright modernistic use of technology, for this Duchampian ‘sculpture’ presents itself and therefore the local site it occupies as an aporia: why on earth deliberately install a sign announcing emptiness, not designating goods or services in other words? What sort of witty and disturbing shell game is going on here? Have we pitched up at a yawning hole in the cultural ozone layer? Another meaningless gallery dead-end? Zero? For once then, information content has been bested by form, and form subordinated to the issue of ‘production’ which underlays and motivates this work. Analysing pictures, Paul Crowther has remarked on a tendency ‘to emphasise what is involved in their recognition, at the expense of addressing what is achieved in their making’*. Similarly here, questions rule: we want to know why the sculptor has chosen to peddle vacancy, what forces have driven her to this point and how it has been achieved; in short develop a cognitive relationship to this glowing pink signage for ourselves.

Vacancy does have its antecedents though, as Clarke’s work Un-limited reveals. Made from a column of blown ‘sleever’ type beer glasses, scale 1:3, sat end to end, its impact at the 2005 show ‘Totem’ in the low key interior of MOT gallery was the opposite of monumental: a tricksy attempt at the appropriation of space, her vitreous jar contained the trapped air of terra nullius, and the promise of yards of Belgian lager to be consumed both at the preview and afterwards in the pub. It is tempting to associate and relate such subtle practices to Rachel Whiteread’s empty quotidian molds, for Un-limited possesses the same hollow purity as Whiteread’s Untitled (Yellow Bath) (1996), in which the eye is inevitably drawn into the poignant human-shaped space left behind, as much as the yellow rubber and polystyrene tub form. Clarke too investigates this plenary dimension of emptiness, not so much a totem but a political taboo in consumer society, setting up a tension between transparent material and the space it delimits. In such a study formal simplicity effectively subjects the viewer to ‘ostranenie’, a literary defamiliarisation technique.

There is too a marked literary aspect to Vacancy that situates it inside the history of graffiti and inscription. Juliet Fleming’s fascinating study The Writing on the Wall -graffiti and the writing arts in early modern England (2001) examines the use of ‘posies’ or commonplace inscription be it biblical, proverbial or erotic on the limewashed walls and leaded windows of 16th century houses, reminders and injunctions to behave decorously in an age that was ‘paper-short’. So Vacancy as an indoor sign might well be seen as a form of prophylactic against the saturation coverage of news media 24/7, a Puritan charm against the overfull and overblown, respite for the frazzled corpus callosum. Yet the piece sits humbly on the floor, at mouse-eye level, subverting its own optimal position as a wall mounted advert, a red-light district tease reminiscent of the seedy B&B Las Vegas in ‘Get Carter’. Why one might ask? Rosalind Krauss has pointed out how the wall plane attracts the upright human gaze, whilst the ground is contaminated by recall of the bestial four-legged, or evolutionary retrogression in other words; and yet, this selfsame floor is also the material base for statue plinths and columns, both of which are significant absences suggested here.


Clarke relates an anecdote clearly important to her, about two boys who, on bursting into ‘Three Colts Gallery’, where her puzzle piece Folly was being exhibited, immediately got the hang of it and started ‘arranging and stacking’ the parts according to their desires. Such modularity is not so obviously an attribute of Vacancy, but is operative anyway, as virtual modularity, for the sign cordially invites mental block-building, implying that a substitute work might sit where there is none, pressing the viewer to remake visual reality then, or insert their own unique structure. Such a novel approach militates against any form of fetishism whatsoever, decoying the eye away from the material sign, and setting up a game or performance. Indeed it soon becomes clear that the title’s conflation with the work per se is another red herring, and that the horizons summoned up are not dependent on local context at all, but stretch to infinity. In fact this is a case where the viewer is better off losing their ‘normative grip’ to use Arthur Danto’s telling phrase and explore the blasted terrain left vacant after the end of art, a cultural space unequalled in magnitude since Nietzsche’s ennunciation of the death of God.

In AEROSOL 400ml,salmon orange, Art. –Nr 327 134 a work now destroyed, flat  spatiality and the quest for texture, finish, or effect become the main concerns and components, taking the place of iconography, and recapitulating how in the erstwhile archaeological record tactile painting has been replaced by Greenbergian surface which in turn has been ousted by advertising in the form of electronic street slaps. AEROSOL then as a colour swatch, references both a moribund performative instant as well as what Clarke has referred to in conversation as "strange imperfections”, an advert for the brand of spray-can as well as the ineptitude of the technician. Vacancy too makes itself available to numerous readings, cleverly evoking punk psychology even as it suggests the complex dynamic of negotiation and contractuality which goes into the appearance of a work of art in a gallery, implying that you too can fill the void if you know the right people and twist the correct key. However by means of apophatic charm alone, the neon summons us to experience our own vacancy, and ultimately mysterious disappearance.

Michael Hampton 2008/9

* Paul Crowther, ‘Pictorial Space and the Possibility of Art’ British Journal of Aesthetics vol 48 #2, April 2008.

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