Vanishing Points: On the art of Disappearance

By Shaun Caton

Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.

— Rene Magritte
The Fetish Tree

I am foraging in a densely tangled thicket of vaguely connected thoughts for a theme to write about, and unwittingly, I stumble across my own predilection for secret places, which I have imbued with a heightened, special significance in memory that is partially true or completely reinvented. We all have these exceptional sites we like to inhabit. Some exist only as fractured recollections from childhood (tree houses, hidey holes, makeshift dens, cavities in walls, wasteland plots engulfed with vertiginous stinkweeds) and others are more permanent: cupboards with hidden, secret drawers, rattling trinket boxes, the linings and spines of books, objects inserted within mattresses, beneath carpets, behind furniture, in pockets, and wrapped in tissue paper, tucked behind curtains. At some point or other, we like to hide things, stash them away; and eventually we might forget them, reminded as if by accident of their existence somewhere between consciousness and amnesia, by a sudden epiphany. Often, it seems, they are items lost forever, as their exact location can no longer accurately be determined and we may spend excruciating hours, days, months, and in some cases, years, searching for them – all to no avail. This reminds me of a fabulous 1840’s American daguerreotype I bought, of a young family in mourning. I deposited the photograph somewhere in my home and have never subsequently discovered its whereabouts again, despite rigorous searches through files and cases. To my complete exasperation it has simply, vanished. I remember that all the children in the image had dark rimmed eyes, indicating that they had been crying before the likeness was taken. The renowned historic photograph collector Robert Herschkowitz, commented to me, ‘that’s a wonderfully sad daguerreotype’ – he was the last person I showed it to. The daguerreotype is an elegy to loss. I am now mourning it’s long term disappearance from my life.

Concealment is a part of maintaining one’s innermost privacy, of withholding certain confidential details, perhaps embellishing aspects of our lives with a profound nuance of mystery and drama. Why do we need to squirrel things away? Is it to avoid the salivating, grasping, covetousness of others, or the need to keep the meaning of a cherished item clandestine and personal – for our eyes only? In such locations, we inhabit an imaginary reality with the objects we want to suppress that is deeply fetishistic. I remember as a child experiencing the Hanging Tree, a large, knotty beech, in the Hampshire countryside, festooned with a game keeper’s killings: stoats, weasels, crows, rats, mice, and dead birds reduced to tattered clumps of beak, bone, and feather. All were tied to the swaying branches with old shoe laces knotted together in a rudimentary and barbaric fashion, and had mummified, gorged upon by wriggling maggots, shriveled to form blackened husks of their former selves. Certainly, there was visceral horror involved in this gruesome array. The hunter knew that people would encounter the fetish tree and see these wizened cadavers. Their arrangement was aesthetic and they dangled there, in space, until finally crumbling into a powdery charnel dust. To find the beech required memorizing the route into a heavily overgrown hollow besieged with bluebottles (no doubt feeding on the rotting meat). I could be guided to it by their incessant drone. Screened from the wayward trampling of hippy nature lovers, wearing badly knitted sweaters, this tree was surrounded by a patch of encroaching foliage so dense that only the crown of the head could be seen floating above it. In 2010 I made a performance in Cologne, at the Orangerie, a ramshackle avant-garde theatre of sorts, run by a motely company of lunatics in one of the city’s parks. At the end of an 8 hour performance I walked slowly into a sea of tall grass so that I too, would become invisible to the uncertain spectators who followed me wearily, and pucker lipped, into a green oblivion. This concept of deliberate disappearance also goes further back into my childhood, and spreads in all different directions, with me actively writing letters to myself, specifically for the future, and having penned them on tiny scraps of paper, poking them forcefully through the dusty cracks in the floorboards, so that I (or someone else) could retrieve them in years to come. I would also daydream of the cool, dank, earth in the school grounds, looking down on it from a grimy window in the art department, considering how it might feel to bury my naked feet in the soil, with the worms writhing around my toes. Was this a juvenile desire to escape the monotony of the humdrum? In other situations, I enjoyed mooching about in the blue room at the top of friend’s house. This was a tiny attic, where everything including the floor, walls, and ceiling was painted a soporific, cobalt blue. I would try to wear a matching sweater and trousers to become suitably camouflaged. Piles of comic books were kept in here and I was happy to spend hours out of sight, ensconced in these graphic diversions of mindless violence and nihilism. Back in the Orangerie in Cologne, I wedged myself in a void between two brick walls, in the basement of the theatre that had once been a munitions factory during the war. Here I resided for some time, unable to turn around or move forward. A moment like this in a performance is an impasse and the audience (if any) is at a loss as to what is going on just as much as the performer who is stuck. It’s also an inter-uterine imagine of birth and emergence. In 1988 I was performing at the DNA Galerie in Arnhem, The Netherlands. The gallery was situated in a 17th century Dutch house and I requested that a box be made for me to live inside over a period of 3 days. The cube had a trap door and was black. I stayed inside it for many hours not knowing if it was day or night, opening the hatch periodically to allow food parcels or notes to be passed in/out. To mark the passage of time, I made drawings in the dark on the sides, scratching with crayons, in a blind exploration of the hollowness and the claustrophobia. Perhaps the performance was a metaphor for being buried alive in a totally vacuous, capitalist art market? When I emerged on the 3rd day cold and disorientated, my relationship with the colourful gallery surroundings (pink walls) was greatly enhanced and accentuated by sensory deprivation. In other environments, I have investigated unusual negative spaces: lifting a man hole cover in the arena of the Fribourg Festival in Switzerland (1988) and in the Transition Gallery, Glasgow (1988) so that the audience could hear waste water and sizeable turds swishing through the conduit every time someone flushed a toilet. I have also positioned myself, strategically on wide window ledges sprinkled with dead arachnids, crawled inside partitioned cubicles, occupied landings, lurked outside in courtyards, filled with stinking refuse bins, inhabited an Ice Age cave entrance in the Dordogne, performed under the eaves of a 19th century house in Berlin, and was a resident ghost in the littered concrete undercroft of Norwich Town Hall, where the rain cascaded in, and formed fantastic crisscrossing runnels down the ramp, I have also wobbled precariously at the top of a ladder leaned against a boarded up window covered in hand prints. The list of strange, confined spaces, tenanted during performances is endless and bewildering. The most interesting situation was poking my entire head through a wide hole in a horsehair mattress, as if framed by the structure in something appropriating to a living painting. I remember as a small boy chopping kindling wood for my Grandmother in her cavernous vaulted cellar, illuminated by a single naked light bulb. Here, I would while away endless moments making shadows with my hands and profile on the walls, enlarging and distorting them by moving closer or shuffling further away. This was the precursor of much experimental work with shadows to come.

I bought this obscure photograph of an alleyway recently, intrigued by its abstract qualities of light and shade, forming a strong diagonal. All I know about it is that it was taken mid- century (1930’s) in the city of Bristol. The scene was taken during an afternoon, evinced by the lengthening shadows, which partially reveal the surface of a cobbled street, an iron drain cover, coal hole, and paving stones. The buildings in the background look industrial, with their grilles and neatly pointed brickwork. In the centre, is a Victorian gas lamp, mounted on a wall. In the foreground, one can see the entrance to a passageway or tunnel, painted white. Here the shadow grows darker and high up on the right hand side is an aperture, a vent, or recess. The photograph is a study in chiaroscuro, perfectly framed to balance the creeping approach of night and the dwindling light of the afternoon, in this deserted urban space. In many such places, I have played as a child, and continue to explore as an adult in my performances – an extended form of metaphysical play.

There is also the phenomenon of wrapping up objects to obscure their original identity or purpose. This has been achieved by applying sheets of crinkled silver foil to life size dolls collected for me by poets and vagabonds from charity shops reeking of urine and despair, a collection of utterly filthy floor rags stolen from other people’s bathrooms, reels of gummy brown packing tape, yellowing newspapers, and copious spirals of twine. It is idiosyncratic to enfold and package up objects during a performance, and I see myself as a curator of a miniature museum, presenting spectators with a momentary showcase, deliberately binding everything to protect and remove it from a prying scrutiny. I am effectively creating a rebus. My fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and in particular, mummification, evinces a potent influence over the actions I repeatedly employ. During 1991/92 I made many grotesque figures from sculpted paper pulp and buried some in plastic carrier bags, only to dig them up months later and find them covered in a filigree fungus of putridity. The notion came to me in a dream, and I inserted pygmy cowrie shells into the gaping mouths of my fetishes after exhumation. My rampant neighbour, John Hardie (1948-2016), who lived in a garret with his pet spider, Marmaduke, insulated his room with hundreds of empty plastic cider bottles stacked in rows around the walls. He advised me that first, he had to consume the contents of each in order to obtain enough empties to do the job. His hatred of electricity compelled him to burn candles inside the squalor of his decrepit home, and there were frequently small house fires. Often, he would post a dead mouse though my letterbox, painted with black acrylic, or serenade me at 5.30 AM by singing the ubbldebubbledebubble song composed for my nocturnal entertainment. On another occasion, I visited and found him cooking a large, blistered, plastic doll in the oven. That’s what we will all look like after a nuclear holocaust – he would explain in his gravelly accent, leering like a madman. John was the local feline grave digger and his back yard was filled with the corpses of dead cats, all shallow buried. He constantly fed flea riddled, stray cats, with gelatinous tinned dog food, and named them all with whimsical Dickensian names: Gilbert, Wilberforce, Fortesque, Clarence and so on. Sometimes he would take off all his clothes and startle unsuspecting visitors at the local cemetery, where he liked to sleep off his imbibing escapades on the freshly dug graves. The bins outside the graveyard were overflowing with empty beer cans and vodka bottles: there be a lot of grief in there, he would tell me. This wildly eccentric Yorkshire man was slightly feared by the local community, but he became my pen friend intermittently for the next 27 years and we exchanged over 200 letters, some of them posted inside matchboxes, which when opened, resembled a miniature theatre, complete with miniscule spectators drawn with felt tip pens, and elaborately penned notes, lodged in the brain pan of a found doll’s head. Forget the nonsense you read about outsider art, much of this is contrived clap-trap, cleverly cooked up by shrewd art dealers to coin and exploit a new market. John was a truly marginalised artist, who never sought exposure or recognition for his paintings of vanishing ships, which he worked on for years with ever more diluted washes of oyster grey and bistre paint, and increasing bouts of numbing indecision. His ouvre of art works comprised mostly, of meticulously collaged post cards made with scraps of shiny coloured paper cut from magazines. Everything about John was an enigma and he lived to disappear, ending up in a skid row hostel for the homeless, penniless, and drunk, his only possessions were the clothes he stood up in and my letters, which he had kept for over 17 years in the same crumpled plastic bag that smelled of hand rolling tobacco. The last time we met in London he was chomping a home-made cheese roll and swigging cold coffee from a 1.5 litre plastic bottle (a throw back to his days as a drinker). He was slowly dying from cancer, and we sat outside a moribund Victorian pub near Kings Cross Station, talking about his impending mortality, sketchbooks, how to finish a painting before dying, and how much the area had changed, notably for the worst. I took a photograph of his canvas holdall bag, neatly stitched together with black cotton, with his few scant belongings thrown inside, and thought, this contains his whole life and it will outlast him. He kept writing to me until just 5 weeks before his death.

Much of the Egyptian death cult is epitomized in stunningly decorated sarcophagi. These receptacles have sliding lids that partially reveal their contents. Whilst visiting a museum collection I will always go first to the Egyptology wing and seek out these containers, which were often used to inter animal and human remains. One of the strangest I lighted upon, was a coffin for mice. The top sliding lid had several, elegantly whiskered wooden rodents, carved with elongated noses, slightly conical, and comical in appearance. By gripping the mouse and pushing it forward, you could open the door and reveal the mummified remains within, bound in their tattered finery. Every living organism had an afterlife storage facility in prehistoric Egypt.

In my current water colours I paint re-evocations of these magical, totemic, objects with a penetrating fixation for the alchemy of colour. There are always preservation vessels contained within my paintings (tubes, cylinders, funnels, egg-shaped alembics, pipes and bell jars) and these are further evinced during performances, by the opening and closing of miniature repositories of death. John Hardie would regularly post me small mammal skulls and bones packed in dented, old tobacco tins, with the paint scraped or burnt off. One day a greyish blue wooden box arrived through my letterbox. Once opened, it contained a fetish he had spent months making for me to use in one of my performances. The object is so beautiful and refined I have not yet found an occasion to utilize it. Instead, it’s something for veneration or idolatry. The desire to obfuscate and transform objects of talismanic power is universal and profoundly widespread, cutting through time and culture with incredible breadth and supernatural stealth.