Open Frequency 2010: Rupert Ackroyd selected by Tom Morton

Open Frequency 2010: Rupert Ackroyd selected by Tom Morton Rupert Ackroyd, Large Assemblage, 2010. Pine, polyurethane, iron, PETG, brick, paint, coffee beans, steel, sycamore seeds, magnets, tins, stickers, bottle.

Writer and curator Tom Morton profiles London-based artist Rupert Ackroyd

In the autumn of the year 2000, a coffee shop named Central Perk opened in Notting Hill, a block or so from where the Westway arcs cross the dowdier end of the Portobello road. Employing the same logo and oversized cups and sofas as its namesake in the American sit-com Friends (1994-2004), it struggled through a few mostly-empty months, before closing up at the year’s end. No gang of loveable neurotics had claimed its carefully distressed armchairs as their own. No posse of middle-class metropolitan kooks chose it as the theatre in which to play out the dramas of their late youth.

Despite the successful rolling out, in all but the most impoverished of the city’s neighbourhoods, of ‘Seattle style’ corporate coffee houses, perhaps Londoners weren’t quite ready to accept so tight a scripting of their leisure experience as the Notting Hill Central Perk prescribed. Aspiration is one thing (and Friends, for all that it presented itself as a comedy of failure, was nothing if not aspirational), but it seems there are few people in the capital who, when ordering a latte, wished to ask themselves ‘could I be any more like Chandler Bing?’

Rupert Ackroyd’s recent exhibition Large Assemblage at Dicksmith, London (2010) was about authenticity as an incrementally-measured value, and the way in which, as the artist puts in, we find ourselves ‘sitting in the bathwater of history’. We could, I guess, apply a Cool Memories (1987) -era Baudrillardian reading here, but the epic focus of that project feels out of kilter with Ackroyd’s determinedly British points of reference – not highways and gleaming theme parks, but Bernard Matthews Turkey Dinosaurs, or the appropriation of George Orwell’s ideal hostelry the 'Moon Under Water’ as a name for a flagship Weatherspoons Pub.

At the centre of the show, a layer of coffee beans covered the surface of a cylindrical gallery pillar, held in place with a clear Perspex sheath. Propped against this, in landscape format, was a replica of the mid-19th-century Neo-Gothic door of the Islington church in which Ackroyd rents his studio space, formed from softwood painted to resemble oak, and completed with exact copies of its time-worn iron studs. Above this floats an RSJ (Rolled Steel Joist) given a Jacobean oak finish, all doughty knots and whorls. In the beam’s u-shaped void, Ackroyd placed a number of stash tins - in which we might imagine are contained a crumbly block of hash, a torn packed of Rizlas and a failing Clipper lighter - painted black and decorated with black and white contour-cut stickers of the '70s folk singer Nick Drake, rimmed with gold sparkles.

Nearby rose a small, free-standing brick wall made from standard London household bricks, some 12 bricks high, by three wide, by two deep, topped off with a wooden panel. Worn and distressed, the brickwork was slicked in silk-finish paint, a glossy embalming fluid that has preserved its ragged, estate-agent-friendly good looks. 

Contained in this modest set of formal sculptural propositions – with their Caro-like focus on mass and space, the horizontal and the vertical, the supported and the support – is a micro-history of British building and interior design, from the 17th-century tavern and the 18th-century coffee house (alembic of both Grub Street journalism and the philosophical formulation of the public sphere) and their contemporary iterations, the heritage pub and the wifi-enabled ‘third place’ of Costa or Starbucks, through to 19th-century medievalism, 1970s bedsit bohemianism, and 1990s live-work warehouse living. 

All of these tropes co-exist, of course, within the built environment we currently inhabit, each pleading their own proximity to the authentic at lesser or greater volume, and each playing on a particular, politically loaded nostalgia, whether it’s for a pre-Renaissance spiritual or courtly ideal, or for the city as a productive rather than a purely consumer space. Key to each of them is a certain restraint (tellingly absent from American exercises in the ersatz), which we might characterise as the difference between a big brewer advertising a bitter as being first formulated by an ancient order of monks, and being served it in a chain pub by a barman sporting a tonsure and habit.

Ackroyd, then, is not concerned with the parodic, or really even with simulacra, but with how and why we retain certain motifs from a semi-imagined past, and the confusing, funny and occasionally painful contradictions this throws up. The language of formalist sculpture, here, operates at once as a sort of editing bay and (because it can hardly stand outside its own past and the values that accompany it) another measure of historical bathwater swilling around us. As Ackroyd’s show attests, the bath’s beginning to grow a little lukewarm, its soapsuds deflating and turning to scum, but something – torpor, a hopeless wish to prolong the moment, a vague fear of an unbearably chilly future – keeps us from pulling the plug, and towelling ourselves off.

Large Assemblage is not just the bringing together of masses in space, but as its title suggests (in a marked and witty understatement), of whole exhausted worlds. Perhaps they persist because the stories they tell have become so familiar we’ve all but forgotten them. Perhaps we don’t notice ourselves acting them out. 

Tom Morton, November 2010

Artist's biography 

Rupert Ackroyd (born 1978) studied BA Sculpture at Winchester School of Art (2000-2003) and MA Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, London (2003-2005). He lives and works in London. 

Selected exhibitions include Large Assemblage (solo), Dicksmith Gallery, London; Boom, Hotel Gallery, London; Recent British Sculpture, Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam (all 2010); Alistair Frost/Stuart Elliot/Rupert Ackroyd, Dicksmith Gallery, London; Club Room, Russian Club Gallery, London; Moon Under Water (solo), Malta Contemporary Art, Malta (all 2009); Cabinet Particular, Russian Club Gallery, London; St Mark’s Church, Islington, London; Napoleon Garde – Site for Contemporary Sculpture, Holland Park, London (all 2008); The Search for a Space, three-part group show, Valetta, Malta; Strangelove Studios, John’s Mews, London (2007) and House Show, Cranely Gardens, London (2006).

In 2011, Ackroyd will have a two-person show with Daniel Pastner at Rod Barton Gallery, London and with Alison Turnbull at Russion Club Gallery, London.

About Tom Morton

Tom Morton is a curator and writer living in London, UK. He is currently a curator at the Hayward Gallery, London, where he has recently organised exhibitions by Cyprien Gaillard, Matthew Darbyshire, Jess Flood-Paddock, and the group show Deceitful Moon. He was previously curator of Cubitt Gallery, London, where he organised exhibitions by Charles Avery, Matthew Day Jackson, and Annika Eriksson, among others. He curated the exhibition How to Endure for the 2007 Athens Biennale, and was co-curator of the 2008 Busan Biennale, South Korea.

Morton has been Contributing Editor of Frieze magazine since 2003, and also writes regularly for Bidoun and Metropolis M. He is the author of numerous exhibition catalogues essays, on artists including Roger Hiorns, Erik van Lieshout, Pierre Huyghe, Glenn Brown, Andro Wekua and Victor Man.

In 2010, he will co-curate British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet with Lisa Le Feuvre.

Open Frequency keeps you in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators, artists and writers, presenting the work of artists to watch out for over the coming year. Open Frequency represents a forward-looking glance today of the artists who will be setting the agenda tomorrow.