Nicholas Folland: A Mischievous Mind - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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Nicholas Folland likes playing tricks. Many of his works offer up perturbing puzzles and teases, all directed at the nature of art and its value, writes Edward Colless.

When Nicholas Folland was studying in Rotterdam on his 1999 Samstag Scholarship, he built a feeding ground for the city’s pigeons on the art school’s rooftop: a patch of wild grass in that tidy city’s otherwise sanitary, if windswept, rafters.

But this was not quite as sweet a gesture as it sounds. Pigeons are classified as vermin by Dutch authorities, and feeding them is illegal: presumably, as with other stateless entities whose food supply is withheld, they would move out of the territory. That scrap of grass might have the symbolic grace of a United Nations food drop to refugees in a desert, but an artificially induced miniature of parkland is hardly a cosily sustainable habitat and clearly wasn’t meant as one. If pigeons are like flying rats, then Folland’s grass – more an enticement to these birds than a charitable provision, and one that was luring them specifically into a designed and designated art precinct – was the premise for an infection, not a cure.

The mischief in this act doesn’t exactly measure up as a political intervention; it’s much more directed, and effectively so, at the nature of art than at nature itself. Folland had even devised a modified bird-feed that would colourise (like domestic canaries) those hapless Dutch pigeons who were attracted to the art school, making them more amenable to Dutch visual taste. It didn’t work, but there’s nonetheless a wicked edge of comedy in this, as well as a wry aesthetic game.

Attracting the unwanted in order to make it attractive: is this not art’s dutiful social effect? Like the gentrification of urban waste, art configures outcast nature into the convenience of décor. But Folland turns this formula backward, against nature. Before the Rotterdam trip, in 1997, he modified sixteen green padded sofa stools on castors, each with a slightly different height and inclination, to fit into a tight rectangular grid that formed a gently rising hillock. It looked as benign as a manicured grassy slope on a golf course, but it was more pointed as a kind of huge geometric toy, an alluring but perturbing puzzle like a rubik’s cube.

Folland has accented this sort of puzzlingly dysfunctional artefact as a poignant fable about art’s value: a sailing boat is marooned in a gallery as if by a retreating tide and, left high and dry, it’s filled with an aesthetic relic of the medium that once supported it – the sea has become a exquisite luminous icy glass wave, frozen as it floods the boat’s interior but turning the piteous object into an extravagant lighting fixture.

Or, inversely, a fully decked out bathroom installed in the gallery – with the same awkward tilt as the stranded boat – has all its plumbing incontinently running so that the bathtub, sink and toilet endlessly overflow, like a madly salivating mouth. None of this water will ever launch the boat: it drains away as it rots the bathroom’s wooden floor.

There’s a perverse sexual – perhaps Duchampian – tease
embedded in the elegance of these gestures. A cluster of boulders, for instance, each with an electrical heating rod neatly but quite evidently inserted into a finely drilled hole, sit heavily on the floor, plugged into the gallery’s power points. The sexual connotation of this less than efficient heating system is hilarious: these lumps of inert nature warmed up to body temperature by a phallic intrusion and excitation show that art can be hot stuff, but that it runs off the mains supply of its venue. The double entendre can be subtly poised too. Folland’s most recent work, shown at Gertrude Street Contemporary Art Spaces in its annual Octopus 8 exhibition, was an exquisitely functionless chemical still, made from cut crystal resembling a fantastically intricate perfume bottle or decanter in the unmistakeable diagrammatic form of female reproductive anatomy. What kind of scent or liquor could be dispensed from this apparatus?

One of Folland’s most memorable objects gives something of an answer. In the National Gallery of Victoria’s vast survey show of contemporary Australian art, titled 2004: Australian Culture Now, an ornately decorated cut glass chandelier, skewed at an angle by being hooked up with tubes to a refrigeration device, grew a huge tumour of ice at its centre. In its frigid plumbing, this fantastic mechanism recalled Duchamp’s notorious bride stripped bare. The refrigerator seemed to both be a clinical as well as domestic apparatus – a life support system attached to the chandelier – but also a parasite.

The Nicholas Folland exhibition will be showing at Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide from 15 October to 16 November 2008.



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