Fergal Stapleton: If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul

Artforum, February 2010, pp. 211-212

In a 2007 review, and prompted by Fergal Stapleton’s choices of title (Planet of the Clowns, 2006, for instance, or This Is Mars, 2007), critic Andrew Bonacina drew a suggestive comparison between this artist’s illuminated three-dimensional works and orreries, models (sometimes illuminated) of the solar system. The title of Stapleton’s mixed-media installation at V22, If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul, 2009, had no apparent astronomical connection, but the show’s form and its use of illumination suggested a continued investment in the planetary motif.

At the gallery’s near center hung what might be thought of as this system’s center, a red dwarf: a low-wattage, softly glowing red lightbulb dangling from a makeshift fiberboard shelf. Around it was an array of subtle, self-effacing sculptural arrangements, all of which played in some way with natural or artificial light sources. A pair of small, graypainted boards had been tacked over holes in a partition wall. Not quite flush with the wall, they allowed viridian light from a concealed bulb to escape, and visitors to peep through at the tableau on the other side: a cracked pane and a dusty windowsill, on which lay a strategically placed crumple of silver tinsel. Elsewhere, a rectilinear arrangement of bare fiberboard sheets and a white-painted plinth served both to obscure and expose the reception desk, holing up its incumbent in an understated parody of modernist formalism and open planning.

If one chose to read the pink bulb as a miniature sun, the more obviously “installed” elements in the work took on the complementary status of satellites or planets. Yet, along lines similar to Piero Manzoni’s 1961 experiment in conceptual planet inversion, the Socle du Monde (Base of the World), If one good deed threatened even further imaginary disruptions. Fleetingly reorganizing the entire universe around the pink lightbulb, Stapleton’s conceit undermined the urge to distinguish the intentional from the accidental. At night, visible on high through one of the four small apertures that the artist had cut into the boards covering the gallery’s windows, a superbright white giant – actually the floodlight of a crane on a nearby construction site – beamed down on Stapleton’s diminutive pink star and its lowrent planetary system. The light’s visibility was possibly foreseen, possibly fortuitous, but the question really didn’t seem to matter. One realized how the effect of leaving a thing unaltered might be as critical as the choice to add or to alter. A rough, apparently discarded scrap of board lay on the gallery floor; drilled into it was a tiny hole and, glowing inside, a green LED. On a nearby wall an inconspicuous alarm with a small flashing red LED kept it company. This, the gallery’s regular burglar alarm, was a permanent feature of the space, but (as the gallerist pointed out to me) the artist could easily have had it removed.

By day, Stapleton’s improvised “windows” allowed low-lying winter light to animate the space. One wall featured a video projection of sunlight recorded as it shone on the opposite wall, a tentative and cryptic image made still less legible by the video’s pixelation and the occasional fluctuations of the recording camera’s autofocus. The small, intriguing changes seemed metaphors for the thoughtful aesthetic exploration the installation asked of the viewer. Early in Stapleton’s career, in 1993, the critic Stuart Morgan associated the artist’s interest in marginal detail with dandyism. If one good deed was dandyish, maybe, it was at the level of making hard work seem effortless. Nevertheless its engagingly self-deflating wit and quiet sense of purpose seemed far from the solipsistic swagger one associates with the term.

Fergal Stapleton: If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul showed at V22, London, UK between October 11 – December 13 2009

Copyright Rachel Withers & Artforum International Magazine, Inc. 2010