‘Trom’ is an area of the East End that – though fictional – sounds real enough: a neighbourhood of rapid transformation, violence and inebriation. It is found only in the post-World War II novel Guignol’s Band, where Louis-Ferdinand Céline places it somewhere near a major dock.
Steven Claydon tried to find where it might have been located in preparation for this show, which uses Céline’s novel as its stating point, but the exact location remained a question mark that he then built his installation around. Transformation, ‘truth’ and locality have become the key subjects in this work, which investigates disorientation and infidelity through a number of clues left hanging for the viewer. Pig Pen, the Bow bells, and Democritus all keep company here: a motley crew that orbits around the non-site of Trom – somewhere near to Whitechapel, for sure, but only in fiction. Through this circuitousness, the work seeks to reflect on whether things can be seen through their effects, and at what point the fiction of the thing might be taken for the thing itself.
As elsewhere in his practice, exhibition architecture such as frames and plinths appear frequently, alluding to the power they have to invest an ordinary object with significance beyond its visible properties. Here this ability of the environment to transform an object into another kind of item is enacted not just by vitrines but by the Peanuts character Pig Pen, who is identified only by the dust cloud that surrounds him – a facet which for Claydon connects Pig Pen to Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher who posited that we all return to dust. Like monks circumabulating a temple, Claydon focuses not on the site itself but on the references the site garners, and the work is full of references that themselves contain this kind of double symbolism: lemurs, seen painted here behind Pig Pen on a screen, were seen as ghosts – or, more precisely, as lemurs as well as ghosts-of-lemurs – in the two unrelated traditions of Greek and Madagascar. The bells at the feet of the piano are indeed bell-like although they don’t actually ring, while the piano is piano-like though it doesn’t actually play. In describing this show, Claydon called it ‘fictional’ (though, unlike Trom, literally existent), a quality he engenders through the slight ‘wrongness’ of the works: the objects are so nearly like real things that we cannot help but notice their erroneousness. In this way he makes his spectators aware of the many transformations involved in the simple understanding of the objects as ‘art’ objects: whether affected by the gallery space, or given a second meaning by the narrative he sets them in. A barrel is cast in foam, appearing both as an ordinary object and as sculpture. This suspension of disbelief comes naturally (of course, as it is both an ordinary object and a sculpture) but it is this operation that Claydon is hoping to call attention to and to dislodge – disaligning the elements just enough for us to wonder what they are doing placed atop each other. The clue is often in the material – his references, though wide-ranging, are at times crystalline as formal choices: in the video Fictional Pixel, for instance, Claydon relates digital and analogue formats to Apollo and Dionysus, playing off the precision of the former and the romanticism of the latter.
Guignol’s Band, the title of the Céline novel that inspired this show, refers to Grand Guignol theatre, a debased kind of performance in which the costumes are so bad, the acting so terrible, the production values so low, that not one audience member can forget he or she is watching a staged fiction. It’s contextually related to prostitution – many of the actresses made money on the side – and was named after an end-of--nineteenth-century theatre in Paris, the Théâtre-du-Grand-Guignol, that specialised in bloody, gory, horror productions that were frequented by the nobility. Grand Guignol grew into a genre that pushed convention to the point where it too became so grotesque it was the opposite of conventional, which is perhaps the point where Céline picked it up: the moment of disorientation – and bleakness, in the post-War landscape – when reality and assumptions collided.
Melissa Gronlund, 2010