The title Vault is enigmatic. It contains, as any word when used alone, a multiplicity of meanings. Following Ian North's curation of the exhibition Expanse, I assumed the vault in question would be the vast dome of the sky. When I saw the single photograph printed on the invitation my expectation shifted. I was reminded also of Helen Fuller's previous exhibitions which dealt with interior strongholds and private domains...
The photo shows a solitary pole-vaulter captured mid-flight: quietly and gracefully defying gravity. The scene in which this vault occurs is strangely romantic and its effect curious. The figure vaults within the confines of a barn, or shed; dimly lit by soft motes of sunlight which shaft down through a high window. This moment of suspended animation exceeds public action in the sports field. Its easy grace both suggests and belies the countless repetitions and failures which have gone before. Repetitions of an act which seems simultaneously ludicrous and heroic. Dogged repetitions painfully necessary for victory? Or obsessively reenacted poetry, necessary for the solitary pleasure of pushing limits, extending boundaries, soaring...
seemingly weightless through space? A pleasure which dwells on the moment before the apex of the target which is strained towards, which seemingly takes no account of the inevitable and familiar crash landing.
On entering the gallery, the impression is initially one of open space: stages set and awaiting/remembering action. A massive set of super-real photographs dominates the right wall with an image of a sports stadium containing what seems an almost life-sized pole-vaulting apparatus. Centre stage is placed a surreal domestic reconstruction of the apparatus. A broom is held at vaulting height, at one end by a tower of stacked plastic buckets and at the other by an upturned chair affixed to a column. Lining the opposite (left hand) wall is a horizontal row of photographed images figuring the action implied by these empty stages. Towards the centre of this row, and mirroring/approaching one another, as if on a crash course, is a pair of male athletes mid-race/mid-way over a hurdle. A row of crouching male spectators look up, perhaps in thrall. The central image is an effigy of the Eiffel Tower seen from below, looking up through its structure. A typical phallic structure, and a monument to technology: seen from this angle, becomes positively feminine in an Oedipal gesture of curiosity. Things apparently, are not what they seem.
This left hand wall conceals a dark corridor down which is cast an oblique and shifting shadow: a series of projections, apparently of vaulters as they negotiate the rush towards landing. Details, or fragments are magnified out of proportion, faces contort as bodies hurtle downwards in the slow motion of a bad dream. Books, buckets and mops are scattered down this constructed corridor, as if on their own downward journey... thrown down in bad temper, or disgust. As the viewer watches this slim theatre, a row of framed, blackened (burnt?) lines of typeface separated by opened boxes of matches, sits at eye level and waits for attention. This and other elements of the installation appear intractably obscure at first sight.
Within the catalogue folder, however, is an essay by Ian North. Here a story is told which recounts events of 1997 in Calcutta, when a Book Fair featuring French writing burned to the ground. As a physical de-construction of deconstruction, the fire story effects an ironic reminder that the "vaulting aspiration" of modernity is anything but dead. It operates as a central metaphor repeatedly alluded to in the installation. Seemingly obscure elements build instead an interconnected and overlapping physical language: offering an imaginary arena awaiting mental, or emotional gymnastics.
The essay suggests that "Western triumphalism" is frequently expressed in a power play between the desire for, and envy of, perfection. Eroticised and idealised spectres of cleanliness, physical beauty, glamour, success - all act as mirrors: aspiring to reflect a proper self which denies its repressed Other, which avoids the hard crash of landing. By implication, these aspirations refer not only to sporting excesses, but also to those enacted within political, intellectual, domestic, sexual and artistic arenas. A vault however, can also be understood to mean a stronghold for safeguarding whatever is highly valued. This kind of vault is unseen, secret, or hidden. As such, it operates paradoxically to jealously guard, perhaps to entomb, but also to offer sanctuary and privacy: allowing perhaps for alternate ways of being. And so, as one turns to face the exit, another method of scaling heights is offered. Rough wooden logs protrude at awkward intervals from the far wall of the gallery and escalate elegantly upwards, towards (or through?) an apparent dead-end juncture of wall and ceiling. This climb seems halting, considered and constructed over time. Reminiscent of handmade ladders leading to treehouse platforms - this strange staircase is loaded with hefty gobs of grease. Figuring for the impossibility of such idiosyncratic climbing? Or for the desire to prevent access, to create a private, silent space for vaulting... In the corner directly opposite is a bookcase tied down by strings weighted with masked books and with a long solid pipe which rises almost to the ceiling.
Helen Fuller's verbal identification of this strange construction as an elephant evokes immediately the earthbound body. Held down Gulliver-like by words, this elephant holds up an iconic statuette of the Eiffel Tower on the tip of its trunk - in triumphant possession, or adoration? Or as a prelude to chucking it down and lumbering off, remembering other priorities, other pleasures. . . . .