Lucy McKenzie, Animals and Beggars

Tate Liverpool_May of Teck_web

“I perceive myself to be inhabiting a place that is more than the installation alone.” In our third text in response to Lucy McKenzie’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Liverpool, artist Roy Claire Potter considers – and finds themselves – inhabiting its scale…  

I can stand inside a book. I’m standing inside the fictional May of Teck Club. I am able to stand in the rooms from Muriel Spark’s novella The Girls of Slender Means (1964) because Lucy McKenzie’s large-scale, realist painting, May of Teck (2010) hangs room-sized from a temporary gallery wall. It abuts another such painting, Town (2010) at ninety degrees and this right angle is used in the gallery’s installation to suggest a corner of the dormitory from the book; an impoverished, post-war domestic scene from Spark’s 1950s London. But it isn’t because the paintings are at right angles that I am able to stand within the walls of the The May of Teck – I’ve seen plenty of paintings hung at right angles and felt myself to be standing nowhere in particular. No, it’s my shadow cast by the gallery’s spotlights, landing on the image of an iron radiator, that’s what does it. I catch sight of this part of myself over by the radiator and the difference between here and there is suddenly flattened out. McKenzie’s realism reaches from the materiality of painting and is received by the two-dimensionality of my body’s shadow. In the split second of catching sight, I perceive myself to be inhabiting a place that is more than the installation alone.

If I had to say what such a place was, I wouldn’t say it was the gallery and I’m not excitable enough to believe I’m ‘in the painting’, expanded field or not. Instead, if asked, I would probably say the place I’m inhabiting is a common imaginary of liminal living or of abject tenancy, which Spark’s novella describes – one that McKenzie faithfully depicts and audiences so easily recognise. But the means by which I can inhabit this common imaginary, the battery that powers this magic moment of contact, is not the accuracy of depiction, it is the balance of ratio. Images of radiator, skirting board, faded and grubby wallpaper, wall-mounted telephone with scrawled numbers, these appear equal and usual according to my shadow. Our relationship makes a new reality of the space, one that is regular enough to presume the existence of. At least for this split second.

“There is a special sense to a ‘literal deception’. It chimes with me”

May of Teck (2010), Town (2010) and a third panel in the room sequence, Kensington 2246 (2010), along with several other works in Tate Liverpool’s retrospective, are dutifully referred to in the gallery’s wall text as ‘trompe l’oeil works that literally deceive the eye’. I sit on a fold-out stool in the empty top-floor gallery and copy this phrase into my phone’s notes app so I can keep it and come back to it later. It stumps me. Besides being a semantic error, what on earth could ‘literally deceive’ mean? After all, tromp l’oeil, or trick of the eye, is a technique and the trick in itself is an operation. You cannot be literally tricked because you cannot be figuratively tricked, so you either are or aren’t deceived. Yet there is a special sense to a ‘literal deception’. It chimes with me. On the train before I arrived in Liverpool, I took a photograph of my worn turquoise cap, matched in shade by my faded blue hair, both bound closer in hue by being offset against the warm saturation of my tinted brown glasses. I made this photograph not to point out this relation but to capture how I appeared to be in the background of the dynamic, as though wearing a fake nose and glasses from a costume shop. ‘Disguised as myself and on my way to see Lucy McKenzie’s show at Tate Liverpool’ I captioned on Instagram. To be disguised as yourself. To literally deceive.

Lucy McKenzie, May of Teck 2010

I bought the top/scarf/collar – I can’t quite work out its status as a garment – from the rails of Atelier E.B in another segment of the exhibition. The brand name translates as, and is short for, ‘studio Edinburgh Brussels’. It frames a collaborative investigation into the design, production, display and distribution of garments and accessories by McKenzie and the designer Beca Lipscombe. Later, on the train home, still disguised as myself and looking at Atelier E. B’s website, I’m struck by a trade-off in the About section. The description says Atelier E.B ‘operate[s] as a fashion label’ rather than it is one. The implication is that the project has taken the form of a fashion label in order for the artists to conduct their collaborative investigation, but the flip-side of this liberating double weighting is an uncertainness of category; it is an art project but it appears equal to a fashion label.

Arte Útil, the school of thought and practice that foregrounds the social utility of art, names one-to-one scale as an essential characteristic of its useful art. According to its website, the Asociación de Arte Útil aims to ‘reinstate art as a process that is fully integrated into society’ by setting up projects and initiatives that follow the eight Criteria of Arte Útil, number four of which is ‘Operate on a one-to-one scale’. My dubious feelings about a sibling art discipline that claims 2.0 status through a denigrating comparison around use-value is perhaps something to be worked through elsewhere, but I think Arte Útil’s one-to-one scale means a community laundrette commandeered as an art project remains a laundrette. The ratio between the function and appropriation is balanced. Or at least operates as if it were balanced.

Tate Liverpool Lucy McKenzie exhibition.  Picture by Gareth Jones

Exhibition visitors can pick out and try on an Ateiler E.B garment and take it down to the gallery’s gift shop where it is retained and exchanged for purchase with one from a box. This caught me out. I wanted the one from the exhibition. I expected to keep the object I’d carried. I was on the back foot, yet despite this switch underscoring my top/scarf/collar’s status as not-the-art-object, the gallery staff’s careful handling of the item, their light folding and gentle bagging, re-reframed the thing I was buying as the-art-object, after all! There is nothing significant for you to hold onto in this anecdote, except to know and maybe share a paler version of the relief I felt to have my writing method saved from the bin.

“Writing my remembrance of the exhibition would be attuned to the scale of experiencing it”

I bought the top/scarf/collar to wear at home while developing this response – I’ve been wearing it this whole time – enabling me to write, literally, from inside the work. After catching sight of myself in The May of Teck, this method seemed quite logical. I, like McKenzie, would collapse the distance between different times and spaces; writing my remembrance of the exhibition would be attuned to the scale of experiencing it. An occupational therapist recently told me my autistic sensitivity to shifts in environmental dynamics is what makes me such a good artist. She hasn’t seen or read my work, but I’m sure she’s correct. I am very good at identifying and copying and I have a tendency to pursue the literal. In order to write about something in any form, creative or critical, I need to have experienced something sufficiently tricky enough that writing takes on the dimensions of interpreting my literal perceptions. What is this and what is meant by it? becomes both internal and external monologue.

Just now I wrote, ‘creative or critical’ but I can hardly separate the two. Writing is inherently bound to performance for me, a sort of enactment or a one-to-one scale first person narrative fiction. When I write there is modal shift between is and as – and back again – within the frame of experience.

“McKenzie presents us with two different city maps combined”

In the exhibition, Glasgow 1938-1966 (2017) is a wall-sized painting. I say this because outside the exhibition, Glasgow 1938-1966 is a limited edition pocket map, available to buy for a few hundred pounds, complete with large concertina page and laminated hardcover. In both versions the image McKenzie presents us with is of two different city maps combined. The 1938 map delineates routes through the city made by local transport, and the 1966 map illuminates territories claimed by Glasgow’s gangs. Where the earlier map makes legible the almost invisible incorporation of places by the common movement of people, the latter charts a constellation of insisted upon zonal differences.

Tate Liverpool Lucy McKenzie exhibition.  Picture by Gareth Jones

So what does it mean to supplant one on the other, or rather, collapse these two time-spaces? What sort of Glasgow would I be lost in to require such a map? A jumbled cityscape sci-fi, where ganglands struggle to maintain their self-sequestered status amid avid travel through them – bold wartime grannies unimpeded by nefarious activity and the sounds of rock and roll? Or, is it something more like Walter Hill’s late-seventies cult horror, The Warriors, where ridiculously stylish hooligans rely on public transport to get across town for a brawl?

Tate Liverpool Lucy McKenzie exhibition.  Picture by Gareth Jones

Later, when editing these descriptions for consistency – imagining myself stood on a windy and temporally changeable Sauchiehall Street, holding out McKenzie’s limited-edition map – I’m put in mind of Renee Gladman’s experimental novel Houses of Ravicka (2017) where both time and space are unstable and by result cause a house to become invisible. Ravicka’s ‘Comptroller’ is the story’s narrator. They are a sort of town planning and monitoring officer whose job it is to find the house or else account for its scientific inconsistency. They are stumped by the multiple co-ordinates of this house and lament a ‘time before’ when they presume things were more stable and predictable. Rational by profession, they quickly give up this nostalgia and reason that things were probably always so: ‘it was only at some point we recognised a phenomena that had always gone on. Buildings had always moved, perhaps’.

Ravicka’s Comptroller is right, we don’t need to invent a topography to understand the operation of Glasgow 1938-1966 (2017), its phenomena already exists. For some elderly person in Possilpark these mixed scenes of postwar tram-stops and bust lips topped with quiffs are already their likely daily terrain. The fiction is the scale of their experience.

“The map continues to exist as the terrain itself”

Another map operating on a one-to-one scale with its terrain exists in Jorge Luis Borges’ Del rigor en la ciencia (1946). Translated as On Exactitude in Science, the single-paragraph story in the form of quotation, tells of a land-sized map that has been left to weather and ruin by later generations who were less map-minded or elated by exact scale. Absurd and almost entirely useless, ‘the Tattered Ruins of the Map, [were] inhabited by Animals and Beggars,’ the fictional interlocutor states. And perhaps among them we might count McKenzie, autists like myself, those delusional with dementia, and anyone else fizzing with a perceptual sensibility for one-to-one scale.

However, Borges’ moral of absurdity departs somewhat from its source in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893). In Carroll’s work, a similar cartographically inclined ancestry ‘made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile’ but once it had been finished, the farmers of the nation objected to its unfolding as it would block the sun from the fields – ‘so we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well’. The difference is slight but it’s there. The map continues to exist as the terrain itself.

“McKenzie’s body of work is an education”

Its scale – its literality – is not a thing that’s ludicrous and redundant, it is a mode a being. Maybe for Borges, this inhabitation of scale is what is absurd but nevertheless we exist, us Animals and Beggars. Our inhabitations exist, as well as usefully function.

A week or so after my visit, I’m sitting in my kitchen wearing the Atelier E.B top/scarf/collar. Its turtle neck is fern green and is stitched onto a vermillion bib, not long enough to cover my nipples. I’m flicking between press images, Mousse Magazine and my draft document, reading about a house McKenzie bought and has been restoring, as an art project, since 2014. McKenzie speaks of her decorative painting in the house, samples of which I saw exhibited at Tate Liverpool: ‘Dutifully you have to think, “How did this person make it?”, inhabit their methodology, and then make a copy channeling their way’.

French curator, Marie Carnet asks her why is it so important to her to copy the house’s original aesthetic, though the question could just as well omit any reference to the house: ‘Because I learned so much copying other people’s styles,’ she replies. Beyond her own learning, McKenzie’s body of work is an education. It is useful not because it operates as other things but because it enables audiences to be perceptually different, to inhabit the world as Animals or Beggars.

Roy Claire Potter

This new text has been commissioned in association with Tate Liverpool and is part of a creative-critical series published exclusively by The Double Negative. Writers were given free rein to respond to any work – or works – in the exhibition, and in any style, tone or format that they wished to use.

Further Reading: A Modern Total Artwork – The Case For Lucy McKenzie’s Nova PopularnaLucy McKenzie – Reviewed

Lucy McKenzie continues at Tate Liverpool until 13 March 2022

Image credits: Installation views of Lucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool, 20 October 2021 – 13 March 2022 © Gareth Jones; Lucy McKenzie, May of Teck 2010 © Lucy McKenzie. Photo courtesy of the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin/New York


Posted on 11/03/2022 by thedoublenegative