Ian Breakwell’s The Elusive State of Happiness (QUAD Gallery, 2010)
There has been some confusion about this exhibition, which was initially billed as Breakwell’s first solo retrospective, then later re-branded as the first since his death in 2005, at the relatively young age of 62, but whichever it might be, it’s definitely his biggest showing to date in his home city of Derby, and one of all too few opportunities since he first made his name in the late 1960s to see his work in-depth, as a whole, rather than a series of discrete parts. The television films, mass observation style book projects and the continuous written and visual diaries are each well-known, but rarely seen within the wider context of Breakwell’s ongoing project, where every work documents another facet of his own life, as it exists in the midst of the inexplicable, absurd and frequently imaginary lives of others.
Perhaps there’s also something appropriate about the confusion regarding the exhibition’s status, since Breakwell’s standard mode of operation was to resist the single meaning and clear message in favour of endlessly receding ambiguities and suggestions. This resistance to containment within any particular interpretation or genre across a body of work that spans drawing, photography, writing, film, audio, performance and television generates its own confusion about the fundamental nature of Breakwell’s project, and this extreme fluidity has almost certainly contributed to both his widespread influence on younger artists (without Breakwell’s example, it’s unlikely that artists as different in sensibility as Jeremy Deller, Heather & Ivan Morison and Tracey Emin would be working quite as they do) and his relative neglect inside the art world since the 1970s.
The exhibition begins with a 1964 etching, The Regent Snooker Hall, Derby, made in the year that Breakwell graduated from the local art college. It’s a canny choice of starting point by the joint curators Louise Clements and Alfredo Cramerotti, because despite its apparent straightforwardness – an elegant, roughly rendered evocation of a dimly lit space populated by shadows, perhaps looking back to the 1950s kitchen sink realism of John Bratby and Joan Eardley – it also points forward to the perspective that would inform everything that followed. It’s all here, in embryo form: the mundane urban setting and oblique viewpoint, the snatched quality of the image, the glancing fascination with an otherwise unobserved corner of everyday life. These things would become the raw material for all Breakwell’s later work.
There’s something of a leap from this solitary 1964 etching to the late sixties collages and diary pages, the early seventies film and video work, and that leaves the question of the precise evolution into Breakwell’s signature approach open. The interests glimpsed in The Regent Snooker Hall, Derby might have led him to a more conventional kind of realist painting or photography, but instead took a turn into conceptual territory, as evidenced by the surreal juxtapositions and absurdist humour of the 1969 Diary, or the layered photographic montage and stencilled lettering of Growth (1969 – 73), pieces which begin to mark out the parameters of what would become Breakwell’s mature output.
In some respects, these are works of their time, sharing a distinctive British slant on conceptualism with many similar late sixties works by Tom Phillips, Keith Arnatt and Gilbert & George. The textures of everyday life are cobbled together with philosophical interests around a home-made ‘whatever works’ aesthetic that draws on mediums in a pragmatic rather than purist way: cyclostyled typewritten texts, cut-up photographs, passages of drawing and stencilling, are all marshalled to create the fragments and panels of larger wholes. Perhaps a key to understanding Breakwell’s later idiosyncrasy is that, while most of his contemporaries moved away from this omnivorous approach, Breakwell stayed with it for the rest of his career, and unlike Gilbert & George, with their overblown stained glass style photo works, or Tom Phillips’ move into literary illustration and accomplished academic portraiture, Breakwell remained defined more by his lack of a recognisable signature style than his development of one.
The ways in which Breakwell was swimming against the conceptual flow rather than with it can be seen in Estate (1971 – 76), a work made up of 32 panels, in which 16 mutely inscrutable photographs of house windows are paired with short texts imagining what might be going on in the rooms behind them, and these in turn are placed beside silk-screened portraits of unrelated faces cut from newspapers and 19th century psychiatric casebooks. On one level, it can be read as a parody of the socially engaged works being made at this time by artists like Stephen Willatts, on another as a work of fiction in the mode of Georges Perec or Daniil Kharms, with neither reading quite dominant. The result is a very productive instability, and from the early 70s onwards, in his continuing fusion of writing, collage, drawing, photography, film and performance, Breakwell makes that instability the foundation of his art, a point reiterated in Walserings (1991), a series of ink and gouache drawings in which snippets from the fictions of Robert Walser accompany an imaginary portrait of the author that gradually comes to resemble Breakwell himself.
The complex grid of The Walking Man Diary (1975 – 78) operates on a similar fracture between conventional categories, as a kind of strip cartoon fiction, photo documentary and unified artwork all at once, with the myriad small photographic panels trailing behind a walking figure like speed-blurs when seen from a distance, but as individual windows onto precisely notated moments on the same Smithfield street when examined close up. We are drawn into Breakwell’s own game, trying to spot the titular walking man (who is sometimes visible, sometimes only surmised), reading the notes on the contents of shops, or imagining padlocked doors, while scaffolding and buildings rise and fall on the skyline. As a representation of time passing, and a fiction imagining the experience of a single anonymous stranger, it’s curiously recessive, its meaning fragmented and fleeting.
Given this fascination with time and the ways in which we prioritise significance in our ordinary experience of the world, it’s unsurprising that Breakwell’s film projects begin to move in similar directions, with Nine Jokes (1971) offering a minimal exercise in the frustration of expectations, and One (1971) merging epochal footage of the Moon Landings with closed-circuit film of three men purposelessly moving earth around a gallery, as though challenging viewers to tell the difference. Unword (1969 – 70), made in collaboration with Mark Leggett, plays similar perceptual games with time, as a performance in which Breakwell recites strings of words beginning with the prefix ‘un’, some real, some invented, plays out against a backdrop overwritten with the same words. This performance is filmed, then re-projected onto the next, and so on with each new presentation, until the final film becomes almost entirely abstract, the visuals opaque as the looped repetitions of recited texts that make up its soundtrack.
The idea of time being layered recurs throughout the body of work, as the Continuous Diary changes shape and format as it goes, parts of it layered onto other parts, or incorporated into new works, to generate a kind of fractal quality, each new piece changing the shape of the whole body of work. It’s something seen at its most explicit in BC/AD (2005 – 8), an audio piece in which Breakwell reads sections from the diaries over still images of his own face at different stages of life, the aging process rendered starkly visible, yet also accompanied by a gradual emergence of the features: a blurry childhood snap resolves (or perhaps decays) into the unformed youth and soft focus adulthood of the BC (Before Cancer) era, finally coming into focus in the pin-sharp monochrome of the AD (After Diagnosis) late portrait that concludes the piece.
We see the effect again in the positioning of Episodes From Face History (1969) alongside Parasite and Host (2005), the first a photographic document of a performance in which the artist ‘cut up’ his own projected image with surgical needles and black ribbon, the latter a portrait of the dying man with a hermit crab tattoo on his chest and ravaged features that have literalised what the earlier performance anticipated in play.
The dividing line between those two eras, Before Cancer and After Diagnosis, the playful 1969 performance and the unflinching 2005 portrait, is marked by the Diagnosis Drawings (2004), a series made in the sleepless early hours of the two weeks following Breakwell’s initial diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer. Ranging from collages showing a merged face and rose, an owl sitting on a ribcage, or black lungs made from illegible typed and stamped letters and various combinations of trees and lungs, shadows and flowers, the Diagnosis Drawings visualise cancer as a floral growth, literally glittering in the darkness, sometimes a black or strange fruit, sometimes echoing the ideas of decadent beauty of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, sometimes in possession of an inscrutable wisdom, as when an explosive splatter of black ink seems to cluster around a single dark blot stencilled with the words: ‘the shadow knows’.
Although in some ways a return to the surreal collage format of the 1969 Diary, the Diagnosis Drawings are also a new development, an extension of the diary comparable to the emergence of the hand and razor that obscured Breakwell from the world he described after a succession of setbacks and relationship break-ups in the mid-1970s. They bring a new subject, too, forcing the idea of a conclusion into a body of work created expressly to resist closure, and that sense of an ending – the Continuous Diary would, after all, have a final page – becomes the thread that is pursued through Breakwell’s final works.
The addition of material from the AD period of 2004 onwards makes this the first retrospective to follow all the various threads of Breakwell’s practice to their inevitable, if premature completion. Yet even as Breakwell’s death becomes the main subject of the work, he never allows autobiography to dominate. Instead, it’s as though the art – from which Breakwell often removed himself, acting more as engaged, bemused and fascinated observer – obliges him to stand slightly detached even from his own physical decline, bringing that experience into sharp universal focus. Despite the roots of Breakwell’s art in his own immediate life, he exists in these works as a figure defined by what he has observed and experienced, rather than a protagonist, and his literal absence makes the web of incidental details he leaves behind seem all the more solid.