The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Noel Harding: Dithering On, Petering Out

C Magazine #13, June 1987.
[ 3,462 words ]

Rumpled jackets, lighthouse lamps, creaking wings, flaming heads. And water running, falling, coloured water; pink, yellow and blue water, coloured to fight off clarity, just like the jacket is striped — or leaden — for detail, to fight off consistency and lightness. Noel Harding might appear to be doing battle, trying his best to send us off the scent, away from monumental sentiments towards, well, semi-monumental blunders. There is the tincture of failure in his work — not failure of the 'work', the production end of things, but failure on the order of those 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Attempts to Achieve Heaven. Envisioned with jocularity, the repetitive movements of the wings in that piece, moving up and down, all is aright. The mechanics becomes a timing feat, like pausing properly in telling a joke. But the timing is off (off-colour, perhaps), laying out the bones for 'further consideration,' more going alongside, and more pointing out that this works in sequence, out of habit, according to programme. Programmed failure to work it out; programmed acceptance that working it out is an exercise in spoilage, a move that cuts the game short and wrecks it for the sole observer who will find pleasure in incompletion.

Or pleasure, at least, in another type of work. Such work as that of colour upon water, the seeping and depleting effects of pigment becoming dilute and pervasive. The resulting transparency is an action of mixture and sullied purity, enacting the emblematic combining that mimics the Lord's potential of absolute form. Such is the work of the sculptor as he manufactures new impurities from the given elements and attitudes which populate the untold surface of the toiled world. It is work of programmed mimesis, of humble transformation from effort on material to effect upon the soul. When all the work done in his name becomes analogous to those effects, we have gained the recognition of his body in the body of work — passim in the homily to be delivered here. We may come to think not just of tincturing, of colouring the water, but also of micturition, of the need to make water itself; to make a world in reverse by building mechanics to hold the watery vault from obliterating all form. An apocalyptic ditty, perhaps.

Thus, in the Blue Peter works, and I include the model for Study for a Man with Disease here, when the water flows, watch out. Repetitions give way to flow, to pumping actions and constancy; quite a different matter than defined movement or programmed repetitions. Flow repeats too swiftly for the change to be noted. Water is elemental, so there is no difference to water, no up and down. Simple circulation pulses through, much like the laser light piercing the steel of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Attempts.... It doesn't rain, it pours. The circulation marks not time but its absence, the works' abstention from schemes expecting progression and development. The system works just fine thank you, not switching nor creaking but making no matter. It is simply there, working, never falling into the same rut twice. Goodman Peter falls instead, water falling from his head and from up his sleeves as his fancied brow heads right into the pond without ever reaching the end of its trajectory. Poor fellow is always going down; though his sneakers are tied and his tie knotted, he is going to get his comeuppance.

All spattered and dishevelled, Peter has no right to do otherwise. His fall is as sure as the water that pours from his frame. A matter of weight, of gravity, of social necessity. Or, really, of social nicety — the Blue Peter is not only a cold prick. It is a naval flag indicating immediate sailing, telling you to clear the way, get your last goods aboard. In the game of whist it is immediate as well, being the call for trumps coming out, pouring down on an otherwise placid table. Watch out now, the stakes have been raised! Someone's going to make waves! It is a ruse for people about to make their move, appropriate to a time of celebrated, malevolent risk-taking. When Blue Peter Steps Out to Remember he is merely going to cross between two pools, getting his feet wet, maybe getting cold feet in the process. Harding saves him from that; keeping him behind a steel plate, freezing him in stride, keeping him out of his boot runners for that matter. The memory might not be worth the trip if you're going to stumble on the way. So look up, and there is a rearview mirror reflecting pink laser light, letting us know of Peter's rosy gloss on his past exploits. Piss on it, I say. But Peter is no blueblood and we should not dissociate his tripping follies from our fuddling appraisal.

Well, from tripping and fuddling to tippling and piddling...we're all wet in either case. Peter takes this cast of failing and dying from his name once it becomes a verb. He is petering out after a lengthy drinking bout, falling over and passing out. Out to where the intoxicated soul loses its sense of being formed, or gains its sense of formation in a greater plan. There the elemental study of falling bodies is given its personal exemplar through the coming to rest of the sinning body; it is a drunkard's reverie. And this type of study goes farther back as well. Yet another 'Blue Peter' has the cosmological end of teaching such things; a BBC children's programme devoted to science education and wonderment was named for the ghost Harding rebirths. That simple science of easily learned things, of fall and rise and pressures and pumps, has always ruled Harding's art. Its technics are common rather than fabulous, from the chemistry set rather than the laboratory. The fire and light and pumps and mirrors represent a mired displacement for tinkering youth in quest of formal knowledge, but hardly a satisfactory replacement of the problem of knowing. Neither the coming of age, nor the coming to the making of art, can absolve the need to project the experimental attitude.

Harding takes his stage machinery from such themes. In earlier works, he piloted goldfish around the gallery perimeter, put chickens on a treadmill. Residing along with patches of vegetation propelled on little carts (like paraplegics in bad dreams), these creatures mocked nature by doing what they do anyway. The syncopation of their movements with artistic intentions left nothing untouched, leaving a light-coloured bruise on the conscience of the spectator. If you fell back into thinking of systems, of natural analogies, the replication of 'creaturedom' was complete and you were reflex-ing, taking it seriously. Being clever and art-historical, reflecting on landscape and representation and making up a picture, you were stepping out to forget the movement, the changing aspect and the beat it involved. You got nowhere until the installation became a blur, and creaturing and artifying became obstacles to overcome in allowing it all to swim before your mind. The work anticipated this action, in order to trip you up, giving you details in place of systematized meaning. It is an assemblage ploy, undulating around uncommon oddities, such as a planted tree rustling by your head, a hen's tic-like poking at her food. It bore the look of slight animal abuse, making these innocents perform to recorded drum tracks and hang on sepulchral walls. Yet no big picture was involved, really. The remaking of a habitat treated the notion of habit itself rather than consolidating a remade world. To that end, a nervous pulsing underlay the construction to give it an unassailed integrity that you could argue with or exempt — in either case you acknowledged its intricacy.

What followed was concentrated nerve. Not systems, but stolid repeating motions that obviated detail. The Monument to Decision Making made it all too plain, ruining the blur with tilting concrete columns and a lightbulb knocking up against one of them. The fragile tinkling showed that movement could be shortened, but still — nobody home! The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Attempts... goes the same route, but with greater indulgence, more agitation, as it were. Taxidermied bird wings are embedded in a good-sized steel box, doing cycles up and down towards an impossible lift-off. A red laser penetrates the sides of said box, the light touching the edge of one wing when at the lower end of its cycle, then falling to the floor into a bloody pool. So we must go through material stages on way to the after-life...enthroning our regrettable wishes for rest in fantasies of dominion. No food at the end of the treadmill for us; without the plastic-baggie aquarium a vigilance of procedure encumbers us as we knock our puny lightbulb-like thoughts against the greater vault. The greened tree and hapless chicken are free of our consciousness of mortal weakness, so replace their delegation with our imprisoned hopes!

Wherein the need for a figuring of those hopes, and down goes Peter. As a single figure instead of an installation, he participates in a two-fold process of transference. He is made and beheld as a means to address making it and holding it, as things one does in mortal existence. But neither his figure nor his failure can be complete since he is stilled in motion, left holding the basket. Against his still incompleteness, the pulsing circulation of water makes him continually regenerate, a nagging reminder of being created in one image and held to that image with the knowledge of being (once and perhaps in the future) other. The probable sub-title: An aging piece of flesh addresses the change of life by fabricating a test model for everyone's descent into watery oblivion. Hence Peter is blue, or, to borrow from William Gass and Henry James, he lives in the country of the blue. (1)  There the artist, Harding right now, finds (false) reason to go on working against hope, and Peter provides a model for the spectator, an image of stumbling into things, of wringing arrest from an economy of failure. No extraordinary systems here, to indict or commend, but the picture of an eccentric system that throws up monuments to its failed hopes and unlived domination. Bearing its brunt, the bruise on the spectator is coloured blue at the centre, yellow further out, red and pink as it fades to unaffected skin.

These colours are repeated in Harding's pools of light and water — lasers and gas flames burning when the lapping flow is not enough. His point is to make these parts elemental, the blue of the sky mixing with the yellow of urine, the pink of diluted blood — each chromatic key linking flow to the schematized still figure. Elemental flow, but not necessarily natural flow; Peter's water is not exactly his — it ties him to drunkenness, to Sani-flush blue and Mr. Clean yellow, to the return of the flow not purified, but treated, sanitized. He is not isolate on his plinth, but always complicit with his predicament. In the eponymous piece, Blue Peter is given a 'natural' familiar, a face and body for the stick-man he is otherwise. On a platform strewn with fallen leaves and covered with plastic grass, a rabbit hops; avatar of blameless stupidity. The rabbit has none of the frenetic energy of the fish and chickens from the previous work, is almost too Peter-like in its soporific hopping and patient, easy satisfaction. Peter, meanwhile, is given his 'realist' treatment. Real hair strung on wire; real striped jacket and blue-stained beige chinos. Physiognomy is given crude working — the water hose protrudes from his neck, the one-eyed nozzle sending the blue water into a plexiglas pool.

When the figure is repeated as he steps out to remember or as a bronze water fountain and with disease, he exchanges his 'realist' form for a symbolic one. This shift indicates more concern with the discourse of the monument and the conditions it avails. Blue Peter was monumental in its denial of feature, narrative, context. The bubbling pool was dense rather than reflective, wrapped up, perhaps, in the libidinal implications of pants wetting that the stained trousers suggested. Its reason was strung out on Harding's need to bring recognizability into his work, to expand his pessimistic lyricism through tentative figuration. When Peter is only implied, in Blue Peter Steps Out to Remember, his battered corpse is free of mental moorings. He no longer is ridiculous, paired with bunny-rabbit, but is spectral, sublime, released. Considering our thoughts on his predecessor, we may say that although he is still getting wet, his hidden and invisible form has relieved him from the discomfort the scenario predicts. The steel plate, reminiscent of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Attempts..., screens Peter, both indicating his atomized reverie and its stinging failure to signify transcendence.

So his third transformation as a fountain heads straight for the monument, with a side trip into social history. The bronze fountain is an admixture of the monument's material with the fountain's role as social function warped into decorative schema. The fountain has all the gaiety and central role that the monument denies; the first supplying drinking or washing water without ceremony, or just a fantastic break into carnival (see the fountains of Rome, or those of ornamental gardens), whereas the monument is all ceremony and solemn recollection. Debts owed to the dead, or those pushed onto them in deferral of their sacrifice, determine the monument, while the fountain plays on at the centre of gregarious utility. Peter's fountain, with his severed lead leg shaking (as if in constant shock), and his flaming head, has his ossification into a needed tool as subject. Achieving bronze status, and a high-breasted, three-buttoned all British suit, he pours out his blueness with abject dignity, his form cast in disregard for his humbled obsolescence. His function, as banal as is the fountain's, is to be the useless edge of buzzing post-industrialism. He is detritus, flotsam and jetsam floating in the stagnant cistern; his is a body to pour things in, consumable things. Harding endows him with a reversed physiology so that where the water usually goes in, the firewater pours out in full view.

Perhaps, then, the parable comes to a close with Peter's socialization. He goes uptown in Study for a Man With Disease, originally presented as a competition entry for the sculptural decoration of an upscale condominium development in Toronto. (2)  And Peter, with chameleon-grace, chooses to fall backward this time, yellow and blue water running down from his sleeves, his dis-ease being his toppling from his most-secure base. Harding has devised this base following first on the decorative function and second on the revival of art deco standards and fashions — itself a kind of 'falling-off', a decadent and historicist disavowal of urban development. The cascading water is pumped through a series of lozenge forms that are rotated and extended to form steps and pools for spillover, play, retention and flow. A central drum, coloured pastel pink, is opposed by a granite box where Peter edges off as he faces a planted bush and a single flapping bird's wing. The wing, amputated from the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Attempts..., is set to move on the breeze, to tell you when the wind blows. Beneath the coloured liquid and under glass panes a central revolving light sends out the lighthouse warning, a beacon to all who harbour fears of descending from their perch. Peter, in his morbid state, has become the warning-man, the weatherman we do not heed. With such themes involved, it comes as no surprise that the competition was awarded to other projects.

With this failure in tow, Study for a Man with Disease cunningly approaches the pleasure of incompletion from a new tack. Several maquettes have been displayed, and a full-scale model has been built. This model uses acrylic drippings for water, treated wood in place of stone and metal components, and a soundtrack of water noises in place of the active pumping. Its status as 'a model of a study' is precarious and its makeshift appearance points out its schematic quality, a major aspect of Harding's work. The working sculpture just might be daunting in its elegant materials and tooling; the model's frozen crystals of water and incongruous soundtrack are jokey, tertiary, as slipshod as the deco referencing that makes up its lure.

As the four states of Peter's figure solidify around questions of placement and degrees of referentiality, so the initial attraction of the derelict figure becomes transparent and extended. To be simple, Peter is not invisible, but rather featureless, neither stereotype nor specific. Rather than being fully figured, he sinks into scanty exterior details, as if the armature holding him upright was never enough to endow fleshy form. Which of course it was not, as the fall is determined elsewhere — all poor Peter can try to control is his derelict wounded pride, holding it as decoration for those bad new days he signifies. What we are witnessing are variations rather than reworkings, attempts to reapply the figure in a variety of situations, and not definitive representations or progressive 'ideal' moves. Instead of filling in the body, it has been perpetually hollowed out. From scarecrow to spirit, to metallic armoured casing, Peter is left out and redefined by his container. He is always holding it, but never on top of it. And so the unknowingness of Peter becomes his virtue. Something has snuck up on him, to effect a change that moves his fall from the realm of incompetence to the primary indicator of his problem; incontinence. Here is a body that just can't wait, that has gone out of control on his way out of the social body. What can you do when you can't hold it in any longer? Maybe you've made it in release, in the water moving out of you, in linkage to rabbit, memory, social utility...but not bloody likely.

No blood, no guts, Peter's just a made up thing to hold species of discontent at arms-length. If he keeps out mild fears, the typical headaches, he acts as scapegoat for us all; he holds notions of the subject together by name and attribute, while never being too exact for identity to attach to his weakened frame. He can twist as no one can, from being in the soup to being freed from worry — because he has been relinquished of shame. In place of shame, he can show us the callous way we revel in failing, making it into gloried satisfaction with our proper estate. The lapse that makes for this Peterman, the fishy character that swims with failure, is then Scapegrace Harding. It is he who wounds the figure with failure, loads him up with indicators of soiling, burning, falling and being unreplaced. He makes the making of it, of form and subjectivity and failure, into a drinkable blend of lugubrious intent. Dilute it, put leaves round it, spray a classic avoidance over the crowd and then measure the piss-artist you've become; make water into...well not quite so far.

Perhaps that limit alone shows us what is up with Peter's downward slide. Harding belies his economy by exercising limits upon its effects. You cannot mistake the figure because it is not really given over to analysis; that function has been left out of the work under display. All you can do, as in the proceeding account, is dither on and point away, play along with the formulation of failing without becoming dragged down with its inertia. Wade through the evidence of handling and touch on what is passed along to the next witness. Now draw a moral from that as a tapster draws a pint.


I can't leave you there, with the moralist spitting up some foam. Come down, over here, and see another fall-guy at play:

'Everybody says "come on!" here,' thought Alice, as she walked slowly after the Gryphon; 'I never was ordered about so before in all my life — never!'

They had not gone far before they saw the Mock Turtle in the distance, sitting sad and lonely on a little ledge of rock, and, as they came nearer, Alice could hear it sighing as if its heart would break. She pitied it deeply: 'what is its sorrow?' she asked the Gryphon, and the Gryphon answered, very nearly in the same words as before, 'it's all its fancy, that : it hasn't got no sorrow, you know: come on!'

So they went up to the Mock Turtle, who looked at them with large eyes full of tears, but said nothing.

C Magazine #13, June 1987.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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