Christian Kerrigan

Still Life

Installation, Peonies, digital projector, digital camera, concrete waste, water, rose petals, drinking glass

The first thing one notices as they approach Christian Kerrigan’s new installation, Still Life, is a faint sense of humidity and an organic smell not unlike the air at the mouth of a cave. Ascending the staircase of the St Philips building on the LSE campus in central London at just the right moment, the fortuitous viewer will also perceive the sound of condensation falling in an echoey chamber and feel the slight stirring of the air, like a breeze through a window before a sudden rain.

Created as part of the St Philips Exhibition, which brings together new works from some twenty artists into the vacant space of a former workhouse and hospital in the weeks before its demolition, Kerrigan has created a piece that blends the spectre of the modern ruin with the painterly domain of the traditional still life.

Beyond a tight corner off of the unassuming second floor landing of this redbrick, Edwardian edifice, the viewer enters a darkened, slightly cool and richly fragrant space. A square grid of one hundred peonies (a number that references the building’s century-long history) has been planted into the concrete floor. From time to time a drizzle falls from the ceiling, refreshing the blooms and leaving inky puddles on the blackened surface underfoot.

This is a meditative space. And in this sense the piece is an invitation to the viewer to take pause: the work of a still life painting is, after all, to construe and to hold a particular setting in time. But the still life as a genre of visual culture is as much about the unrelenting and destructive nature of time than it is about capturing and preserving it.

The Dutch still life painters of the 17th century are revered for their ability to infuse an aura of imminent decay into the veneer of a static scene. Their intricate depictions of bouquets, arrangements of fruit and meal settings, for all their abundance and life affirming symbolism, also betray the inverse. One notices the slight discoloration in the skin of the fruit, a few petals fallen from their stalk, an insect settled disquietingly within the frame. Even without the more overt vanitas symbols (the scull, the hourglass) these paintings are steeped in the tenuous relationship between life and death.

This same dynamic – as well as technology’s capacity to interrogate it – informs much of Kerrigan’s work. As the once-fresh flowers central to Still Life open and wilt throughout the course of the exhibition, their lifespan becomes tied to the building’s fate. Rain falls from the ceiling as if the structure itself was sustaining this mutual dependence.

Placed inconspicuously on the ledge of one of the room’s windows is a small glass containing an arrangement of pale petals and green leaves. This secondary still life is filmed in real time and projected across the room within the dimensions of an encased window frame. The result is a not-quite-still still image, a magnified and abstracted composition, which somehow conveys the pace of the arrangement’s indiscernible decay.

What Still Life presents us with is the paradox that the stillest moments are also those that edge us most closely to time’s unwavering spirit and the relationship it engenders between life and death.

Text: Christien Garcia, curator

Christian Kerrigan is an artist who uses digital technology to make sculptures, installations, and drawings which draw out an array of ideas about nature, technology and mortality. Christian was Digital Artist in Residence at the V&A between January and June 2010.

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