This article is from 2007.
David Batchelor thinks we live in a culture that’s scared of bright and vivid hues. That’s why he’s filling his own artistic world with waves of chromatic pleasure. Nick Barley looks at his work and wonders whether he wants us all to see red
Walk out of any room with David Batchelor’s art in it, and you will take with you one simple memory: brightly coloured stuff. Whether it’s coloured bottles or dazzling light boxes, Batchelor is a fully paid-up chromophile.
Today, he’s walking round the Talbot Rice Gallery, talking passionately about his new installation, which takes his work with colour to hallucinogenic new levels. ‘I’ve built this exhibition out of stuff I bought in pound shops in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh,’ he explains. ‘You know, those strange, rather shabby shops that sell cheap, cast plastic objects that are all made in China. There are clips, toys, cheap kitchen pegs and plastic cutlery, toilet brushes and plastic feather dusters . . . ’
Batchelor has lovingly stuck thousands of these everyday objects to 23 columns, so as to create a kind of enchanted forest of hairy, coloured plastic trees.
‘Look at this column,’ he enthuses. ‘From far away it’s just a blur of colour but when you walk up to it, here, you can see a hairbrush, a kids’ geometry set, a bubble blower . . . ’ He continues with a litany of products that are sure to languish in landfill sites for hundreds of years into the future.
In the 15 or so years that he has been making art, Batchelor’s work has been included in an impressive array of major group exhibitions, including the 2003 Tate Triennial, and the Radiance festival in Glasgow in 2005, while his contribution to last year’s Edinburgh Festival – a cornucopia of illuminated plastic bottles – still dangles like a fuzzy Christmas memory in the Palm House at the Botanic Gardens.
For his new exhibition he does not use electric lighting to provide illumination inside the plastic objects. ‘I don’t want people to think I do “light art”,’ he says. ‘I want to emphasise my interest in colour, so you might call this exhibition my acoustic album.’
With or without light bulbs, these hairy columns certainly demonstrate the visual splendour of everyday objects, but they also highlight the garish colour that is all around us all the time. And we don’t value it at all. At one level you can enjoy Batchelor’s out-of-the-Smarties-tube artistic games for the simple pleasure of their vibrant visual effect. But if you consider that he is in fact a poacher turned gamekeeper, an art historian and critic who has come late to the business of actually making art, there may be another, possibly more compelling way to read his work. At this deeper level, Batchelor’s apparently innocent splashes of colour may actually be a red rag to a bull – the provocation of an artist sticking two fingers up at art history.
Batchelor has made the provocative claim that we are scared of colour. That’s what he argued in his book, Chromophobia, and, if the very idea seems far fetched at first, a quick look back through some major moments of recent history suggests Batchelor is closer to the mark than it would first appear. For a start, many physicists have argued that colour does not actually exist as a property in objects themselves. Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Locke were all subscribers to this notion, which might be most easily understood in the statement that the sky is not actually blue, we just see it that way.
A few years since Chromophobia was published, Batchelor’s forays into art have mellowed him a little. ‘When I wrote the book I slightly overstated the case,’ he admits. ‘Our relationship with colour is perhaps slightly more ambivalent. But I do think we are simultaneously both attracted to and repelled from very bright colour. And it is also true that colour occurs in very particular places in the city. The colour that you encounter in these pound shops confers absolutely no value at all. This is colour at the low end of the cultural spectrum.’
Is there any difference between what he bought in London, and the stuff he found in Edinburgh? ‘Some of my students recently went to Sharjah in United Arab Emirates and bought me some things from a pound shop there,’ he says. ‘It was literally identical to the stuff I bought in London or Trongate in Glasgow. The pound shop thing is a curious global economy. It’s consumption for people who can’t afford to consume.’
Low value it may be, but it’s thanks to an artist like Batchelor that cheap colourful tat can be turned into an artistic provocation of the highest order.
David Batchelor: Unplugged, Talbot Rice Gallery, Old College, South Bridge, 0131 650 2210, 28 Jul–29 Sep, free.