British Sculptor, Installation and Performance Artist
Pembury, Kent, England
Bridge of Orchy, Argyll and Bute, Scotland
Summary of Angus Fairhurst
The "quiet man" of the YBAs, Angus Fairhurst's sophisticated and often understated practice nevertheless reveals an artist interested in poignant mediations on life, society and individual experience. Whilst his work has been somewhat overshadowed by his young suicide, it often used associative visual cues like animals and magazine images to investigate questions of self-awareness, vanity and the life of an artist.
Like many YBAs Fairhurst's relationship to the established art market in the 1990s was originally antagonistic, the new generation of artists attempting (and succeeding) to shake up the stuffy and conservative network of galleries and curators that barred their entry. Although content to let other, more brash, artists lead the way, Fairhurst provided essential underpinning to the efforts of the YBAs as co-organizer of the original Freeze exhibition and as the occasional studio partner of both Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas.
- Fairhurst's work orbited around recurring visual motifs used in a variety of contexts. The clearest example of this is his use of the image of the gorilla, which featured in sculpture, photographs and installations. Fairhurst spoke of the visual tension between the powerful animal and his own lithe frame as one which fascinated him.
- Fairhurst's work often implicitly critiqued wider society, particularly the art world and the disingenuousness of advertising. Some of his most highly regarded work used unwitting participants to show this, using London gallery staff to illustrate the insularity of the artistic industry or the silhouettes of glamourous models to show the visual manipulations of magazines. His work also shows evidence of a deep and abiding connection with nature and the natural world as an alternative to modernity.
- Whilst his work is often now read within the context of his suicide, Fairhurst's work regularly deploys surreal humor to illuminate his point - making the viewer laugh due to the inherent ridiculousness of the image in order to provoke thought about the nature of society or culture.
- Like many YBAs, Fairhurst was connected to a parallel world of pop musicians and actors who were similarly famous and prone to raucous partying in Soho (London). The interrelation of art forms was common, with imagery from pop culture having a strong reciprocal bearing on artworks, album covers and films. Publicity strategies more often associated with rock stars were also employed by visual artists, amplifying their cultural presence. Collectively this reflects a cultural period after 1997 known as "Cool Britannia", where British culture reasserted itself globally and economically.
Biography of Angus Fairhurst
Angus Fairhurst was born in Pembury, Kent on 4th October 1966. Remarkably little has been written about his early years before he attended art school, which reflects the relative paucity of information available about his life when compared to YBA peers like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. As Michael Glover wrote shortly after his death in 2009, "Fairhurst, in short, was the partially forgotten one". What is documented is that Fairhurst's interest in the art world developed from an early age, and that he wished to pursue it as a career. Between 1978 and 1985, Fairhurst attended The Judd School, a highly regarded and prestigious grammar school in Kent before moving to Canterbury Art College in 1985 in order to pursue his artistic practice. Canterbury's teaching staff at this time included Stass Paraskos and Erin Hurren, artists in their own right who encouraged an innovative and experimental approach to artistic education. Fairhurst's time here in 1985 and 1986 led to his application and acceptance at Goldsmiths University, an environment that would profoundly impact on his career.
Important Art by Angus Fairhurst
Gallery Connections is a largely performative piece engineered by the artist and featuring unaware participants to generate its content. Having rewired two telephones, Fairhurst dialed unsuspecting art galleries in London so that they would answer the phone at the same time. The work consists of recordings of the telephone conversations between confused gallery employees who both believe the other placed the original call. In these conversations, Fairhurst remains silent, whilst the speakers become increasingly agitated. It later emerged that several of the gallery representatives, utterly bewildered by each other, became so suspicious of the call that they believed themselves to be under government investigation or surveillance.
Although the immediate reaction to Gallery Connections is that it is humorous, echoing a prank call or other practical joke, what Fairhurst is actually doing in this piece is making a serious comment about the inward-looking nature of the art world. According to his tutor, Michael Craig-Martin "it epitomized the narcissism of the art world" and highlighted the tendency of its inhabitants to speak only amongst themselves. A key criticism levelled at the art world by the YBAs was that it was too insular and insufficiently bold in seeking out new work. It could be argued, however, that the movement fell prey to its own success, and was eventually subsumed by the same system it rebelled against.
Gallery Connections was initially "displayed" as a published transcript in a contemporary arts magazine. It is now regularly placed on display at Tate Britain in the form of a transparent desk, inside which the audio equipment that plays these recordings is visible. This exposure of the inner working of the equipment is in contrast to the clandestine nature of the piece's creation, symbolically exposing to the public how the confusion they hear has been engineered by the artist. It's similarity to stereotypical spy hardware also references the galleries' suspicion of surveillance. During the piece, one gallery gives its contact information, and later listeners have themselves called the phone number, continuing the piece even after Fairhurst's death.
This work is one of Fairhurst's most widely celebrated pieces. It led critic and artist Matthew Collings to describe Fairhurst as "the brains behind the YBAs", whilst the art critic Jessica Lack writes that Gallery Connections, in its wit and astuteness, "encapsulated everything that was brilliant about the YBAs". Nevertheless, as an audio work the piece does not conform to conceptions of art that revolve around the visual. This is reflective of much of Fairhurst's work, as the Evening Standard magazine noted when it explained that "A good deal of Fairhurst's art was less for your eyes than your mind."
Pietà (first version) is a photograph of the artist lying limp and naked in the arms of a stuffed gorilla. His pose mimics that of the dead Christ in his mother's arms, the classical Pieta form seen in much Christian art of the Renaissance period (Michelangelo's Pietà of 1499, for example). The scene was created at the centre of the Clerkenwell studio shared by Fairhurst and Lucas - a frequent working arrangement, with the side-result that the two would often appear in one another's artworks. In his right hand, the artist grasps the camera's cable release in order to take the photograph. With his eyes closed and the protective cradling and downcast face of the gorilla, the suggestion of death is an unavoidable connotation of the image.
In this work, Fairhurst returns to the gorilla image, which he had used previously in his art to express human characteristics. Fairhust spoke of the contrast between the gorilla - "this big hairy masculine thing" and himself - "a skinny lanky geezer", as being one of the most interesting aspects of his continued return to the image of the animal. This contrast is most clearly demonstrated in A Cheap and Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit (1995) (a video of the artist emerging from said costume). Whereas Fairhurst sometimes depicts the gorilla suit as a prison, in Pietà (first version) it appears to be protective or nurturing. As the artist explains: "Pietà is an image of tenderness, about the struggle between the alter-ego - the gorilla - and the self".
The photograph speaks to the fragility of the human body - a preoccupation of Fairhurst, who once recounted to Damien Hirst his experience of seeing an elderly man on public transport: "The other day I saw a frail old man get on the Underground, having been hit by time. He must think 'how dare time have done this to my body so that I can no longer jump on trains as quickly as my mind does?'"
The image took on additional connotations of frailty and a macabre dimension after the artist's death. Before completing suicide, Fairhust sent the image to Alex James the former bassist of Blur and friend of the artist. This was one of many postcards he sent to friends around this time - perhaps an expression of his own mental fragility and an indication that he was considering ending his life. On the back of the postcard, Fairhurst wrote "You really are one hell of a lucky bastard".
Underdone/Overdone is a series of thirty paintings in primary colors based on black-and-white photographs of thickets in Epping Forest. Beginning with the image of crossing trees in a single color, Fairhurst has overlaid the woodland images over one another at random and in various combinations over a sequence of thirty pictures. With each additional layer, the shape of the trees becomes less recognisable and the works tend towards abstraction. By the time of the final canvases, the image has become entirely obscured by a dense mess of colour, moving the work firmly into the abstract and away from the figurative. When displayed together in a gallery, the transition is both obvious and almost overwhelming to a viewer, the dense mass of colour looming down from the walls of the gallery.
The motif of the trees reflects Fairhurst's affection for the outdoors: he was described by his friend chef Fergus Henderson as "very outward bound", for example. Again, however, the work has now taken on a more disturbing connotation in light of Fairhurst's suicide by hanging from a tree in the woods. It was in fact Henderson who introduced Fairhurst to the woodlands of the Scottish Highlands where Fairhurst would come to take his own life. In line with this more sinister interpretation, by layering images to such an extent, Fairhurst has turned the benign and recognisable into the unknown and little-understood. Some critics have gone as far as to call this effect "psychologically disturbing".
Much of Fairhurst's work explores the boundary between forms and formlessness, and in doing so perhaps embodies the contradictory nature of Angus Fairhurst the man. Sadie Coles of the Sadie Coles gallery believes this to be the case - describing him as "romantic and pragmatic, doggedly practical and shamelessly abstract, modest and proud, funny and sad, and to quote one of his titles, Underdone/Overdone."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Angus Fairhurst
- Angus Fairhurst: Stand Still and RotOur PickBy Yilmaz Dziewior
- Angus FairhurstOur PickBy Sacha Craddock and James Cahill
- In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida: Angus Fairhurst, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas: Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Angus FairhurstBy Clarrie Wallis and Gregor Muir
- Lucky Kunst: The Rise and Fall of Young British ArtBy Gregor Muir