Walking into Tramway’s huge exhibition hall to view Alexandre Perigot’s installation, you could be forgiven for feeling a twinge of disappointment. The promised life-size reproduction of Elvis’ Memphis mansion is, at first glance, an unreadable tangle of scaffolding poles. It is only when you clamber through the structure, exiting between the columned portico of the main entrance, and turn around, that the maze of gunmetal grey poles resolves into the familiar outline of Graceland.
This back-to-front placement, and the delayed flash of recognition it provokes, is key to perigot’s installation, whose practice seems to rest on providing only slivers of information, the merest prompting hint, offering work that is completed in the moment of experience by the imagination of the viewer.
This is, of course, hardly a tactic unique to Perigot, but, with Elvis House, he taps into a very particular form of imagination; that shared, cross-cultural, media-mediated half-knowledge of celebrity lives and loves that occupies the kitschier corners of the collective unconscious.
And so, walking back through the missing door of Graceland, one finds oneself supplying the gaudy gilt edges and sumptuous shag pile, wondering which room might house the indoor waterfall, or where Elvis shot his telly, or, inevitably, where The King collapsed on the loo in a haze of prescription pills and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
But Elvis is not the only one haunting this physical sketch of Graceland. In fact, his presence seems rather more solid than the visitor’s, whose feet tread below floor level, who can pass through walls, but can’t manage the climb to the first floor, a set of restrictions and uncanny abilities that usually apply to ghosts negotiating the architecture of their own time.
This is one of many reversals. Where an exoskeleton of scaffolding usually grows and disappears around a building as it is built, perigot uses it to render an existing structure. Similarly, the scaffold’s suggestion of unfulfilled potential is a counterintuitive choice of material to build what is, essentially, a monument. On opening night, the structure played host to a performance by The Parsonage Choir, singing Elvis’ ‘If I Can Dream’, as well as music by composer and Derek Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher Turner - another reversal, making a stage out of the place Elvis escaped from the stage, but also a recognition that .
Even the choice of Graceland itself is double-edged. If the work is a mediation on celebrity, on the viewer’s ability to flesh out the bare scaffolding, it is in part hoist by its own petard - no other structure but Graceland would do. John Lennon might inspire a similar blinkered, quasi-religious devotion in his fans, but the interior of his Dakota Building apartment is unknown to all but the most zealous fans, and his country pile at Tittenhurst offers nothing but white walls and a whiff of hypocrisy. Even Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch - which can more than match Graceland for lurid, unpleasant tales, at least - is a nebulous place for most.
Perigot’s second piece, Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Lose, like Elvis House, reveals itself slowly. An arrangement of pipes snakes across the gallery floor, some rising up at awkward angles, some arranged in looping patterns flat against the ground. Every so often, prefaced by a whoosh of compressed air, balls clatter around the pipes in a series of coconut clip-clops, flamenco foot-stamps and pinball pings. And, again, the onus is on the viewer to complete the work. This time, we are told, perigot wants us to decipher the titular phrase from the sound of objects rattling through the pipes, which are arranged to approximate the artist’s handwriting. And, just as it is hard to resist fitting out and furnishing the empty Graceland opposite, the temptation to wander between and over the pipes in search of recognisable letters, or conjour up speech patterns in the rhythmic pulses they emit. That wandering is significant, too. For all that perigot invites his audience to enter a world of the imagination, his work is rooted in the real world movements of that audience, their negotiation of his structures, making for an odd tension between the cerebral appreciation of the work and the corporeal experience of it.
It is fitting, then, that these two works are gathered under the title Pipedream. It’s more than a half-decent pun on Perigot’s choice of materials: both Elvis House and Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Lose are offered up to be completed by the viewer’s imagination, with the implicit proviso that neither can ever be so completed. Here, as with any pipedream, the enjoyment is in the dreaming, and the knowlegde that dreams don’t come true, too.
This review was first published in The Herald in July, 2007.