‘White Teeth in the Planetarium’, an essay by Ruth Barker

  • Posted on: April 20th, 2013
  • By James McLardy

“Science fiction writers have posited parallel worlds closely similar to the world we know, but in which our counterpart selves pursue lives very different from our own. The story […] left me with an uncanny sense of such a world.”[1]

At the beginning of The Separateness of Things, Victor Burgin describes a moment of strange displacement. While preparing a talk about the artist Edward Hopper, Burgin comes across a news report about Detective Sgt. Burgin, of Cherryville, North Carolina who is searching for a suspected murderer called Edward Hopper. The strangeness that seeps out from this moment comes not just from the coincidence of names, but from the sense that there is another story here, and one in which we may be implicated unknowingly. The sense of discovering that somewhere we are doing something else – that there may be a moment in which we are elsewhere – is disconcerting, dreamlike, and peculiar. We look down and our hands are suddenly not quite our own. We look up and our city is made strange to us. We look out across the river and the waters seem alien, but only partly unknown.

In White Teeth in the Planetarium, James McLardy looks up and describes an architecture that is at once strange and yet also recognisable. Look closely now. The structures he presents us with have the quality of a dream that has slipped below the surface of our conscious remembering.

This fluting here – ah and I remember: it must be a trace of Deco (and I have seen it somewhere, elsewhere, but I don’t remember when).

This smear of liquid in the concave dip of a bowl: where did it come from? I don’t recall. Did it come from me? Perhaps, though perhaps not (my body does not recall a discharge).

This screen; this alter/table/thing; this monolith: their forms are sometimes recognisable, but their functions are oblique. They are life-sized, but how do they want us to behave?

McLardy’s architectural landscape is alien, handcrafted, fleshy, austere, contradictory. Deliberate and purposeful, these works may seem to be so completely premeditated that they are wholly explicable as the sum of their exquisitely positioned parts. And yet? And yet: look sideways at these forms and you may see that other images lie, bobbing just beneath the surface of the objects’ conscious manufacture.

Perhaps two unknown men may stand erect, decorated and brutal, but breathing. Who are these men, and who are they to each other, or to us? Standing on either side of Modernism, they are wax smeared panels, dripping and dystopian. They are the sure curve of a pink wax cake. They are a plastic shell crushed onto something soft and unresisting. Repeating a motif may give us structure.

As Victor Burgin prepares his paper he is a detective, and his subject has committed murder. This is as true as the world in which Burgin writes, and his subject is a painter. As James McLardy’s otherworld rises beneath the craft of his hands, it may grow closer to the surface of the visible. This is science fiction. This is fact. This is wax, copper, wood. This is the outline of a plastic shell squeezed onto something soft and unresisting. Look closely.

[1] Victor Burgin, The Separateness of Things, Tate Papers, Issue 3, 01/04/05.