The ambiguity at play in Carl Plackman’s The Immigrant is apt, says assistant curator Stephanie Straine, as she gets a little closer to this work on display in Tate Liverpool’s Keywords exhibition

Carl Plackman, 'The Immigrant' 1985-7
Carl Plackman
The Immigrant 1985-7
Wood, metal, paint, paper, concrete, plastic, string
unconfirmed: 2250 x 3800 x 3100 mm
Purchased 2006© The estate of Carl Plackman

On first inspection, Carl Plackman’s installation The Immigrant appears to be a casual, slightly haphazard arrangement of everyday objects, including a hat stand, a shelving unit, a knocked-over chair, a couple of sports balls and some crumpled bits of paper. A closer look reveals the puzzling strangeness that defines these objects, which come to appear more like theatrical props within a stage set. In the central wooden structure, the shelves are not really shelves; they are a series of rakes, precariously perched one atop the other in a delicate zigzag. Their incongruous placement recalls the slapstick classic of a ‘rake in the face’: the comedic end point of a misplaced garden tool. The balls are not from a leisure or domestic context at all, and they are complete opposites: one is an industrial object fashioned from heavy concrete; the other is a plastic buoy.

Plackman’s work is on display as part of Tate Liverpool’s new exhibition Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain, which explores artistic practice through the lens of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Williams’s book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, first published in 1976, examines commonly occurring words such as democracy, industry, leisure, equality and wealth, pointing out their susceptibility to confusion and modification depending on context. This book had a profound impact on cultural studies, artistic practice and theory.

Three years before Keywords was published, however, Plackman wrote an essay titled ‘Obscurity seems part of the nature of objects’: a fitting statement for The Immigrant, where the viewer is invited to bring their own narrative or interpretation to the work. His belief that a work’s title was simply a ‘springboard’, and never a decisive endpoint when it came to determining meaning, chimes strongly with Raymond Williams’s embrace of ambiguity as a starting point for his analysis of words and how they can evolve over time.

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Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain is on display at Tate Liverpool until 11 May 2014