Stuart Brisley

Nul Comma Nul


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Not on display

Stuart Brisley born 1933
Steel, wood, clothes and spotlight
Displayed: 2450 × 1850 × 6200 mm
Purchased 1987

Display caption

Brisley was one of ten artists commissioned by Camden Arts Centre to 'examine present day society in the light of Orwell's book (Nineteen Eighty-Four)'. Of this work Brisley wrote 'I've tried to find an image to express feelings which somehow suggest constriction, of being nowhere. There is no space in Nineteen Eighty-Four, no social space... just a sense of claustrophobia and that what at first appears to be a rigidly structured society is not really so'. A harsh spotlight housed in the structure throws the shadow of the viewer onto the wall behind, bringing the viewer into an active relationship with the content of the wall. The title refers to the German word for nought, 'null'.

Gallery label, July 1995

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Catalogue entry

T05002 Nul Comma Nul 1983–6

Steel mesh, electric light, painted wood, metal and textiles 2450 × 1850 × 6200 (96 1/2 × 72 7/8 × 224)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Paul Johnstone (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: Georgiana Collection: Stuart Brisley, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, Aug.–Sept. 1986, Orchard Gallery, Derry, Sept.–Oct. 1986, Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, Nov. 1986, Serpentine Gallery, Jan.–Feb. 1987, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, Feb.–March 1987 (129, repr. in col.); Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept. 1988–Jan. 1992 (only shown Sept. 1988–Jan. 1990, no number, repr.)
Lit: Deanna Petherbridge,‘Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984’ and Stuart Brisley, ‘Like This?’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, exh. cat., Camden Arts Centre 1984, pp.12, 21, 36–7; Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Proles' Revenge’, Guardian, 11 Jan. 1984, p.9; William Feaver, ‘Orwellian Images’, Observer, 15 Jan. 1984 p.51; John Spurling, ‘Vital Deficiency’, New Statesman, 20 Jan. 1984, p.29; John Roberts, ‘Stuart Brisley, Marking Intervals in Time’ in The British Show, exh. cat., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1985, pp.30–1, repr.; Michael Archer, ‘Neither One Thing nor the Other’ in Georgiana Collection: Stuart, Brisley, exh. cat., Third Eye Centre, Glasgow 1986, pp.20, 22; Simon Herbert, ‘Stuart Brisley’, High Performance, vol.9, no.3, 1986, p.97; Malcolm Dickson, ‘The Georgiana Collection’, Alba, no.2, Autumn 1986, p.26; John Roberts, ‘Stuart Brisley: Poetics, Politics, Class’, Art Monthly, vol.100, Oct. 1986, pp.15–17; Michael Newman, ‘Stuart Brisley at the Third Eye Centre’, Artscribe, vol.60, Nov.–Dec. 1986, pp.66–7; Waldemar Januszczak, ‘The Still Shapes of Fear’, Guardian, 21 Jan. 1987, p.9; Monica Petzal, ‘Stuart Brisley, Glynis Johnson, Mark Wallinger, Ken Currie’, Time Out, 28 Jan. 1987, p.33; Richard Cork, ‘Alienated Lives’, Listener, 5 Feb. 1987, pp.33–4; Monica Bohm-Duchen, ‘Stuart Brisley, “The Georgiana Collection”, with Ken Currie, Glenys [sic] Johnson, Mark Wallinger’, Art Monthly, vol.104, March 1987, pp.13–14; Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1988, p.123, repr. Also repr: 18 Bienal de São Paulo, exh. cat., British Council 1985, unpag.; Stuart Brisley - Artist in Residence, leaflet, Imperial War Museum 1987, front cover

‘Nul Comma Nul’ is a free-standing wedge-shaped structure, with three walls and a roof. The two long walls and the roof are made from wood painted grey, while the third shorter side is a sheet of wire mesh. The wooden roof slopes down from its high point above the wire mesh wall to a much lower level at the point where the other two walls meet. There is no floor to the structure and it sits directly upon the floor of the gallery in which it is exhibited. The floor within the structure is covered with a layer of second-hand clothing of all colours. The viewer cannot enter the work, but only look in through the steel mesh. It is lit by an old theatre spot lamp with a 500 watt bulb hanging from the roof.

T05002 was first made as a site-specific work for an exhibition called ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ which was held at the Camden Arts Centre in January 1984. Ten artists, including Brisley, were commissioned to ‘examine present-day society in the light of Orwell's book’ (Camden Arts Centre exh. cat., 1984, p.6). George Orwell (1903–50) was the pseudonym of the writer Eric Arthur Blair who, after attending Eton, travelled abroad and took a series of ill-paid jobs in which he gained first-hand experience of poverty. He developed an individual vision of a democratic socialism, which he promoted most famously in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Animal Farm (1945), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (first published in 1949). This last was written in 1948 and Orwell changed the last two digits of this date to arrive at the book's title.

Brisley read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the second time in preparation for his response to the commission. He had first read it as a teenager. Deanna Petherbridge, in her introduction to the Camden catalogue (p.12), quotes his response: ‘I'm rather offended by the book ... It's quite a horrible expression of British puritanism. I dislike Orwell's disaffection, the anti-Stalinist view has been misused; he's dealing with issues which exist under any political system.’ Petherbridge continued, ‘Nevertheless Brisley after this first rejection, found on studying the book further that it was far more complex and richer than he had allowed. “The only way to come to terms with it is to reduce it to a certain idea, to make it more one-dimensional. One can't possibly deal with all its facets”, decided Brisley.’

In conversation with the compiler (20 August 1990) Brisley recalled that he first conceived the idea of T05002 when he noticed a pair of folding iron gates set in the wall of the largest gallery at the Camden Arts Centre. Once Brisley had decided to use these gates, the work had to be site-specific to the gallery. The gates, painted dark grey, were positioned behind a small wall which screened them off from the gallery. There was a private rectangular space behind these gates which Brisley used as the site for T05002. On the floor of this ‘cell’, Brisley placed a layer of second-hand clothing. This material was purchased in Bethnal Green Road at a second-hand clothes shop known to the artist as a source of very cheap clothing. Brisley was struck by the fact that most of the clothes on sale there were made from synthetic fibres, such as nylon and crimplene, which he found unsympathetic. The clothes were included in T05002 to imply a human presence, and were laid on the floor to indicate what the artist saw as the low level status afforded to individual humans, subjugated to the dominant ruling ideology. These articles of clothing cover the floor of the cell, with no piece given its own particular space or prominence. There are approximately eighty items of clothing, and they are a mixture of men's, women's, children's and babies' items. This was intended to echo the sense of the indeterminate mass of humanity which Brisley found was such a prominent theme of Orwell's book. Brisley is quoted in the introduction to the Camden catalogue (p.14): ‘I've tried to find an image to express feelings which somehow suggest constriction, of being nowhere. There is no space in Nineteen Eighty-Four, no social space ... just a sense of claustrophobia and that what at first appears to be a rigidly structured society is not really so.’

On the back wall of the cell as shown at the Camden Arts Centre Brisley first hung a large mirror, to reflect the image of the viewer who looked into the work through the gates. He then rejected this mirror and in its place positioned a strong light source which sent a beam of light out from the cell through the gates and into the viewer's eyes. (The fall of light on the viewer's face in the final version of the work, T05002, can just be seen in the photograph of the work reproduced above.) The light also caused a shadow of the viewer to fall upon the screening wall behind. Once the main idea had been settled on, the cell was made quite quickly, but the title was arrived at more slowly.

Brisley told the compiler (conversation, 20 August 1990) that he preferred the German word for nought or zero, spelt here ‘Nul’ rather than its correct form ‘Null’. For him it had a heavier feeling than its English equivalents. He intended the title to indicate nothing repeated ad infinitum. The artist had used German titles for earlier works, for example, ‘Arbeit macht frei’, a film he made in 1975. Although Brisley often works in Germany, he admitted to the compiler that he does not like being in the country because of its history of fascism. He subsequently added (letter, 2 March 1995):

I was conscripted in to the British Army between August '54 and July 1956, and spent 15 months in the British army of the Rhine. I was a student at Munich Academy of Fine Art 1959–60. I was artist in residence in the Berlin DAAD artists programme 1972–3. I have regularly worked in Germany since that time, and continue to do so. My uncertainty (which is more apt as a description of my feelings) is also connected to the circumstances of childhood during World War 2 and its aftermath.

Each artist had to produce a written contribution for the Camden Arts Centre catalogue and Brisley used the occasion to quote a text he had used before, for a performance called ‘The Georgiana Collection 81–82 Text for Voice’ (pp.36–7):

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four was originally entitled The Last Man in Europe. It was rejected by the publisher and became Nineteen Eight-Four an inversion of 1948, the year in which it was written, one hundred years after the Communist Manifesto.

As a source for the work presented here I have taken that aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four which satirises the period of Stalin's power - but I have not made a work about that period:

‘It is dirty dusty and damp, humid and arid
There is beating and splashing.
There is water somewhere
The most distasteful neighbours are lined up, beating flashing biting and fighting.
It happens. Everything is thrown outwards, and falls to the bottom, to a ceiling, a wall, a floor.
That is disturbing. It could be disconcerting.
Everything is shaken up, jolted, pushed, kicked, punched,
thumped, beaten, broken, smashed and pulped.
That might be the end of that, but they still come in and go out.
It continues. It goes on, passing in and passing out, passing on.
It could be barricaded.
Where are the entrances?
Where are the exits?
Where are they?’

‘Nul Comma Nul’ is closely related to a work which Brisley made in March 1983, titled ‘1=66,666’ (Arts Council, repr. Glasgow exh. cat., 1986, pp.16–18). ‘1=66,666’ was first shown in April 1983 at the Lewis Johnstone Gallery, London. There was no catalogue for this show but the work was accompanied by a press release which said that ‘1=66,666’ was a response to government information on unemployment. ‘1=66,666’ is a large rectangular steel mesh cage supported at either end by two identical Black and Decker ‘Workmate’ wooden benches, used for ‘Do-It-Yourself’ activities. Suspended from the mesh ceiling in a random configuration within the cage are sixty-six gloves, each filled with plaster and given a label bearing the title of the work. The gloves hang on strings of different lengths and the plaster filling makes them appear bloated. Brisley (conversation, 20 August 1990) saw the work as ‘acting like a barometer of some sort’, responding to the changes in unemployment levels in Britain. Brisley remembers that when he made the work in the early months of 1983, there were rumours that the unemployment level would reach the four million mark in the not-too-distant future. He divided the sum of four million by 66,666 which results in 60.0006 recurring. His arrangement of sixty-six gloves in a cage symbolises a recurring situation over which people have no control. The gloves, stuffed and missing their pairs, are rendered useless: Brisley described them as ‘hands that are unemployed, yet able’ (conversation, 20 August 1990). At the time he made this work the Black and Decker ‘Workmates’ were sold with an advertising campaign stressing their value as an extra pair of hands; for Brisley, their inclusion added a touch of irony. The artist stated in conversation that he saw both ‘1=66,666’ and ‘Nul Comma Nul’ as responding to ‘ideas about the application of state ideology as it affects people’. The steel mesh cage containing discarded articles of clothing collected by Brisley is an integral part of both ‘1=66,666’ and ‘Nul Comma Nul’.

A further work which Brisley, with hindsight, realised bore a less direct but still significant relationship with T05002 was his performance piece with sound, ‘Tanzen im Gehege’ (‘Dancing in the Paddock’), which was first performed in the Sculpture Museum, Marl, West Germany, in November 1983, followed by a further performance in the same month at the Kunstmuseum, Düsseldorf, the Kunstverein, Münster, and the Kunstverein, Cologne. This performance was of forty-five minutes duration with a pre-recorded tape of a voice reading extracts in German from a German cookery book, of such things as ‘how to batter, how to mix and how to dismember a rabbit’. The sound tape provided the background for the performance by Stuart Brisley and his collaborator Janet Anderson, which conveyed through movement a heightened psychological tension, especially when one person was outside and one inside a glass wall at the Kunstverein, Cologne. This notion of the observer outside looking in and yet simultaneously being watched from within was reclaimed for use in ‘Nul Comma Nul’. In a letter (2 March 1995) Brisley wrote of the involvement of the viewer in this piece:

Nul comma nul and some other works I made between about 1983 and 90 were concerned among other things with exploring ways in which the viewer or observer or participant might be brought into an active relationship with the content of works by becoming a focus or fulcrum of the works themselves. Hence the relationship established in Nul Comma Nul where the viewer when looking into the wedge through the gate also becomes an image with its own reflection, which then completes the work. This performative condition relate, this phase of work to my involvement with performance. They were concerned with the transferring [of] the performative dimension from the artist to the viewer.

As T05002 was created within an existing gallery space at the Camden Arts Centre, it needed to be remade when it was subsequently required for exhibition. The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow planned an exhibition of Brisley's work made between 1981 and 1986 to open in August 1986 and this necessitated a new construction of ‘Nul Comma Nul’. This is the reason for the date 1983–6 given here for the work. For the Third Eye Centre showing Brisley decided to make ‘Nul Comma Nul’ into a free-standing wooden construction. He retained the clothes and the bright light source, now a spot lamp hanging from the roof, and dispensed with the mirror. Instead of the iron gates which were a structural fitting at the Camden Arts Centre, Brisley used a wall of steel wire mesh. He had wanted to obtain a set of iron gates like those at Camden but he could not find one. The wire mesh wall was made to his specification in London and transported to Glasgow, where it joined the other two walls and ceiling of the newly-made freestanding version of ‘Nul Comma Nul’. Brisley made the work in the Third Eye Gallery. When T05002 was shown at Camden in 1984, it did not present itself as a dominant object because of its site-specific nature. Brisley felt that this prevented the viewer from becoming fully involved with the work. He was therefore glad to have the chance to remake the sculpture. In the new version the viewer was confronted by a large wooden object with a claustrophobic interior, which filled much of the gallery space in which it was shown.

The artist has approved this entry.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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