2014 > Tropaeum

Andrew Purvis

The cabin sits high on the north slope of the mountain, just above the tree line. Secluded in the summer months, it becomes entirely cut off with the arrival of the heavy winter snows. Its sole resident relishes his isolation; here he is free from the intrusion of impudent foreign journalists and the aggrieved widows who come, beating their breasts and rending their dowdy, cheap garments, demanding to know the whereabouts of men whose names he never bothered to learn, much less remember.

He spends his days with axe in hand, chopping firewood. He is able to lose himself in the hard, monotonous exertion; it reminds him of his boyhood on the farm. At night, he whittles by the fireside. Turning the wood over in his hands, it takes shape seemingly without conscious thought. It is always the same familiar visage, the face that once adorned the capitol building and loomed sternly at the front of every classroom. Now, these pictures have been turned to face the wall and the monuments, intended to last a thousand years, have been torn down, toppled from their high pedestals with nothing more than a few chains tethered to the back of a shit-spattered old tractor.

His rooms, sparsely furnished and maintained with a martinet’s eye for neatness, are filled with these small objects. They line the walls and cluster on shelves and windowsills. Their pupil-less eyes stare blankly into the middle distance, chins lifted, as though surveying a glorious future, one that now will not come to pass. They remind him of former glories, the heady thrill of absolute power, but they speak of loss too and of things buried. His monuments may be smashed, the concrete mouldering and moss-covered in a field somewhere, and his legacy blotted out of the history book, but here, in his trophy room, the past lives still.

Tropaeum is a Latin word, meaning a monument erected to commemorate a great victory. Through the gradual process of etymological evolution, the word has morphed into its familiar, more prosaic derivative: ‘trophy’. All the same connotations are there, though the scale has changed. Where grand, commemorative statues, perched atop lofty columns, might memorialize the vanquishing of some dimly remembered foe, the trophy celebrates more mundane achievements, third place in a round-robin lacrosse tournament, for instance, or perhaps a hard fought triumph in a hotdog eating contest.

There are, of course, monuments to the everyman. Philadelphia has a ten-foot bronze of Rocky Balboa, the lugubrious, dim-witted palooka who took Apollo Creed to a 15 round split-decision in Sylvester Stallone’s titular 1976 film. Not to be outdone, Detroit is planning to unveil a monument to bionic law-enforcement officer, RoboCop, later this year. And in 1935, the Soviets immortalised Alexy Stakhanov, a miner at the Tsentralnaya-Irmino coal mine in Kadievka, who set the record for excavating the greatest volume of coal in a single shift. But these are average joes who have ascended, either through dint of hard work, obstinate fortitude, or cutting edge cybernetics; they have been elevated above their everyman peers.

In this sense, the trophy can be seen as an aspirational form; it celebrates the ordinary, in the hope that it may one day be recognised as exceptional. Bruce Slatter’s Kitchen Optimism (2014) evokes the idle pipe dreams of every amateur golfer tethered to reality by humdrum chores. Assembled from an assortment of well-used pots, pans, cake-tins and topped with a shiny juicer, this sculpture mimics the trophy form, but wryly undercuts the implied sense of glory and esteem, leaving the tell-tale pot handles protruding from the back. Utilising found objects, Slatter imbues them with fresh meaning; merged together, they create something wholly new, yet are still infused and enriched by the vestiges of their former use. Here, the trophy is not merely a monument reduced to domestic scale, but one cobbled together from the components of domesticity itself.

Paul Caporn’s Awarded to a Future That Didn't Happen (2014) stands like a cenotaph to late-60s style. The prestige letterbox – that self-awarded badge of success and the envy of all your neighbours – is here transformed into the housing for a miniature diorama. Back in the day, this piece of lawn sculpture was intended to be emblematic of its owners’ good taste; now it has a distinct air of pathos. It stands like the crumbled statue of Ozymandias, a relic that testifies to the hubris and questionable design choices of long ago. But there’s a sense of affectionate nostalgia there too, conjuring twilight memories of riding a BMX through the suburban streets of Spearwood or Palmyra. The lights are still on within, but through the amber, bottle-bottom glass, the story playing out inside the living-room diorama is cloudy and obscured.

Josh Webb’s Swiss Brutalism (2014), like Caporn’s sculpture, has its roots in the history of architectural design, albeit of a rather less homely variety. The work was conceived on a residency in Basel, during which time the artist was immersed in Swiss brutalist architecture, the work of German designer Peter Behrens, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. These influences do not manifest in any obvious fashion, but rather they come out through a series of beguiling juxtapositions. The vintage 1989 Allorgan radio, a disposable, technologically obsolete artefact of cultural detritus, is elevated on its own iridescent pedestal, a lightweight but sturdy tetrahydric structure. It plays Le Corbusier's favourite song, Metastaseis (1953-54), a composition by his collaborator, the music theorist Iannis Xenakis, which was in turn influenced by Einstein's views on time and Le Corbusier’s own mathematical theories. For all these rich allusions, the work is equally informed by the simple play of colours and an unabashed adoration of good design.

All trophies imply a narrative. They each speak of some contest fought and won. Both Wanda Gillespie and Stuart Elliott are artists that use fiction as a material in their sculptures. Gillespie’s In Search of Hope (2014) is purported to be a relic from the ancient civilisation of Gondwanaland, a lost Antarctic kingdom revealed by the retreating polar ice caps. The archaeological artefact is a token of (fictionalised) history; like the trophy, it is a record, capable of imbuing fleeting moments with a sense of permanence. Gillespie’s totemistic effigy is a tantalising fragment of a more expansive mythos, hinting at a grand antiquity. It speaks of a vanished race of mysterious, animist wood-carvers, their arcane spiritual practices erased from history by the encroaching ice. In a similar vein, Elliott’s The Lair of the Despot (2014) is an example of his ‘fakeological’ practice: a portmanteau notion of ‘fakery’ and ‘archaeology’, which allows the artist to produce strangely familiar, but ultimately alien artefacts that hint at human behaviours and relationships from the real world. The Lair of the Despot can be read as an allegorical depiction of ‘aggravated regime change’. The diminutive edifice embodies all the failings of a brutal, self-aggrandizing, totalitarian autocracy – Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest and fetid bunker all in one. This piece stands as a dark inversion of a trophy, a sculpture that tells a tale of tyranny and eventual overthrow (note the ruptured vent at the monolith’s base: the revolutionaries have stormed the palace!). Like the commemorative statuette of a golfer, suspended in mid-swing, these works are microcosmic embodiments of other (imagined) events, but unlike your typical trophy, they allude to richer narratives.

Like Elliott, Casey Ayres’ work runs counter to the notions of uncomplicated achievement and triumph typically associated with the trophy. Real Men Smoke Eagers (2014) shows us a grim image of a model car, not dissimilar to one that may be found atop an old racing prize, with a black hosepipe snaking from the exhaust to the window. Ayres co-opts the iconography of Australian automotive culture – the title is a reference to an old tire ad, where the product was promoted on the basis of its suitability for burnouts – in order to unpick the fragile façade of masculine strength and resilience and comment on the romanticisation of self-destruction. The adult human teeth, hidden from view in the car’s trunk, speak of buried pain and reek of violence. Ayres understands the pathos of the trophy, its ability to speak not of victory, but of faded glories and thwarted promise.

The works of Therese Howard and Abdul-Rahman Abdullah acknowledge the trophy’s perennial association with sporting endeavours, but each imbue their pieces with a sense of sardonic irony. Abdullah’s Ball (2014) recreates a floor-to-ceiling punching bag in carved jelutong wood. This apparatus is familiar from the boxing gym, but it makes for a strange trophy. Held in place by an elastic tether, the ball springs back from every blow, fresh and undamaged. It can never be defeated. There is a sense of futility here: this trophy can, ultimately, never be awarded. Howard’s W.A. - the ba ba Boom State (2014), like Abdullah’s Ball, plays games with the accustomed boundaries that demarcate the art object from the plinth on which it rests. A fragile papier-mâché replica of the America’s Cup teeters atop an enormous spring, which emerges from an open-cut mine dug into the centre of the support. The surface of the sculpture is decoupaged with newspaper clippings that refer to Western Australia’s legendary mining ‘boom’. This work draws a parallel between the twin explosions of affluence that followed in the wake of both the 1987 yachting tournament in Fremantle and the ongoing exploitation of the state’s mineral wealth. Yet, unlike most sporting trophies, Howard’s sculpture acknowledges the ‘loser’: the swaying spring suggests the precarious financial situation that those less blessed members of the community find themselves in as a result of WA’s two-speed economy, forced to pay inflated prices while seeing little increase in their own salaries. Sport, for Abdullah and Howard, is not an untainted, ceaseless victory parade; their works recognise that for every win there must be a loss.

The everyday, mass-manufactured trophy, handed out at sports carnivals and go-karting tracks, may seem, at first glance, a prosaic, rather absurd object. Its kitsch, electroplated veneer, conceals a cheap plastic core. And its emulation of the monumental form – striving for grandiosity in the celebration of mundane triumphs – can suggest a pretentious, almost hubristic sense of self-importance. But the trophy is a celebration of the individual, rather than the masses and, as such, this small object can be invested with huge fetishistic power. It can summon up nostalgic ruminations, both for good and ill. So don’t dismiss it, sitting quietly there on the sideboard, it speaks of things you might not fully understand. Perhaps you have to have won one in order to really get it.

In The Trophy Room
Catalogue Essay