In common with many of Birch’s other sculptural works, ‘Civic minded’ trades on an appearance of realism or illusionism: it sets out to represent but at the same time deliberately never appears quite real. Birch’s considerable artisanal skills are turned to creating objects that are careful enough to simulate, but not careful enough to replicate, their source material. Birch’s realism is life-like in the manner of a well-crafted but nonetheless not quite convincing stage or film set. It also seems paradoxically more real for being reproduced. The effect is not of a Duchampian ready-made, or an arte-povera of found materials and objects, as the transformative power of the artist, rather than the academy, is not discounted.
Birch does not just play out sculptural and spatial possibilities or rehearse questions about realism and illusionism, as his art also has a social conscience. This is always approached in an oblique manner, implied in certain combinations of materials or placement of forms, or by the associations these forms carry. Birch has made a point of representing the psychological games we play with nature. The addition of shoes to trees, tying tree trunks into knots, casually nesting video monitors in tree branches, or huddling monitors at their bases, creates quietly surreal objects which seem as improbably natural as ascribing human values, desires, emotions and fears to the natural world.
Birch’s version of realism is also poetic, as he uses a type of displacement, or visual metaphor and metonymy, to work away at the chinks between what we see and how we represent it to ourselves. These trees wear the shoes of a public servant and seem set to do the right thing, and yet they remain steadfastly wooden and unable to help us do more than ponder just how did they grow between the gallery floor and ceiling and why do they look like they may walk off at any moment.
Vivienne Webb (Australia) (Author), Stephen Birch: Looking out my back door, 2007, 21 (colour illus.).
‘A forest of signs’ by Alex Gawronski, pg.26–30, Eyeline, no.47 Summer 2002, Summer 2002, 28 (colour illus.).
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (Australia, estab. 1984) (Author), Civic minded, 2001.
‘Play things’ by Russell Storer, pg.37-41, Artlink, vol.21, no.2 Winter 2001, Winter 2001.
Russell Storer (Australia) (Author), Woodsprites, 2000.
‘Civic minded' by Russell Storer, pg. 47–48, Eyeline, no.40 Spring 1999, Spring 1999, 48 (illus.).
Stephen Birch: Civic minded, Asia-Australia Arts Centre, 1999–1999.
Stephen Birch: Civic minded, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2001–2001.
Stephen Birch: looking out may back door, Museum of Contemporary Art, 16 Mar 2007–20 May 2007.