(Australia 1961 – 2007)
In common with many of Birch’s other sculptural works, ‘Underwood’ 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 have video monitors nesting in their branches in which obscure narratives seem to unfold with a somewhat Hitchcockian bent: birds hover ominously for instance in one while other natural scenes never quite arrive at a denouement. Birch always keeps us guessing while providing clues to possible outcomes.
Vivienne Webb, Stephen Birch: Looking out my back door, 2007, 18 (colour illus.).
Three sculptures, Room 35, Sydney, 1998–1998
Stephen Birch: looking out may back door, Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 16 Mar 2007–20 May 2007