To engage with humanity faithfully as opposed to representatively often demands the scope of a series. Through a variety of mediums, Nick Waplington has excelled in embracing the fragmentary; from his breakout photographic series Living Room, the product of fourteen years spent documenting working-class families in Nottingham, from 1983-1997, to polytropos, an exposition of the ties between physical and psychic wandering, currently on show at the FILET gallery on Old Street.
I not interested in documenting lifestyles or culture, I try to use photography to deal with the fundamental issues within art practice. This of course is defined by the time in which we live, there is no avoiding that. For that reason, I try to avoid antiquity because there is an inevitability to that happening to ones work anyway. So I see my work as contemporary practice with classic themes and ideas. […] I don’t have a set way of working, I make both individual works and works in series, [but] with my painting I find that one painting leads to the next in a constantly evolving process. It is only by looking back I am able to see how this linear progression is working or not as I destroy more paintings than I save.
Foregrounding these ethics are the three paintings on aluminium that unite as a focal point for the exhibition, Poseidon, Circe, and Scylla – a deft reference to the aquatic epic from which the collection takes its title. Protean in character, the works gesture towards forms released from finite form; a multitude of joints and udders standing in resolute contrast to the tones of the site-less backgrounds. But the nature of the mythic antagonists also alludes to the perils of striking out alone for survival; distinctions between guest and parasite.
Free migration has long been a privilege reserved for western communities, but few works bring its disingenuous nature into as sharp relief as the image that initiated the exhibition’s focus. Starkly engaging with the hypocrisy of belonging and place, Waplington’s photograph documents the site of a temporary housing structure in LA, occupied by a man who must continually move it to evade danger or eviction. Rather than prescribing a specific nature, state or circumstance to this man, the work to me resonates with a particularly poignant line from Peter Conrad’s Islands: A trip through time and space: “a man on an island has to create civilization all over again”.
Getting work ‘out there’ is always a struggle, I am a one-man band looking for spaces, dealing with curators, collectors and press. Social media has made it easier for someone like me who operates outside the traditional gallery system. I have some strong ties to institutions, publishers and I also have some very good collectors so somehow I manage to keep going just making the work I want to make and I am able to let my process change and evolve how I want, I am not beholden to a middle management gallerist who needs work like he/she sold last time so they can continue to pay their rent. I have come to realise a good gallerist needs to be independently wealthy to function well. I think with social media and art fairs taking centre stage that the old model for artists selling work is finally falling away. I see myself at the forefront of that. I am someone making the work I want to make on my own terms.
The term polytropos literally means “well-travelled”, but it can also be used as a descriptor of character – those who make “many turns” in pursuit of their goals. Homer was not naïve in utilising this term, and neither is Waplington; in matters of survival, the engineering of sites for self-placement is an essential skill.
[The man in the photograph] uses the structure to constantly move away from trouble and he needs to be crafty and wily to do this. This is why the Odyssey has endured as a major work of literature for nearly 3,000 years, because it speaks of a commonality of truth, it deals with humanity on a universal level. I am just giving it a contemporary theme, a new way of looking at this universal truth, in a world where once again truth seems no longer to matter to the few who control the many.
The virtues of malleability are a prevalent force throughout the content and context of Waplington’s multimedia practise, however not to be underestimated is its relationship to the artist’s approach to his work, that inspires the nomadic principles from which he can both create and subsist. Polytropos handles matters of existence and impermanence with sincere intensity, the pieces as transitory and aware as all works preceding.
Images: Polytropos 2017, courtesy of Nick Waplington and FILET