Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of the Estate of Stephen Birch, 2008
polyurethane, synthetic polymer paint, fiberglass, acrylic hair and eyes
Stephen Birch’s sculptures and installations employ everyday forms in an attempt to unsettle our sense of the comfortable or familiar. Playing with scale and context and using a range of materials that draw attention to the production process, Birch’s works draw us into eerie yet humorous parallel worlds, where linear readings become frustrated and the borders between reality and illusion are blurred.
Towards the end of his life, Birch began to investigate the human form, in works that ranged from heads cast from artist colleagues to the figure of Spiderman. The artist distorted the figure, so that it slipped out of direct representation or portraiture and entered into a psychological realm, tapping into repressed fears, desires or anxieties. In the process, Birch explored aspects of contemporary life, drawing on popular culture and mass media as well as art and literature. The figures of Spiderman, for example, confront us with characters from our collective imagination which are superhuman yet ordinary, as invented as they are real.
Stephen Birch’s installation Untitled (2005) depicts an unusual confrontation between a life-size model of the superhero Spiderman and a worm-like, bearded figure whose head sits atop an arm-like neck protruding from the gallery wall. It suggests a type of mirroring or inversion, in which a full-bodied superhero – whose potency is exaggerated by his bulging crotch – balances and reflects the portrait of his ‘defective’ and repulsive opposite. Put another way, it’s as if Spiderman – that paragon of vengeful Western justice – is attempting to psyche out his socio-cultural ‘other’, presented as a dishevelled (that is, uncivilised) apparition whose wispy facial hair signals wood wizard and/or austere fundamentalist.
Birch’s Spiderman is a misshapen figure: the costume and role that he now inhabits barely accommodates his imperfections. The encounter between superhero and the aged, bearded mortal raises questions about the similarities between the two – they are constructed opposites inhabiting the same fictional world. In this installation the tension between the superhero and his nemesis is made palpable: supposedly representing the forces of good and evil, given Spiderman’s imperfections, this is not so clear. The viewer is left to witness a jarring recognition – a scene in which one character is forced to confront himself within the other.