Stephen Cripps: In Real Life; Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent: Cold Light review – dreams and visions

Turner Contemporary, Margate
A homage to the fleeting, fiery performances of a mysterious, original artist is a natural accompaniment to a riveting exploration of connection and association

Stephen Cripps died in 1982 at the age of 29. He built things – strange mobile contraptions, self-destroying sculptures, one-off performances involving fire and sound – and he blew things up. Mysterious and anarchically original, his art was as evanescent as his life.

Cripps lived for most of his brief career in a shed inside an abandoned warehouse in Butler’s Wharf by Tower Bridge in London. Friends remember the welding pit where he soldered scrap metal, the collection of Indian and Chinese gongs, the two halves of a fighter-plane cockpit. He built a record player that crawled along the floor at parties as it turned. A colossal Heath-Robinson construction for scattering birds that tried to perch on its elegant Paul Klee structure was installed outside the Serpentine Gallery in 1975.

At the Acme Gallery in Covent Garden he made an eerie wedding dress that inflated and fluttered before tragically subsiding, and set off firecrackers that exploded behind Chinese gongs. Objects caught alight, spun around, exploded. A fire extinguisher, set in motion by the artist, revolved under the force of its own emissions.

“If you blinked, you missed it. If you witnessed it, you blinked anyway.” So wrote the musician and curator David Toop in the superb Cripps monograph published by Acme in 1992. Toop was recalling the shocking force and brevity of Cripps’ performances. The magnesium flash and flare, the sparks flying around the figure of the artist in his welding gear, the danger for audiences in closed rooms where detonations, chain reactions and fires were occurring without warning or protection. Cripps himself never knew how events would turn out; ever epigrammatic, he remarked that the rehearsal was the performance.

There is no point in lamenting the fact that nobody can now see perhaps the fieriest of these occasions, staged in a Jackson Pollock show at Modern Art Oxford in 1979. Cripps was working with the percussionist Paul Burwell to set off explosions using speakers and microphones set on piles of magnesium. The detonation would cause distortion, amplification, eventually burning, all of it triggering vibrations in gongs: shock waves, echoes, deafening silence.

Stephen Cripps in his Butler’s Wharf studio, c 1977
Stephen Cripps in his Butler’s Wharf studio, c1977. Photograph: Michael Heindorff/Stephen Cripps

The penniless Cripps was responsible for the priceless Pollocks. But it is not just money that would prevent this happening in the zillion-dollar art industry today. Cripps believed in the wild moment, the pure experiment, in the millisecond alternation between construction and destruction. He trained and worked as a fireman to make ends meet, but also to acquire a black powder licence. His works were meant to die, disappearing like music into air.

All of which makes this homage, at Turner Contemporary, at the very least a feat of reconstruction. There are many black and white photographs of long-lost occasions, often nocturnal, always murky. There are many diagrams showing how a performance might conceivably proceed.

There are numerous drawings, where you get closer to what was clearly a prodigiously creative mind. Cripps’ images can be very beautiful, a sense of Paul Klee and of his hero Jean Tinguely running through their forms. And the inventions they describe are always startling. A floating fireworks boat, glowing and exploding on the Thames like some Elizabethan fantasy made real through 20th-century technology; a portable crematorium, streamlined and surprisingly elegant; an underwater ballet in which divers would move through the minimalist grids of illuminated nets.

Performance with arc welder by Stephen Cripps at his studio at Butler’s Wharf, 1975 – 1979
Performance with arc welder by Stephen Cripps at his studio at Butler’s Wharf, 1975–1979. Photograph: Stephen Cripps

Like Leonardo’s, many of the dreams of his teeming brain never came to fruition – the dance for jets and helicopters, the magnificent organ of pipes made out of hollow missiles. But some of them were actually captured on film. A performance here involving jumping jacks, crow scarers and gongs, with the sound of a bassoon, all playing out in near-darkness, gives some sense of the outlandish combination of sound and vision.

Indeed the climax at Turner Contemporary is a separate gallery where films are screened on rotation. One is a brief but affecting interview where a baffled journalist attempts to interrogate the artist. Cripps, respectful, modest, very quick of speech, explains that he is bent on creating sonic as well as visual images and not just playing about with fire. The very next film is the proof, and the show’s centrepiece.

It was filmed in colour, at the Acme Gallery in 1980. Cripps appears in a room full of gongs of all different sizes. He sits down behind a console and lights up a cigarette. Immediately the gallery is flooded with darkness and a sequence of small explosions begins. The sense is of sudden, intermittent lightning, setting off reverberations of all kinds on the gongs – thunderous, sharp, melancholy, primal, almost sonorously choreographed. A final silence is broken by the applause of the lucky few who were there. You never see Cripps again, in the darkness; the only intimation of his presence the fixed glow of his cigarette.

Cold Light, by Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent, feels a natural accompaniment at Turner Contemporary. The phrase was originally used to describe the first electric lightbulbs, which no longer relied on fire for illumination.

A virtual reality experience, on headsets, takes you into the mind of Nikola Tesla, pioneering electrical engineer. Visions drift and collide all around you, of disembodied pumping hearts, a robot that walks backwards, starry planets, a curious floating polyhedron and Tesla himself in the form of an automaton that disintegrates then rematerialises before your very eyes. A narrator seems to speak your own thoughts, at times, about the utter weirdness of virtual images and of unreliable text-to-speech computer programmes.

A still from Cold Light by Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent
A still from Cold Light by Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent. Photograph: Reece Straw

The polyhedron then reappears, this time as a real physical object, in the next gallery. Now the process seems to run in reverse. The elements of a two-dimensional print – Albrecht Dürer’s astounding Melencolia I, that depressed angel sitting in a junkyard of bizarre emblems, featuring the polyhedron – are bodied forth in three actual dimensions. You wander among silver automata, strange planets floating on tiny oceans, films flickering with the grey twilight that lies across the waves in Dürer’s print. You have walked inside the print.

Some people believe Dürer was neurodiverse. Tesla certainly was, and experienced extraordinary visions. Lindsay Seers has herself been diagnosed with autism. What is so riveting about Cold Light is the way that it mobilises associations, connections, neurological leaps, even synaptic lapses, in the form of still as well as moving images, and in both two and three dimensions. I do not understand exactly what was being dreamed or implied in the tide of visions, at the time, but the sense of entering the minds of others is enthralling.

Star ratings (out of five)
Stephen Cripps: In Real Life
Lindsay Seers and Keith Sargent: Cold Light ★★★★


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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