Response: The ants are in the idiom, Susan Jacobs

| Jan Bryant
 + Market Mesh Susan Jacobs, 2022. Installation view, Buxton Contemporary. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Response: The ants are in the idiom, Susan Jacobs

Response: The Ants Are In The Idiom, Susan Jacobs | Jan Bryant

Despite the approach to The ants are in the idiom being softly pitched, familiar bearings have shifted. The large ground floor gallery of Buxton Contemporary—its sense of space, and the sense of one’s body in the space—has changed. Street bollards, the everyday kind, demarcate a threshold, blocking direct access (which is obvious). But awareness is also growing that the gallery seems both emptier and fuller than usual. It is baffling…

Dividing walls and walkways have been removed. And cleverly installed faux-structural columns and a new wall set perpendicular to the space have subtly altered (the appearance of) the architectural support.

I giggle at this cheeky intervention into the gallery and the way Susan Jacobs continues to play with architectural language and history.1 Yet, the source, of this particular installation of non-load-bearing columns in Buxton, began a long way from here. On her walks around East London during lockdown, Susan noticed a recycling plant, and then imagined freestanding column-like structures looming skyward, yet supporting nothing. This early thinking about the gallery floor-plan germinated alongside the image of open street markets, their temporary formations that flourish, disappear, reform, shrink, grow…   

 + The ants are in the idiom Susan Jacobs, 2022. Installation view, Buxton Contemporary. Poto: Christian Capurro.


In the large space, clusters of objects—comprised of compressed hemp, hemlock wood, ceramic, gallium, tea, milk protein fibre, among many other materials—have been spread (Susan calls it a ‘sprawl’, titled Market Fray) across the gallery in a way that causes the eye to scoot back and forth in a scurrying urge to take everything in at once. It produces a strange, flattening effect that forces an equivalence (of sorts) between things. If it were the affect produced by a moving image work, then it would be closest to a Chantal Akerman film, with long pauses and no dramatic highlights or demands for resolution. Not an attention-grabbing spectacle, instead, the installation offers conceptual layers and infinite networks of possible meaning for viewers to follow and unearth.2

The ants are in the idiom is a consideration of the correspondence between language and matter. And thus, I should have been less emphatic when I spoke of the ‘equivalence’ of things. For although each cluster is equal in significance and not one cluster outshines another, and no cluster acts as a beginning point or a resolution (it resists, for instance, Hegelian teleological thinking that moves towards a kind of finality), the equivalence of their distribution forms a network, placing one in the middle of a semiotic word game. Here meaning is never fixed or stilled but becomes a series of analogic slippages that moves from cluster to cluster.

 + Table of contents Susan Jacobs, 2022. Installation view. Photo: Christian Capurro. 99 x 99cm.

Let me try to work with metaphor for a moment to try to elucidate Susan’s method: if we think of Theseus (the Minotaur-slaying hero of the labyrinth), then Susan, the artist, is the Ariadne figure, the supplier of the thread that guides and protects Theseus. Susan has left threads too, at first invisible, but they will come to life as the visitor moves through the exhibition, with its word plays, its hidden references and material elements. However, as with the pivoting of perspectives from aerial to ground, or the difficulty of capturing pictures in words, or the impossible task of translating one language into another, the ideal for perfect synthesis will always fail. Despite Ariadne’s thread, something will escape...

Abstraction ≠ Materials / Concepts ≠ Making (≠ Not equal). 

It takes a certain kind of thinking to be able to pivot from differing vantage points (as Susan has), to be at once aerial, sweeping, and then to be grounded in a way that can grasp only that which is see-able or touchable. The first claims a totalising vision but misses the detail; and the second, for whom the design remains unknowable, is immersed in mole-like negotiations with each object, with each story, their archival sources, their coincidences and connections. And I realise that I have begun this text at the most abstracted, aerial vantage point. It is a little god-like assumption, too close to the sun, for it misses the details, the objects themselves, the broken beauty of the clusters and their connecting threads…

While my thinking for this piece was launched from the large gallery with its disorientating ways, there is a gentler entry into the exhibition from the foyer into the first gallery. Perhaps the description, ‘gentler’ is too oblique. But it is used to indicate conventional exhibition expectations, less perplexing and less rupturing of expected norms. Hindsight 20/20 (2022) is a group of 99-plaque-like forms hung on the eastern wall. The design of the grouping replicates the natural light reflecting on the floor from the west through the panes of glass (it’s 6pm). The denuded metal-like surfaces turn out to be casts of a smashed side mirror (perhaps from a truck) that Susan (and her friend, Bree Richards) found discarded in a gutter in London. They both saw a Marian face on the broken surface. The mirror sat in Susan’s studio, ideas fermenting, until she cast it into multiple iterations to become the entry point to her Buxton show. And, in an adjacent darkened space there is an orange lighted table of bricks, water, with glow-y, atmospheric light (orange, fiery). A lure.

 + Hindsight 20/20 Susan Jacobs, 2022. Installation view, Buxton Contemporary. Photo: Christian Capurro. Gypsum, acrylic, gold and silver leaf.

As the visitor passes into the larger gallery, she is confronted with a wall that Susan has explained,

could operate as a type of funnel, directing attention to the corner which presented an absence, before revealing the sprawl as an experience open to the peculiar navigation instinct of each individual. Like following a hunch in a new or unfamiliar place.3

On the wall, Susan has inserted A Recipe for Mice (2022). It comes from a quote found in the Wellcome Collection (London) from Oriatrike or Physick Refined (1662) by the Flemish philosopher, mystic, physician and chemist, Jan Baptiste Van Helmont. And thus, a formula for producing mice from a dirty tunic and wheat draws the viewer back to a greater understanding of the quote on the wall in the room of fiery bricks, A Recipe for Scorpions (2022), for it was another Van Helmont experiment in spontaneous generation, a recipe for creating scorpions from bricks and basil.

 + A Recipe for Mice  Susan Jacobs, 2022. installation view. Photo: Christian Capurro. ceramic vessels, ceramic wheat grains, Edwardian deadstock underwear.

To be immersed in The ants are in the Idiom, its references and aesthetic effects, is to feel as though one is on an historical journey, taken back to the seventeenth century and its wrong-footed scientific assumptions and theories, and then forward to the nineteenth century when Louis Pasteur experimented with grapes and fermentation, a display Susan found in the Wellcome Collection and then replicated as Pasteur's Grapes Inverted as The Lovers (2022)—table, dome, and grapes—for the show.   

 + Pasteur's Grapes Inverted as The Lovers Susan Jacobs, 2022. Photo: Christian Capurro. Wood, epoxy, silk, acrylic, bronze, ceramic, plastic, milk protein fibre, metal.

But it would be an indulgence to stay in the past, for The ants are in the idiom was conceived and made in the middle of the recent pandemic, with its search for vaccines, its fears and conspiracies (many of which derive from spurious scientific assumptions, much like those from the seventeenth and nineteenth century). So while it feels historical, it is, like all history, about our contemporary condition. Perhaps this is why the first encounter is with casts of a broken truck mirror found in the gutter, for they symbolise our oil-saturated, commodity flooded world on the brink of irreversible climate change. And yet, due to the beauty of the casts’ metallic-like surfaces, they are also a sign of the reprieve we experienced in lockdowns around the world when bird song replaced traffic noises.

And as Susan’s thread casts its way from historical records to discarded objects found in her neighbourhood, I think of Roberto Calasso’s The Forty-Nine Steps4 where he writes that deciphering knowledge today means engaging with both signs (generated from the world) and metaphors that we conceive in our minds.5

On one side, a knowledge that today we would call algorithmic, that is, a chain of statements, of signs linked to the verb ‘to be’; on the other, a metamorphic knowledge, all inside the mind, where knowledge is an emotion that modifies the knowing subject, a knowledge born from the image, from the eidolon, and culminating in the image, without ever being separated from it, or admitting knowledge higher than itself; a knowledge driven by an inexhaustible force, which, however, has the grace to offer itself as a literary device; that is analogy.6

This quote, which aligns so closely with the ambitions of The ants are in the Idiom, was taken from the final section of Calasso’s book, “Part 21 : The Terror of Fables”. 

 + The ants are in the idiom Susan Jacobs, 2022. Installation view, Buxton Contemporary. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Analogy is a literary device that proliferates throughout this exhibition. Nearing the end of its making, Susan realised that the large gallery in The ants are in the Idiom shadowed the structure of her source text, Oriatrike, with the three columns listed on the Index page. To return to Susan’s sensitive observation about the ‘absence’ that pre-empts the viewers ‘peculiar navigation’ of the sprawl of the space, what comes to the fore is Susan Jacobs method of making and thinking that pays respect to the 'instincts of each individual'.


[1] Susan first played with false columns for the Gertrude Contemporary Artists’ End of Year Show in 2010. It is a reminder of the historical battle that was famously ignited by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, Museum, New York (1959), where the architect flaunted his indifference to the job in hand by installing curving, cylindric walls that refused to easily accommodate art.  Buxton Contemporary (2017) was designed by Fender Katsalidis Architects at a time in history when propriety has played its part in quelling architectural hubris in museum design. The architectural objective of this century is described as “purpose-built”.

[2] At this point, I feel compelled to add that such unearthing would be a mighty task, because Susan’s thinking is rich and nuanced, underpinned by meticulous research. And, thus, just one of her paths of thinking would exhaust the possibilities of a single article. This has always impressed me about Susan. To appreciate her effort, her thinking, her making, and especially her care, will always allude casual viewers and ‘quick’ engagements. No! It takes time, and even then, there will be more to learn, more connections to unpick, not only Susan’s, but also the knowledge the viewer will bring themselves

[3] Email correspondence with the artist, 5 September, 2022

[4] Roberto Callaso, The Forty-Nine Steps (trans.) John Shepley (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) p. 213.

[5] Callaso launched his research, naturally enough, from Nietzsche’s intellectual crisis of 1888.

[6] Ibid, p.213

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