Stephen Birch

civic minded
Gallery 4A, Sydney

It is hard not to take the title of Stephen Birch's installation Civic Minded literally when viewing it at Gallery 4A. Positioned right in the centre of a city that is gearing up for the Olympics with unprecedented public works, the space positively vibrates with the sound of jackhammers and trucks. The ambient noise provides an unintentional yet perfect backdrop to Birch's work, which has the silent, sinister quality of a faceless municipal bureaucracy.

The show consists simply of two painted fiberglass tree trunks reaching from floor to ceiling. At the base of each trunk is a pair of black leather shoes. The shoes are positioned so that the trunks face each other: one front on, the other with one foot slightly turned out, as if in wary contemplation. One can only wonder at the conversation. At first glance, the work acts as a neat visual joke, a Disneyesque humanisation of an inanimate object. When time is spent with the work, however, its details begin to take hold in a slowly unfolding trajectory of destabilisation.

The initial question might be a Platonic one. How do we know that these are really trees? The fibreglass tubes, while resembling tree trunks and obviously painted to look that way, lack any further signifiers, such as leaves, or twigs. The tops of the trunks don't quite reach the ceiling, nor do the bottoms quite reach the floor (this actually intensifies their effect; it is as if the trunks are wearing the shoes and are capable of sudden movement, rather than the shoes having sprung from earthbound roots). At both the top and the base, the trunk ends abruptly; no bushy canopy, no muddy radix.

There are echoes of Robert Gober in the disembodied shoes, but this is an altogether different project. While Gober's elaborate and painstakingly produced pieces dazzle the viewer into imagining perfectly created secret worlds, Birch takes an ironic, perverse pleasure in imperfection. This work is unsettling because it is so close, yet so far, from what it might represent-there is no attempt, for example, to hide the peels and bubbles in the fiberglass surface. The work has a rough, tactile surface, yet its creepy quality spurns intimacy. It is a bit like touching a reptile. Similarly, the shoes are cheap and plain - no Chapman Nikes here! - suggesting dullness and anonymity. There's nothing in the work to hold on to, or to affirm through easy association.

Birch has long been concerned with the strange presence of things, and the slippage of recognition that arises from familiar objects in an unfamiliar place. Branches and tree trunks have been used in several previous works, notably Under Wood (1998), in which small video monitors were attached to a stand of papier-mâché trunks. In this piece, the monitors were placed in an eye-like position, again with the arrangement of the trunks suggesting a kind of silent dialogue. I do not know if Birch believes that all objects contain spirits, but there is a gothic sensibility to his work that points to at least a humorous engagement with such ideas.

Civic Minded stands, like Magritte's generic public servants, for everyone and no-one. With a title too clever and evocative to ignore, the work is easily read as a spooky and effective parody. Yet it niggles at the mind far more than it should, suggesting that there are more complex operations at work. Like Magritte, who was never quite as slick as he first appeared, Birch is in for the long haul, hooking us with an uncanny sense that our grip on reality is truly tenuous.