Pavane for a Dead Sculptor

The melancholy in the eyes of the gorilla imprisoned in the zoo, I think it is real. He is confounded by the loss of his freedom. He sorrows at what his captors have evolved into.

Minneapolis has two life-size bronze sculptures of gorillas by the late British artist Angus Fairhurst, who this past March committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in a forest in England at the age of 41. One of them is in the courtyard of the Chambers Hotel at Ninth and Hennepin; the other is sited on the green outside the west window of the Walker Art Center.

Fairhurst had a gift for imparting a brusque and powerful animality to clay, pressing life into it with his palms and his thumbs, building the figures in a way that I think gorillas themselves might do it if only they could. The bronzes are empathic. They make me feel what it is to be a gorilla, thickly stupid in some ways, surprisingly intelligent in others–not that different, in other words, from the condition of being a man. Now they are husks, all that’s left of Fairhurst’s struggle to inhabit his own body, a beast that in the end he could only subdue by choosing to kill it. No one can presume to say why.

 

The gorilla in the Chambers courtyard is cordoned off and hemmed in by chairs and tables on all four sides. Fairhurst titled it, "A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling." The figure stands gorilla-style, the weight of its massive torso supported on the knuckles of its right hand as it gazes down upon its left arm, which–it is a shock to see–lies severed on the ground before him, lopped off like the limb of a tree. Looking at the gorilla’s face, it’s impossible to plumb what he’s thinking or feeling as he contemplates this part of himself that is no longer part of himself: Unspeakable pain? Detachment? Perplexity? Incomprehension? It’s hard to say, and, unable to cross the threshold of speech, he can’t tell us either. He isn’t even a faithful replication of a gorilla. The way the clay was worked, kneaded and pressed, formed into lumps and concavities, the surface doesn’t look anything like the hirsute coat of a gorilla. It’s closer to something like scar tissue or wads of putty, melted wax or clumps of tar. Every passage in the sculpting of it is evidence of an impassioned and playful hand, but the piece, in tragic retrospect, speaks of a man amputated from his own hope of connecting, the discounted instrument of his grasp lying inert on the ground.

Crouched low on the lawn outside the Walker is Fairhurst’s other gorilla, this one rapt by the reflection of its face in a pool. His monumental hands grip the edges of the simulated pool of mirror-polished stainless steel as if to prevent the image from escaping his grasp. Every vector of his body says that his eyes cannot drink enough of what they see. Avid for the image, his body is tensed and alert-parallel to the ground but hovering over it like its lover, his whole force straining towards the object of its fascination, one leg advancing as though thinking of entering the pool.

What does he see? His head is so close to the mirror that unless you get down on the grass to look up into his face you cannot see his eyes, only their reflection in the mirror facing the sky. The gorilla in the Chambers courtyard has no eyes to speak of; just sockets, almost as though he is too dim to have a pair to see out of. But this one, titled "The Birth of Consistency," sees, and is transfixed-it could be with horror, it could be he’s seeing the birth of Comedy, we cannot be sure. He is in the throes of the revelation of what is to follow, the next stage, the stage that will lead to us. Narcissus puts his lips to the pool; the image trembles, dissolves. Before he left this life, Angus Fairhurst cast in bronze all his longing to be one with it. It is a pity he is dead; until he stared into one too long, he was a mirror to the world.