Wednesday, 21 July 2010






An inventory of the items that make up Jess Flood-Paddock’s exhibition at the Hayward Project Space might read as follows: a huge sculpture of a lobster; a sky blue canvas backdrop painted with puffy white clouds; a reproduction of the dust jacket of an athlete’s autobiography; a photograph of a cheap North London clothing shop on its last day of trading; several life sized photographs of German Giant Grey rabbits taken by their breeders; and a reproduction of an invitation to dinner issued by the 19th century British anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon on the occasion of his return from his 1888 expedition to the Torres Strait, illustrated with Haddon’s own photograph of a group of indigenous men which he has captioned with the word ‘cannibals’. Flood-Paddock has grouped these objects and images under the title ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, which she has borrowed from Coolio’s 1995 track of the same name - a hip hop interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s 1976 protest song Pastime Paradise that demonstrates a very different take on community, free will and determinism from its source material. The phrase ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ suggests a post-Utopia period – an Eden for the strong, or those willing to ignore the social contract in favour of naked self-interest. It suggests victims of unreasonable wants, of unreasonable pleasures.

To find oneself in Flood-Paddock’s show is to find oneself in media res – in the middle of a story, feeling one’s way along not-quite-familiar narrative threads. The artist has likened the sculptural scenario of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ to the situation Dante finds himself in at the beginning of the Divine Comedy (1308-1321), in which the Florentine poet remarks ‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost’. For Flood-Paddock, the shadowy wood provides a very physical metaphor for confusion and the routes we might find out of it (she has likened the character of Virgil, Dante’s spirit guide through Hell, Heaven and Purgatory to a psychotherapist). Woodlands, of course, are not other worlds, but rather corners of our own world in which the becalming habits and conventions of civilization feel far away, and open to question. Accordingly, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ explores the cultural specificity of moral behaviour, self-help literature, the links between anthropology and infotainment, and the comedy and tragedy of scale.

Impossible to ignore, Flood-Paddock’s monstrous sculpture of a lobster dominates the gallery space, one of its claws piercing the painted canvas backdrop (created in collaboration with the National Theatre’s Scenic Arts Department) that curves around the interior walls. This balmy cloudscape replicates the ‘edge of the world’ as presented in the 1998 film The Truman Show, in which the title character, played by Jim Carey, has unknowingly lived his whole life in a Utopian bubble environment as the star of a globally consumed reality TV show, broadcast 24 hours a day. Suspecting his seemingly perfect existence has a darker aspect Truman escapes the idyllic coastal town of Seahaven (in which everyone from his family to the mailman is an actor playing a part) in a small sailboat, finally fetching up at the horizon where his boat’s prow prangs against a solid wall, painted with images of clouds. In a melancholy moment of self-realization, his encounter with the ‘edge of the world’ confirms that his existence has been a carefully scripted piece of infotainment, in which – robbed of agency – he has been reduced to the object of a pop-anthropological study.

We might read Flood-Paddock’s lobster as a stand in for Carey’s character (what is Seahaven if not a containment tank, what are both Truman and the crustacean if not creatures to be consumed?), but its blocky construction also calls to mind the type of zoomorphic American food outlet the architect Robert Venturi christened a ‘duck’ in his seminal book Learning from Las Vegas (1977), after a duck-shaped egg and poultry shop in Long Island built by the farmer Martin Maurer in 1931. While for Venturi the significance of the ‘duck’ was its subordination of architecture to symbolic form, for Flood-Paddock it is the supremely odd fantasies such buildings indulge. Visit the Big Fish restaurant in Bena, Minnesota (a building the artist cites as an influence) and one might enjoy a fish supper in the belly of a ferroconcrete fish - simultaneously eating, and playing at being eaten by, the same creature. To dine in such a spot might interpreted as an act of self-admonition, or (more likely) callousness, or (even more likely) willed moral ignornance of the sort the novelist David Foster Wallace describes in his 2004 essay Consider the Lobster: ‘Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice? […] My own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing’. As Foster Wallace goes on to demonstrate, there is a scientific uncertainty as to whether these crustaceans have the neurological make-up to feel pain, and hence an ethical uncertainty as to whether it is acceptable to toss them in the cooking pot and serve them up as a luxury dish to satisfy our own selfish wants. In 'Gangsta's Paradise', the lobster - removed from its marine environment – is a figure of powerlessness and awkwardness, its once efficient claws having become a cumbersome burden now they’re bound with fishmonger’s rubber bands. Like Truman, it is the victim of somebody else’s value system, one as baroque and as self-justifying as any medieval moral tract.

In the smaller of the Project Space’s two galleries, Flood-Paddock presents a 2-metre tall replica of the dust jacket of the sprinter Michael Johnson's autobiography-cum-self-help book Slaying the Dragon (1996). In the scheme of the exhibition, this book operates as a potential source of advice for visitors who, like Dante, have lost 'the straightforward pathway', although it seems unlikely that Johnson – an 8-times World Record holder famed for his monomaniacal pursuit of victory - is the figure best suited to sympathise with those who are failing and feel in need of help. The brutish size of Flood-Paddock’s reproduction cover suggests his inability to build intimacy with his reader, and a doubt over whether his life philosophy might - pace Immanuel Kant’s ‘Formula of Universal Law’ - be taken up successfully by society at large. Johnson writes that ‘After you have stared long enough into the dragon's eyes, there is nothing left to do but slay the dragon. For each of us, that dragon is the thing closest to the center of our lives. It is our core, our ambition and our joy’. Such homespun Zen fascism is, one suspects, not quite the key to peace on Earth.

The giganticism of Flood-Paddock’s lobster and book jacket is replayed in her photographs of German Grey rabbits, which the artist has blown up to the rodents’ actual size from snapshots taken by various UK breeders (German Greys typically weigh in at around 10 kilos, and grow as big as dogs). In 2007, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that Eberswalde-based Karl Szmolinsky had sold 12 of these rabbits to the North Korean Government on the understanding that they would be bred to feed the nation’s starving subjects. Some months later, news came to Szmolinsky that the rabbits had been eaten in celebration of the dictator Kim Jong Il's birthday before they were successfully mated. In ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ the shots of German Greys operate as an index of human greed and shortsightedness, their pixilated appearance echoing the images beamed from Seahaven to the Truman Show’s hungry fans.

If the North Korean Leader’s birthday celebration was a morally problematic meal, it finds an echo in Alfred Cort Haddon’s 1888 dinner invitation, a facsimile of which Flood-Paddock has introduced into the gallery space. While the Victorian explorer jokingly labels the photograph of a group of Torres Strait Islanders that accompanies the invitation ‘Cannibals’, there’s no supporting evidence that these particular individuals were anything of the sort – indeed, their warm smiles and companionable body language (reminiscent of a group of footballers after a team bath) subverts both the 19th Century image of the ‘savage’, and the wider taxonomic and Imperial project of early-phase anthropology. Like lunch at the Big Fish, Haddon’s dinner party seems to have been a piece of small-‘p’ political theatre that employed food to proclaim its guests’ dominant status, while also inviting them to fantasize about their own destruction by the very beings – animals further down the food chain, people from more ‘primitive’ societies – over which they so confidently claimed superiority.

The final work in Flood-Paddock’s show is a photograph of a cheap Islington clothing boutique named ‘Utopia’ in its concluding hours of trading during the current recession. Plastered with desperate handwritten posters designed to attract a final few customers, its shop-front reads: ‘Utopia Last Day’. It seems unnecessary, here and now, to labour the point that the recent financial crisis was the result of unconscionable greed and blindness to the greater good. Suffice to say that when Utopia disappears, what we’re left with is a Gangsta’s Paradise.

Curator: Tom Morton


frieze feature on Flood-Paddock's Hayward show

Colin Perry reviews Gangsta's Paradise for Art Review

Another magazine review of Gangsta's Paradise

Jess Flood-Paddock interviewed about Gangsta's Paradise at

Guardian preview of 'Gangsta's Paradise' (scroll down)

Artist's website

Interview with Flood-Paddock on Dazed Digital

Review in frieze magazine of Flood-Paddock's 2010 show at Swallow Street, London, 'Sacrifice'

Forthcoming exhibition with Spartacus Chetwynd at MCA, Malta

Flood-Paddock with Phyllida Barlow at The Russian Club, London

Artist Biography

Jess Flood-Paddock (b. 1977, London, lives and works in London) was educated at The Slade School of Art and The Royal College of Art. Her recent exhibitions include ‘Sacrifice’ at Swallow Street, London (2010, curated by Sarah McCrory) ‘Phyllida Barlow & Jess Flood-Paddock’ at the Russian Club, London (2009) and Bloomberg New Contemporaries (2006). In August 2010 she will have a two-person exhibition with Spartacus Chetwynd at MCA, Malta. She has recently been selected for the Frieze Foundation Film Commissions 2010, and has been shortlisted for the Converse / Dazed and Confused Emerging Artist Award.

Jess Flood-Paddock would like to thank:

Nathaniel Cary, Lucy Bradshaw, Molly McGraw, Rob Carter, Ollie Adams, Jody Hamblin, Lizzie Latham, Jess Hill, Chilli Skinner, Katie Wallbanks, Sophie Curnock, and Sam Steer, Richard Riddick at the DPC, The Russian Club, the Scenic Arts Department of the National Theatre, London, and the Elephant Trust.