Jim Lambie - ‘Zobop' at Tate St Ives as part of Painting not Painting show
The old joke about the only musical instrument I’ve ever played being the record player is one that has been wheeled out more times than I care to remember. Indeed the only time I did ever dabble in the creation of ‘music’ was when, at the end of the nineties, I crafted some rudimentary sound collages. These were cobbled together using a cheap mixer/sampler and a four track tape deck borrowed from the school music department. They were not altogether successful.
I am not sure if this is also how Jens Lekman started, but there is certainly something of the sonic collagist at play in his early work, and certainly he was immeasurably more successful than me. Exponentially cooler too, but then Jens is Swedish so what can you expect?
Was Jens Lekman the start of what felt like some strange collective obsession with Swedish Pop in the noughties? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly the trails went far back via the likes of Red Sleeping Beauty and the Labrador crew but Jens’ singles for the Service label at the start of the new century were surely pivotal. Such exquisite reference points too. The Left Banke, Stylistics, Shangri-Las and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Beat Happening and even a brief burst of Belle & Sebastian. Sampling never sounded so sweet.
The ‘Maple Leaves’ EP first surfaced in 2003 as a ludicrously limited self-released 7” and then later in the same year as a CD by Service. It still sounds like a beautiful secret sketchbook whose pages are filled with eloquent ideas and melancholic embellishments. Every track is a gem, but it is the title cut that gets the nod here. With it’s deftly plundered loops of Glen Campbell and The Mamas And The Papas combined with a playful look at language it is a track that never fails to delight the senses. Jens kicks it all off by singing so sweetly about Autumn and the suburbs, of mishearing ‘make believe’ as ‘maple leaves’. An aura of naiveté falls on everything; Jen’s misunderstandings are the stuff of every haplessly romantic young man blundering through love and obsessions. This would be charming in itself but hardly enough to set it aside from any number of self-indulgent pseudo-sensitive ‘indie’ whingers. What sets ‘Maple Leaves’ apart then is that the song is also a meta-self-criticism; is a song in which Jens shines the light on himself and his ignorance, smiles wryly and acknowledges the bleak humour of the situation. Those lines about misinterpreting ‘her fall’ as being about the seasons and Mark E. Smith crack me up every time.
There have certainly been subsequent records where Jens’ songwriting is more mature and complete, but I admit that there is something about the ‘Maple Leaves’ EP that keeps drawing me back. It is perhaps analogous to the appeal of the sketchbook over the finished painting; the pleasure of seeing the overlapping joints of collaged material instead of the delicate layering of paint. Whatever makes you happy.
Perhaps, like me, you still cannot help but think of Jim Lambie primarily as being a member of The Boy Hairdressers, whose ‘Golden Shower’ single sprinkled some baroque infused indiepop magic on 1987. Personally I always want to make an apology for thinking this, for clearly it is but a momentary, tangential punctuation point in Lambie’s successful career as a visual artist. It is a career that has led to a shortlisting in the Turner Prize (whose audience I suspect to be somewhat larger than the number of people who have heard of 53rd & 3rd Records) and installations of his Zobop work in at least two of of the Tate galleries.
Indeed it was in the Tate St Ives that I first came across ‘Zobop’ as part of the ‘Painting Not Painting’ exhibition of 2003. It was a dizzying, unexpected delight; a multi-coloured intervention taping and snaking up the staircase between the rotunda gallery and its balcony. I wanted to walk up and down it all day. I wanted the psychedelic Pure Pop sensation to never end.
‘Zobop’ as an ongoing series of work has a deceptively straightforward concept: to ‘fill’ a space with rhythmic intervention whilst simultaneously leaving the space ‘empty’. Lambie accomplishes this aim with similarly deceptively straightforward means: the application of coloured tape to the the floor surface. What ‘Zobop’ achieves in doing this is the creation of often complex line and pattern; an articulation of the flat plane of floor (or in the case of the Tate St Ives, the parallel planes of a staircase) that can be seen to mimic abstract, non-figurative painting. ‘Zobop’ also playfully interacts with and questions notions of the sanctity of sculpture. When I think of ‘Zobop’ I cannot help but think also of other floor-based work with which we are forbidden from engaging physically. I mean, just imagine stepping onto Carl Andre’s 'Equivalent VIII’ (as I always want to do when I see it) or picking up a piece of a Richard Long slate circle (as the daughter of one of my friends once did). ‘Zobop’ however does not just encourage physical interaction, it insists upon it, and in doing so neatly inverses that tension between the desire to break rules and the security of adhering to them.
I have come across other iterations of ‘Zobop’ in the years since 2003 and always they have been both visually mesmerising and intellectually delightful. Always though my mind drifts back to the pleasure of that first time on the Tate St Ives stairs. Well, that and the Boy Hairdressers of course.