Jo Fairfax: Play

The whimsical comedy of sculpture-machines steeped in common culture

The Hub, Sleaford

When Jo Fairfax was ten he devised a machine that would open his curtains without him having to leave the bed. This inventive approach is evident in his solo exhibition, titled Play, at the newly refurbished and renamed Hub in Sleaford. Farifax makes a huge variety of playful works, including kinetic public sculptures, light works, performances and interactive machines. The gallery is packed with a variety of his smaller works, alongside video and photographic documentation of ephemeral and outdoor works. Much of Fairfax’s work is evocative of the British eccentric Heath Robinson’s drawings of whimsically elaborate contraptions that are simultaneously ingenious, overly-complicated and provisional. In Wimbledon Marble Run (2020), made in response to the cancelled Wimbledon tennis tournament – the first since the Second World War, three heads move left and right tracking an imagined ball ad infinitum. Deceased Paul, Octopus Predictor (2016) memorialises the titular creature who famously predicted the results of Germany’s matches at the 2010 World Cup before dying a few months later. In another, your presence triggers a motion sensor prompting a mechanism that causes a pencil to return to its task of inscribing a love heart onto a piece of card. Elsewhere, in Japanese Zen Garden – 8 (2019), a figure of eight is endlesslytraced into a bed of iron filings by a hidden magnetic mechanism, as if the machine is in search of a state of zen.

Deceased Paul, Octopus Predictor, 2016. Image: Scott Murray

Fairfax’s work has an air of playful whimsy but his formative experiences impacted greatly on his artistic approach. We learn in an video interview that the childhood curtain machine was constructed because his parents were so poor that they couldn’t afford heating, causing Fairfax to spend much time under his army blanket. Another contraption was made so a book could hang suspended from the ceiling, allowing his hands to remain snug under the covers. Neither of these childhood works are on display, but it appears from the works on display that Fairfax has found inspiration from his upbringing and his parents’ identies as well: his mother, a dancer, instilled in him an attentiveness to motion, which now pervades his sculptural and light works, the gallery alive with movement. It’s not surprising to learn that since 2001 the artist has collaborated with dancer and choreographer Fiona Millward as seen on several films in exhibition. Wordplay runs deeply in many of Fairfax’s works (an interest perhaps instilled in him by his father the poet John Fairfax), from spinning shapes that revolve and fleetingly become words – ‘god’, ‘map’ – before spinning back into abstract shapes, to the revolving Poetry Machine (2018), which ‘invents’ poems using Arduino programming, or five word poems by local and famous poets that were projected daily under a Nottingham bridge in Lines of Light (2017). Elsewhere a small bust of Shakespeare seemingly conjures archaic insults – “You droning dog-headed codpiece, you mangled boil-witted bum, you weedy urchin snouted whey face.”

Pea Run (2020) is a new work informed by the history of the Hub. The gallery, which began as a small studio and craft showcase in the nearby village of Heckington, whose building was formerly used for sorting peas, was until recently known as the National Centre of Craft and Design. For this contraption, Fairfax has constructed an elaborate marble run that mimics the action of sorting peas, once done by women labourers in the old building; the grade of the peas dictated which shute they would go down – the duds going one way and the best going another. Fairfax constructs engaging work that is conjured by his approach that combines his personal history with a response to a site or event. By evoking the Heather Robinson essence of the inventive, elaborate and implausible, Fairfax’s manages to pass on a sense of wonder to those who encounter his work. The inventive hypnotic quality, though, is ultimately what makes his work so compulsive, allowing us an escape from the daily grind.   Andrew Bracey

Jo Fairfax: Play is at The Hub, Sleaford, 17 May – 12 Septemeber

18 June 2021