Great Works: Head in the Clouds, 1974 (38in x 26in), Richard Niman

Riflemaker, London

At first glance, there seems to be very little to be said about this sculpture. If it is a sculpture at all. And what else could it be, given that it is an object in three dimensions which, until relatively recently, was evidently occupying a certain space within a West End space called Riflemaker? It looks as if it does not deserve to be talked about. It exists without the attendant benefits of cultural references. It is not posing. It is not posturing. It is not plinthing. It is what it is, crassly humorous, somewhat despicable and low-lifely in its uncouthness, something that got here, on to this high-toned page, by default.

We know even as we look at it, perhaps grimly or quizzically smiling, that it will never knock on our door accompanied by a leaden book of exegesis written by some scholar – unless this is the perilous beginnings of that hopeless enterprise. It puts us in mind, most of all, of some of the great humorists who have kept us sane and healthy down the centuries: Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Spike Milligan, John Cleese, Samuel Beckett, Steptoe and Son, Tony Hancock. It is wayward and ridiculous rather in the way that all these men – yes, they were all of that same despised gender – were ridiculous. It pokes fun. At itself. At the onlooker. But rather nastily. It is despicably small, dwarfish, although we do hesitate before pronouncing these to be the legs of a child.

Yes, are these really a child's legs? Perhaps not. They look a little too tense, edging towards muscularity, as if they may have been involved in some hard manual work, and now they are lurching – yes, isn't that more of a lurch than a slither? – home after a refreshing pint or two, bucket on head, like a first-class nincompoop. But are these not the battered black boots of a child? Well, they could be – of a rather old-fashioned kind. The 1950s, say. They can even claim some kinship with that crude representation of the child polio victim that used to stand outside chemist's shops, patiently, begging for coins. Or they could be the battered black boots of a workman, which would link these boots to the bucket. Boots and bucket – the working man's paraphernalia, head to toe.

Child or not, this rather heartlessly unnerving image does seem to cut humanity down to size – just as the dimensions of the piece itself are cut down to size – and in ways we find it quite difficult to admire. Why is it here on this page at all then? Because, it seems, in all its harsh and rather self-mocking crudity, to be telling great truths about the pitiful nature of the human condition. There are legs for perambulation – and then there is this bucket. That is just about as much as needs to be said. There is walking between here and there, and then there is the bucket work: chucking stuff in, pouring it out. Mechanical. Grindingly so. We walk, haltingly, benightedly, through this life, spectacles of pity and mockery, always less than some of us perhaps believe ourselves to be.

This bucket is rather shocking. It is filthy for a start – as it should be, of course. Buckets are habitually filthy because they are culturally despised objects, left out in the rain or the yard to rust for days at a time. They deserve no better. We have never seen an ornamented bucket, have we? A bucket is not a vase – nor is it a Greek amphora. Is it less of an amphora than a vase – even though an amphora was a useful thing too? Yes, a bucket is a working-class item, fit to be kicked across the floor, not likely to darken the doors of a museum, unless it can be pressed into service as a door stop. What of these legs though? What of legs in such uncomfortably close conjunction with a despised bucket? What can this mean? Well, it means benightedness, doesn't it? It means darkness within because there is no possibility of light inside that bucket, so no wonder the legs are staggery/faltering ahead. They are doing so because they can't see their way ahead. As we can observe for ourselves, there is no space for a body beneath this bucket, and so there is no head, and therefore no reflection upon the human condition or, more especially, upon this particular condition of benightedness. And then, of course, there is the question of the height of this creature, the fact that it has been reduced to these miserable dimensions, and that there is humiliation in the sight of those boots, the way the toes have been trodden down, so unceremoniously, those boots, too big for a child, too small for a man or a clown, such battered, in-between shoes... The entire strange concoction seems so unconvincingly assembled, so badly edited, so much like the mornings after the many nights before, oh God.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

Richard Niman, who was born in Middlesbrough in 1932, is generally regarded, alongside Conroy Maddox and Eileen Agar, as one of the original English surrealists. 'I frequently work with dolls, mannequins, shop window installations and other readymades, ' he says about his practice. 'I regard such objects in their original state as aesthetically dead. My function is to make the incredible believable.' His work is in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'