As the icy north wind ratchets up its late autumn routine, blowing sharp across the Tyne, the people of Gateshead will be met by the incongruous vision of Bill Murray, dazzling in the Cannes sunshine wearing a garish summer suit. Emblazoned across the façade of the Baltic art centre, Murray, in his Madras-checked glory, is the unconventional muse for Brian Griffiths’ forthcoming show Bill Murray: a story of distance, size and sincerity.
It is not an exhibition about Bill Murray per se. Rather Griffiths, an obsessive gatherer of disparate objects, has treated the actor much as he would one of the many totemic items in his rambling collection – as a prism through which to examine various concepts, including super- and sub-human scale, and the relative status of people and objects.
Soon to be installed in one of Baltic’s cavernous galleries, the show will comprise nine miniature buildings on a 1:12 scale, each with a large photograph of the actor integrated into its surface. The photos were taken in 2012, on the day Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom was screened at Cannes, and each suggests a subtly different mood or personality trait.
The model buildings themselves are diverse – from a marine adventure pod to a New York townhouse and a Scottish mansion – and are designed to evoke various aspects of the actor’s life both on and off screen.
The question is: why Murray? “I’ve had that [Cannes] image on my wall for the last few years,” explains Griffiths. “Bill Murray, standing with that tiny camera and the clashing, different-scale-check uniform. There was something about that image and that type of performance that I was interested in – this slippery situation where Bill Murray turns up to promote a film and starts to perform. I’ve tried to pick images where he is seen in different Bill Murrayisms.”
Griffiths’ list of Bill Murrayisms is extensive, and all are in some way touched on in the show, whether through the architecture, the expression captured in a photograph or an associated object. In no particular order, these Murrayisms include:
Murray, the global superstar: Griffiths has used actors as material for his work before – notably a series made using the death mask of Peter Lorre – but in this instance Murray’s renown becomes a way of approaching the enormous scale of post-industrial contemporary art institutions. “Most people fill the Baltic spaces with materials and physical things – I thought Bill was a very good way of filling it – he’s big enough,” explains Griffiths. “Bringing in something which is massive which actually fills the space without it being material seems interesting in these huge blockbuster entertainment buildings.”
Murray, the fiction: Griffiths jokes that Murray was a fictitious sidekick for him in creating the show, allowing him to second guess what this construct “Bill Murray” would do in a given situation. The architectural models created for the show function as fictional tools somewhat in the way an actor would in a film – a route in, which allows visitors to engage and to “travel in time or space”.
Murray, the image: As a material, Murray flattens and becomes part of the architecture of the show, though presented on an expanded scale, different from either the “real” scale of the space or the 1:12 scale of the models. The gulf between the practised façade of a “performing” celebrity and what we imagine lies within is evoked in the Art Deco building, in which the windows of one side are built into Murray’s head, apparently offering insight. The rooms beyond are dressed with fans and tiny streamers suggesting a cool hollowness.
Murray, the lothario: “If Bill doesn’t own an LA beach house he probably should,” observes Griffiths, who has now built him one (albeit only five metres long). It is topped off with sheets of coloured Perspex for proper LA shine, and a giant lamp shaped like a Martini glass, an object from Griffiths’ collection that he seems particularly proud of.
Murray, the everyman and the anti-brand brand: “There’s something about the characters and the traits that I recognise, as everybody does – that lostness – he seems to get the joke,” says Griffiths. Noting Murray’s curious ability to be both very consistent in his performing style and yet believably different with each role, Griffiths by extension identifies him as an “anti-brand brand – a global superstar perceived as occupying the margins, the edges: he always seems impeccably sincere and authentic”.
Murray, the hipster: Griffiths’ diving bell-like Adventure Dome model comes complete with a rooftop helicopter pad and a façade covered in touches of aquatic life such as seashells and starfish. He has also made a fantasy Swiss chalet and a New England clapboard house in which a full-sized alarm clock sits on top of a functioning miniature Chinese grand piano. Nothing that Murray wouldn’t take in his stride, one imagines.
Murray, the wisecracker: The visual joke of pulling out a miniature camera before a vast bank of paparazzi embodies Murray’s “old school vaudeville cabaret” tendencies. “He’s very good at magnifying and ramping things up, using clothes and making things visual. There’s something about that wry detachment – being there and attentive and also detached and contained – it’s a very complicated image.”
Murray, the uncle you never had: Shall we start with that jacket? And his love of golf? Murray’s avuncular charms get a Scottish mansion of their own, complete with windows dressed with different coloured checks, a full-sized hammock and a whisky bar (no Suntory for Lost in Translation fans, alas.)
Murray, the man: That curious, woebegone, goofy face – simultaneously knowing and boyish – is, as Griffiths says, “an interesting surface for the work in and of itself”. The artist notes that without Murray apparently having to try, it suggests a wealthy of interior life and a life well lived, though “I’ll probably find out he’s a 5ft, blond, 16-year-old Swedish man who’s just very good at acting.”
‘Bill Murray: a story of distance, size and sincerity’, 20 Nov to 28 Feb, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts, Gateshead
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