Philip Crawford / Berlin, Germany
Philip Crawford (b. 1988, Dallas) is an American artist living and working in Berlin. A self-taught, mixed-media artist, Philip works primarily in the mediums of collage, printmaking and installation. Philip’s extended practice focuses on the nature and functions of myth and memory in heroic narrative by investigating the content, material conditions and historical context of, and responses to, the various cultural artifacts that he appropriates. Philip holds a B.A. in History from Stanford University.
Heroism is an organizing element of my practice, providing a way to access the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” in the process of constructing our identities and narrating our pasts. Using representations of heroism from popular material artifacts I investigate the ways in which mythologized histories inform processes of identity formation, create rhetorics of difference, perpetuate systems of inequality, and mask technologies of power. In the guise of artist, historian and pop archeologist, I dig beneath their stable narratives to unsettle our perception of truth.
The hero serves as a narrative embodiment for a particular community. It is both an iconic reflection of shared values and a representation of shared experience. But heroic imagination presupposes the existence of an Other. This paradox is a discursive manifestation of mythologized histories. Roland Barthes defines myth as de-politicized speech, an aspect of language that simultaneously imbues history with fantasy and masks its own effects. Subject to myth, historical reality is replaced by a past that is at once speculative and self-evident, a narrative of truth that denies other narratives.
Working primarily in print media (works on paper, digital print-based installations, and archival interventions), my practice is an attempt at what historian Saidiya Hartman calls critical fabulation in which voice is lent to historically voiceless subjects by embracing the unknown alongside the archival. In her formulation, artistic elaboration balances with intellectual restraint as some archival gaps are filled with reconstructive fictions and others left void. Superheroic tales are exceptional sources for seeking out the voices of the unheard to reassemble the accounts of the unthought. Juxtaposing our most mythic visions of iconic super-humans alongside references to the lived experiences of supra-human Others enables me to suggest new fictions and futures.
SFAI provided me with an incredible amount of time and space to start on a new body of work and to take a step back and consider my practice more generally. The work I started in Santa Fe uses the increasingly commodified legend of John Henry as a point of departure to explore the conflicting histories and myths that underpin America’s system of incarceration. Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson traced the historical roots of a John Henry to the cemetery of a Virginia penitentiary, where he discovered on the prison roster not a towering, muscle-bound man, but a young black convict. Short and slim, Nelson speculates that it was precisely Henry’s diminutive stature that made him a valuable asset to the railroad companies participating in our nation’s early convict-lease system. Following his death, the initial work songs that memorialized John Henry offering a rhythm to other convicts as they labored along with a warning against overwork.
How can the disparities between the mythologized and historical John Henry help us to reconcile the systemic violence of our carceral system? How does the shifting narrative around the legendary railroad hero reveal our own susceptibility to unscrutinized, rhetorical heroism? These questions were my initial point of departure for a project that attempts to trace the historical disparities in criminal convictions, development of the penal code and prison work system, and function of myth as an all consuming, fact-legitimizing force in American culture.