The gorilla suit hides within it an implicit sense of a joke, an association inherited from moving-image skits. Like a banana skin on the floor, or the grand piano waiting to be dropped, its appearance signifies comedy, and sets humorous expectations in motion. The comedy of the gorilla suit lies in an attempt to frighten that is somehow failed – the journey from King Kong to his pathetic, almost quaint, imitation.
In Angus Fairhurst’s 1995 video, A Cheap and Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit, the artist appears in a room, standing still and dressed in the aforementioned shoddy costume, shiftily appearing to wait for something. He begins heavily jumping, in a kind of gorilla impersonation, stretching the suit’s capability for movement as it begins to rip open. Newspaper stuffing falls from the disguise, the suit becomes thin and baggy, and over the next few minutes Fairhurst gradually tears free. Near the end, he seems to tire at the last hurdle, gathering strength before finally breaking out – a vulnerable, naked body hidden within the big scary disguise. He makes two naked victory jumps, before running from the scene – in his own words, ‘a skinny lanky geezer’. 
A striking feature of this video is how pallid and almost monochromatic the scene is. Were it not for a brown wooden staircase caught in the top left frame, for the most part the video appears almost as black and white as the newspaper that comes tumbling out. It is only when we glimpse some pale peach flesh as the suit rips, that any colour enters the action. The ashen palette is just one indicator of the melancholy that is as much at the heart of Fairhurst’s work as the comedy. The idea of the ‘ill-fit’ crops up in many other works; for example, When I Woke Up in the Morning the Feeling Was Still There (1996), a series of screenprints also in the British Council’s collection. These feature monochrome photographic images of a man holding up a large square of card on top of which a bright colour has been printed and deliberately mis-registered – conveying a sense that this bright, dream-like pop of emotion cannot fit squarely into the man’s colourless life.
The gorilla, too, featured many times in the artist’s work, in drawings and cartoon sketches, often as a stand-in for the human figure, but also as a device to demonstrate a confounding of expectations. In Fairhurst’s drawings, a gorilla suit would open up to reveal, for example, a little fish inside. In a bronze sculpture, A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling II (2003), a gorilla stares at its arm, which lies severed on the floor. It looks as though it is thinking ‘Is that really mine? Is that really me?’ Thus the body in Fairhurst’s work is represented either as a kind of strong protection for the slippery fragile thing inside, or, more commonly, as a disappointing prison.
It is difficult not to think of the gorilla suit in Fairhurst’s comment to his friend Damien Hirst: ‘The other day I saw a frail old man get on the Underground, having been hit by time. He must think “how dare time have done this to my body so that I can no longer jump on trains as quickly as my mind does?”’ The melancholic fantasy of A Cheap and Ill-Fitting Gorilla Suit lies in the idea of breaking free of the confines and restrictions of the body – a denial of the absurd idea that a body represents a soul. The punch line, of course, is that the one can’t survive without the other.
(c) Laura McLean-Ferris 2009
1 Fairhurst in interview with Martin Gayford, Telegraph Magazine (28 February 2004).
2 The Saatchi Gallery, London.