The thrill of recognition

The Chapman Family Collection. Photo: Stephen White

The Chapman Family Collection. Photo: Stephen White

I sometimes wonder why I find myself in art galleries so often when I find so much about contemporary art so irritating. With an article hardly finished, I’m jumping on the bus to Tate Britain to see Classified, just because they’ve got seven new rooms of recent acquisitions. Perhaps I should get a hobby, go for a walk. It’s a nice day.

Actually, to be honest it’s mostly just the writing that I find irritating. Take this, from an interpretative label:

“[Rebecca Warren’s Come, Helga] questions our assumptions about sculptural tradition.”

This is a classic piece of nonsense, committing the twin crimes of a vague assertion about ‘us’ and mis-ascription of agency. Firstly you assume that you and I, Ms gallery label-writer, share a set of common assumptions about sculpture, which I doubt (I’m actually just not very interested in sculpture), and secondly that an inanimate lump of dried clay is capable of questioning those assumptions. It’s a jumped-up hyperbolic claim of importance for the work that gets in the way of understanding or even seeing it. It’s not even something that the Tate are universally guilty of: the Tate Collection’s own description is much better: it starts off with a physical description of the work, draws some parallels and finishes up with the question of the artist’s ‘concerns’. Comprehensible without being patronising.

Maybe I shouldn’t bother reading the labels and just look at the art. Maybe I should just be grateful that I don’t have to wade through the tedious sheaves of pretentious pseudo-theory that blighted Bourriaud’s Altermodern. At least this conceit is simple. ‘Classified’: artists, like everyone else, enjoy messing around with the taxonomic systems of organisation that characterise post-Enlightenment knowledge. Aggregation and differentiation; Comte; Linnaeus: Same same but different. Take Ceal Floyer’s Monochrome Till Receipt (White), a Morrison’s receipt for a trolleyful of shopping that’s all literally white: goats cheese, face cream, tampons, etc. It’s about classification, and it’s about process, because this is a new till receipt: the work has been re-created specially for this show.

But this show is actually less about classification than it is about recognition: the recognition of what has seeped into and out of popular culture from the hallowed white cube. It’s not the experience of ‘signature style’ you get wandering through MOMA (screenprint: Warhol, check; smudgy stencil work: Jasper Johns, check; bricks on the floor: Carl Andre, check); it’s more like hearing someone in a British New Wave film utter the words that should be coming out of Morrissey’s mouth.

The first two immediately recognisable works are Jeremy Deller’s The History of the World (a mind map linking brass bands and rave music) and Simon Patterson’s The Great Bear (a map of the tube in which station names have been replaced by those of historical figures), which belong on the wall above my sofa, and in the inlay tray of my Acid Brass CD respectively. It seems odd seeing them in a gallery: they’re both flat works made for reproduction, so there’s no extra aura to be felt or detail to be seen in the ‘original’ (the Patterson edition is a little larger than my copy). Deller’s taken a vernacular form, seen on flipcharts and in management meetings, and given it an unexpected social content. Patterson’s schtick of relabelling tube stations has become a popular genre in itself, enough to fire the ire of TfL, ‘owners’ of the original. Both works are so familiar in such a way that it feels like they don’t belong in an art gallery at all, that placing them on white walls imposes unnecessary restrictions on our contemplation and understanding.

Tacita Dean’s Michael Hamburger is a short film of the venerable poet and critic talking about the varieties of apples he grows in his Suffolk garden. According to the interpretation label this is a poignant substitute for talking about his childhood and escape from 1930s Germany (in fact Hamburger seems to have written a memoir about just this), but I notice that W.G. Sebald, whose translator Hamburger was, is mentioned: Sebald is unfinished business for so many people; and I wonder whether Suffolk, through Sebald and Hamburger is talking on the kind of mystic qualities that Iain Sinclair used to mine from the East End. In any case, I learn from Hamburger that russet apples became unpopular because of the rough texture of their skin.

Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy is recognisable from fashion magazines and general Hirstiana. The medicines also: scanning the shelves I recognise ones I’ve taken or applied, and wonder why the Zirtek is shelved on the opposite side of the room from the Clarityn. (Should one be tempted, at this stage, to have a Stuckist moment of derision for the persistent taint of Conceptualism, rest assured that the paintings are easily the worst things in the whole show. The best among them, Phillip Allen’s Beezerspline is a prettyish painting of something like rainbows, bludgeoned to death by its own description, explaining the concepts of both the Beezer (an old comic) and spline (a mathematical formula for drawing rainbow shapes).

The last room of the show is the Chapman Brothers’ Chapman Family Collection, an assortment of Papuan/Pacific-looking masks, figures and fetishes, supposedly an ethnographic assortment belonging to the Chapman family for some years (complete with pisstaking interpretation). There are even joss sticks burning to give the room the feel of a dusty authenticity, but these are of course the works of the Chapmans themselves. If the repetitive use of vaguely vaginal seashells didn’t give it away, it doesn’t take long to see that these figures, artfully burnt, distressed and adorned with grasses and animal hair, are in fact Ronald McDonald, and other figures from the McDonald’s advertising pantheon like Hamburglar. One chubby little pipe-mouthed fellow clutches a coke and fries; elsewhere a hamburger is being crucified. The Chapmans are basically the fine art Banksy: admirably bloody-minded creators of recognisable iconographies (cocks, brains and bottles; chimps and rats), with the same basic message: don’t take your pretensions too seriously because base humanity and mere commerce underlies all. It’s no bad thing, either, and though this doesn’t have the gobsmacking brilliance of Hell, it’s better than the Hitler stuff.

And so Classified comes across something like Now That’s What I Call Contemporary Art 2009. There’s the classics you’ll always love, a few properly duff ones doubtless included for contractual reasons, and some slow simmerers that you might be hearing more from.

A short and peaceful boat ride away, at the other Tate, there are more recognitions. In George Maciunas’ Fluxus newspapers I can see precursors of the Church of the Subgenius (“send those $ to Fluxus”); in Jeff Koons’ colour- mirrored animal faces I recognise the table from the ICA workshop. In Stutter in the second floor gallery, there’s Michael Riedel’s Filmed Film Trailer, a trailer for a film of super-fast compressed films. I briefly recognise both Anger‘s Eaux d’Artifice and Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema.

But best of all, Fischli and Weiss’s Untitled (Tate) has returned. Part of the Tate Modern’s original 2000 hang, it consists of a room apparently filled with left-over builders’ junk: pallets, wood, ashtrays, toys, cigarettes and other rubbish. What looks like a one-dimensional installation joke is in fact a work of painstaking craft: each object is made from polythene foam and painted in acrylic to look like a ‘real’ object. There’s an uncanny gap: get close enough and you can see the brush strokes on a carton of milk. Step back and it’s a real carton of milk again. Reconfigured for a smaller room, most of the same objects are still there, save for a Lucozade bottle which I remember clearly but can now see no trace of.

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