Tag Archives: art

My cultural life in 2010

My cultural life in 2010, nerdishly accounted for (except for the month of November, in which according to my records I partook in no cultural activity at all) looked like this:

I visited 60 exhibitions, including both temporary exhibitions and permanent collections.

I watched 60 films, of which I saw 33 at the cinema, 20 were on DVD, one was a download of a non-commercially-available film, and six were screenings followed by a discussion above a pub. Not included: television, archival TV, and box sets.

I read 34 books, of which 20 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. This isn’t counting books I started and didn’t finish.

I attended eleven talks, public lectures and discussions, not counting nine seminars of an MA module.

I attended six and a half performances, mostly of poetry.

I went to six comedy shows but only four plays.

I only went to two gigs, but they were both pretty good.

I saw one opera.

I don’t expect 2011 to be as busy.


The Museum of Unexploded Bombs

Unexploded Cluster Bomb

Unexploded cluster bomb in Iraq. flickr.com/airborneshodan

The curator of the Museum of Unexploded Bombs is not, as you might expect him to be, a nervous man. Nor is he stoic, slow-witted or even suicidal. Rather he is a man who lives like a soldier, unoblivious to the immanent possibility of death and thereby open to every marvel that existence offers in the moment. The curator of the Museum of Unexploded Bombs knows that when the time comes he will not know.

The Museum of Unexploded Bombs does not charge an entrance fee and receives no public subsidy. It is dependent solely on donations from members of the public. Little old ladies with world war leftovers from their back gardens, scuba divers, policemen and even war criminals turn up on the doorstep with their offerings. The Museum turns nothing down: all gifts are accessioned, catalogued and displayed.

The collection of the Museum of Unexploded Bombs is not organised along taxonomical or historical lines, but in displays that reflect the aesthetic predilections of its curator. An early twentieth century tank shell wears a belt of machine gun ammunition uneasily. A display of hand grenades of all eras is organised in a tidy pyramid. A glass vitrine of bullets spells out the ranks of the Sudanese army.

The management board of The Museum of Unexploded Bombs has put a Change Transition and Risk Management strategy in place for the day when it becomes the Museum of Exploded Bombs.

The Museum of Unexploded Bombs organises schooltrips to the minefields of Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. Children are taught to tiptoe alongside ordnance, they visit a prosthetics factory that manufactures in junior sizes, and are taught a cultural history of bombs. They meet other children for whom unexploded bombs are an unremarkable part of everyday life.

Offers made to The Museum of Unexploded Bombs to make the collection ‘safe’ have been rejected, and press releases issued to explain to the public that a collection of disarmed bombs would no longer be unexploded but technically unexplodable, and that this would run contrary to the Museum’s Founding Charter

Visitors to the Museum of Unexploded Bombs are not required to leave their coats, hats or bags in the cloakroom. In focus groups conducted by a market research firm on behalf of the Museum, visitors describe their visits to the museum as ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘life-affirming’ and ‘rewarding’. There are positive comments about the catering.

Ghosts in the media art machine

Kinetica Art Fair. Photo: flickr.com/jellybean

Kinetica Art Fair. Photo: flickr.com/jellybean

It’s one of those what-do-you-call-it dilemmas. In the way that ‘Artists’ Film and Video’ has embraced and displaced terms like ‘avant-garde’, ‘experimental film’ and ‘video art’, so ‘(New) Media Art’ has kicked out ‘digital art’, ‘interactive art’ and so forth as a useful name for a messy field of practice. Myself, I cleave to ‘net.art’ (or even ‘internet art’) in the way that I prefer ‘experimental film’: not because I think it’s a better and more descriptive term, but because I both prefer a specific area of practice (work with the medium of film; work with the medium of the internet), and feel that practice needs some kind of nominal recognition and differentiation. Which isn’t to say that Media Art doesn’t need defending, not least from its juvenile detractors, just that I prefer art that starts with the internet.

The funny thing is that Media Art can be an envelope even when its address isn’t on the label. This year’s Kinetica Art Fair and the V&A’s current Decode exhibition occupy very similar ground (and one or more artists). Strangely, neither of them use the term ‘media art’, but pitch themselves in terms of their own traditions: kinetic art in the case of Kinetica, and design in the case of the V&A.

Kinetica is definitely the cooler of the two: you can tell from the euroartchicks manning the front desk. It costs eight pounds to get in, and at ten o’clock when the doors open exhibitors are still setting up and plugging in their creations. The vast concrete bunker of P3 features plenty of neon and LEDs, but little wifi. I bump into an eastern European businesswomen I know whose conversational strategy consists of staring at you a bit awkwardly until a chance to mention her product arises.

Kinetica makes a point of signposting its heritage: at the back of the hall are ‘Kinetic Masters’ including work by Jasia Reichardt and Jean Tinguely, Bruce Lacey’s R.O.S.A. B.O.S.O.M. robot from the ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity, and a Liliane Lijn poem machine, Get Rid of Government Time. There’s a film by John  Dunbar shot in and around the Indica Gallery, containing some tantalising shots of the Post Office Tower that I want to add to my influences. Gaberbocchus press, the link with the Themersons and the European avant-garde doesn’t have a stand this year like last, but their books are on sale in the shop.

Jasia Reichardt’s essay in the catalogue posits the digital work in a grander tradition, claiming of kinetic art as a meta-category:

Kinetic art represents a range of heroic art manifestations that constantly cross those boundaries that any established art form, group, or movement builds around itself with time.

There are a lot of works here which are simply kinetic: beautifully-moving sculptures to pick and drop, push, or blow. Most of the work here, however, owes something to digitality, is computer generated or designed; was born or lives in a network.

Staples of the fair are individual exhibitors and graduate collectives. Hugh Turvey, currently working with the British Institute of Radiology makes x-ray animations by taking appliances to pieces, x-raying them, and then reconstructing movements with software. The most striking piece is two skeletal hands playing round after round of stone-scissors-paper. Lots of his still and moving works are brightly-coloured in a way that generic medical x-rays aren’t. Turvey’s partially colour-blind himself, but he says that using computer technology to add colour to the images gives him a confidence in their appearance.

From the Goldsmith’s MFA stable Ric Carvalho’s Global Warming uses a pressure-sensitive pad mounted on a urinal linked to a Google Earth display to allow you to piss all over the world (using a bottle of water of course). Other works respond to the human body: Interactive AgentsHydro-Acoustic Big Bang Filter allows you to control water levels and a rising tone by moving your hand through a cut-off beam; Monomatic’s P.E.A.L. is a laser-triggered virtual campanile you can walk around and around, ringing bells (one pre-teen makes circuit after circuit in a having-arty-parents version of zoo psychosis).

At the corporate end of the spectrum are some earnest-looking types from NESTA plugging a project they proudly announce as ‘fascinating’ (why not leave that to the audience to decide?); just outside the doors Ben Perry and Jacques Chauchat’s Milk Float is at the more industrial end of the creative ‘industries’ and wouldn’t look out of place with the Mutoid Waste Company.

There’s also some reification at work here. A certain kind of artwork appears at an art fair. It might have its roots firmly in the internet, but Mark Napier’s PAM (Untitled), an uneasily fluxing chimera generated from images of Pamela Anderson found online is an editioned work, something to buy and own. Likewise, the films of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries embody almost exactly the kinetic relationship between text and meaning that Liliane Lijn’s Poem Machines do, but (while YHC have done gallery work) you won’t find a place for freely downloadable flash movies in an art fair.

Meanwhile over in South Kensington at the V&A, it’s manifestly less cool, but only a fiver to get in, with a chunky catalogue thrown in free. ‘Digital Design Sensation’ is a curious subtitle for the show. There’s nothing particularly designy about it at all – most of the work here is simply screen-based or interactive art. What in particular would distinguish ‘digital’ design these days, anyway? Almost all design happens on computers. If it were necessary to highlight specifically digital aspects of design, the V&A’s own China show in 2008 made a better job of it, demonstrating the appeal of mass access to the design of vinyl toys, for example.

An aesthetic of fragmenting polygons and networked nodes dominates the screen works in Decode as it does in Kinetica. The internet as an idea is present in Decode, theorised and abstracted in the manner of the finer arts. Fabrica’s Exquisite Clock, a chronometric display constructed from photographs submitted online is prefaced by typical curatorspeak: “This networked world has provided the basis and tools for works of art and design that are multi-sited and global.” (Go on, read that again and try to figure out what it actually means).

The pieces that dominate, though, and the biggest overlap with Kinetica are the works that react to or record the movements of the spectator, responding to sound and body movement. These are typically slicker and more colourful than found at Kinetica: Yoke’s Dandelion allows you to blow the fluffy seeds off same with a hairdryer. Mehmet Akten’s Body Paint reacts to your body’s movements by releasing glorious washes of colour.

While this kind of work certainly fetishises ‘interactivity’ its also undermines its own status as an art object with the fact that it wouldn’t be much fun to own one. Imagine setting it up and turning it on in your big home, calibrating the camera and then standing in front of it, throwing lonely handfuls of brightly-coloured virtual sand at yourself. Art like this only works in a gallery, with other people to queue behind (even the V&A’s typically hideous middle class punters who don’t like you getting in their way when you’re taking pictures of them and the art), play with and discover how the pieces work. The V&A has this over Kinetica: it’s not a club or a marketplace, it’s a publicly-funded gallery, a place of collective entertainment, and this makes a subtle but monumentally important difference to the nature of the experience.

The V&A’s aware of  its responsibility to the public too, and the ‘user-generated content’ component of Decode’s online presence (‘get involved’) is a challenge to redesign Karsten Schmidt’s identity for the show. It’s interesting in that it actually requires some work, and is craft/code based (like the Science Museum’s Cosmic Collections mash-up competition) rather than aesthetic or one-dimensional, appealing to a constituency who are already engaged. Nevertheless, it remains limited to the show’s marketing identity: online contributors are kept at a safe distance from the actual art.

Perhaps Media Art is a temporary umbrella covering phenomena that will eventually go their separate ways; perhaps Kinetica and the V&A feel their own traditions are longer-lasting. It still seems strange that two exhibitions share such a large common ground but should be pitched and presented so differently. While I’ve always felt that net.art was the ghost in media art’s machine, media art itself seems to be doing the haunting at the moment.


Trainee trapeze artists on Pier 40

Trainee trapeze artists on Pier 40

Jesse McDonough is a man who loves New York in a way that I’ve only ever seen people love London. Studying American History in Maryland, where colonial-era studies rule, he chanced on a professor whose speciality was New York and the bug stuck. Cycling being his other passion, his final project considered how bicycles literally paved the way for the coming of the automobile to America. Now he runs Bike The Big Apple, leading tourist posses on pushbikes round the city, cycling along streets that are normally intimidating enough just to cross. His outrider Wendy brings up the rear, sitting in front of SUVs and issuing admonishments to their drivers: as hardcore an urban cyclist on a fixed-wheel bike as you’d ever hope to meet.

Cycling across Manhattan and through the West Village, we see where some of the richest homes in Manhattan have been (the focal point of desirability has moved steadily up Fifth Avenue throughout history, but always sticks to the spine, the street furthest from the filthy water’s edge), now greedily absorbed by NYU’s property acquisition programme; Christopher Square, with its monument to the Stonewall riots; and Manhattan’s thinnest house. We stop at Pier 40 and climb to the top to see a trapeze school (learners are held from falling by bungees) and football being played on the rooftops: Jesse says he plays in a league whose games sometimes kick off at one in the morning.

Rounding the southern tip of the island to catch the sun setting over New Jersey, we cycle through Battery Park City, a westward extension of the island built in the 1970s on the rubble excavated from the site of the World Trade Centre when it was built (there’s still no sign of a replacement). New York’s ability to hold tight skyscrapers comes from its bedrock, Manhattan schist: they rise highest downtown and in midtown because this is where the rock is firmest and closest to the surface.

We cross the Brooklyn Bridge (a good boardwalk, but a squeeze when only a quarter of it is yours: half the cycle lane going one way). The Manhattan Bridge back is better: barely a soul walking and gorgeous views back over the Brooklyn Bridge and downtown Manhattan, flying fifty feet over the Lower East Side. On a small stretch of street where an apartment block now stands, Jesse stops and shows us the place where his great-great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant, opened a barber shop. This is how it isn’t for Londoners, whose passport is their Oyster card: returning to New York is coming home.


Along 125th Street, in murals and on badges and posters, the parade of heroes: Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, Barack Obama. Revolutionary, tragedy, politician: all, somehow, part of the same story.


At the Nuyorican Poets Café on 3rd and B, they signal their appreciation of a poem mid-flow with finger clicks, elegant and insect-like micro-applause. Host Jive Poetic, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, does the borough shout-outs; if you’re from out of town, he advises, say you’re from Queens. It’s a proper slam: three judges from the audience hold up Olympic-style score cards at the end of each poem and get cheered and booed in equal measure if the rest of the audience disagree. The styles are more varied than you might expect: stand-outs include the softly urgent ‘Ode to my junk’, a paean to the variety of vaginal pleasure; and an anti-evangelical rant by a poet left sitting at the roadside after a crash by a man wearing a ‘What would Jesus Do’ bracelet. There’s a dominant mode of verse, though: strongly rhythmic, laden with rhymes and assonance (only in this part of the world could you rhyme ‘think’ and ‘bank’); and subject matter revolves around personal identity, trauma, and social injustice. Fair dos: there are more poets here who’ve seen the inside of a prison cell than you’d get at an average reading above a pub in London, but all five finalists are men, all wearing streetwear (t-shirts over long sleeves, hoodies), all talking rhymes with a heavy hip-hop influence. The best for my money is Hasan Salaam, but there’s a good Christian poet whose name escapes me; his stuff circles round to refrains, and he removes his baseball cap and holds it in his hand as though to beg halfway through each poem. The night’s winner, Tre G. finishes with a horribly sentimental poem imploring a woman (‘baby girl’) not to have an abortion (her heart must be ‘cold as ice’), which leaves the evening’s end  itself more than a little cold.


18 miles of books at the Strand. Books seen on prominent display in more than one place: The Coming Insurrection, Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide, and The Works: Anatomy of a City. Closest match to the ICA bookshop: The New Museum bookshop.


The punters with the audio guides know which paintings are important: they cluster round them like flies on a favourite turd. At the MoMA, two floors of the History of Modern remain as absurd and tedious as ever: the galleries below remain dedicated to whatever comes after Modernism; the best of which might be the exhibition of art-punk artefacts in Looking at Music: Side 2, though there’s something equally irritating about seeing the, you know, actual Marquee Moon cover (the same one you have at home) stuck to a wall, and watching the Rapture video on a big square gallery video box with headphones. These were artists who eschewed galleries, says the interp. That’s because album covers look stupid in an art gallery, and the same goes for Jonathan Monk’s collection of Smiths 12” covers.

The Whitney persists with a thematic hang of its collection, though far more minimally: the gallery invigilator laughs when he sees the little start I give as I notice I’m standing on a Carl Andre: he suggests I walk backwards along it. The Guggenheim hang is, of course, spiral: we learn that the best way to appreciate Kandinsky is to play word association games with the paintings, and that the later paintings have pleasing geometry. The Met surprises with a retrospective of Robert Frank’s The Americans, contextualised with social history and contact sheets from which the final selections were made (in a similar manner to the Barbican’s Capa show). Roxy Paine’s maelstrom of metal branches entangle the rooftop garden, and Argentino-brit Pablo Bronstein’s subtle pisstake in painstaking architects’ drawings of the neoclassical pomposity of the Met itself is quietly outstanding.

A lightning visit to the New Museum to see a retrospective of Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas’ art in posters and on paper. The Panthers’ combination of revolutionary attitude community politics is immanent in the work: women both carry guns and demanding the means to feed their families. One curious thing: for art that is first and foremost good and honest propaganda, the words of the slogans themselves are very small.

It would be a cliché to say that New York’s best art is on the streets; besides, subway cars remain resolutely silver these days. Nevertheless, Art in Odd Places, taking place this year from one end of 14th Street to the other is a far better game of hide-and-seek than spotting signature styles in an uptown gallery. Water-poems by fire hydrants, cut-up installations in shop windows, a campaign for Monty Burns for Mayor, and most beautiful of all, string crochet wrapped around razor wire protecting a vacant lot.


In Williamsburg, an earnest exposition of the roots of the current economic crisis is pasted on yellow paper to the wall. Across it someone has scrawled in pencil: Fuck Hipsters. The disease daydreams that it’s the cure.


In successive waves of immigration, each new ethnicity displaces its predecessor as they move out to better suburbs: this is the Lower East Side on the Tenement Museum’s Immigrant Soles walking tour, tracing paths through what was once a German neighbourhood replete with beer gardens, then Jewish, with shtiebels in houses until the Eldridge Street synagogue was built, now Chinese, with Buddhist house-temples much the same. ‘Little Italy’ is now merely a tourist island in Chinatown: profitable restaurants sitting under Chinese-owned, Chinese-occupied apartment blocks. When the Chinese move out, someone else will be here to replace them, says Nick, our ruddy-faced & enthusiastic ‘educator’ from Williamsburg.

This narrative of the endless racial recycling of the reserve army of labour is familiar from tours of London’s East End: the parade of immigration, the normalisation of new communities. It only falls apart a little when Nick points out a ventilation hose poking from a building window. An indicator of a sweatshop, he says; this particular ‘sweatshop’, which supplied stores in the city, was closed by the city after 9-11 when the neighbourhood was more-or-less shut down for a while. Pushed, he doesn’t seem to be able to say quite why; someone else on the tour explains that in fact this was a unionised garment factory (the kind of US-based labour force that American Apparel boasts about), and it closed because in the wake of the towers’ collapse, city stores outsourced the tailoring, and the factories never reopened.

It highlights something insidious about the story of foreign people redeemed through their immigration… when will rich countries run out of poor people to import as workers? What happens if they organise and refuse to accept their natural position at the bottom of the pile? Market-based arguments for multiculturalism are no arguments at all.


The Cyclone is closed for the winter and there are only two things left to do on a cold October day at Coney Island: eat a Nathan’s hotdog and shoot the freak. Five dollars for fifteen paintballs that splash harmlessly on the Freak’s shield, and a two dollar tip for the Freak’s college fund.


At the Hotel Chelsea, the central staircase used to look down on reception: they built a floor above it because residents used to throw bottles down. Residents still live there, leaving bikes in the hallways and taking dogs in the lift. But changes are afoot: mysteriously appearing on the streets around are flyers taped to lampposts and shop windows declaring that for the avoidance of confusion, Stanley Bard is no longer running the show. Someone has taped the word BARD large and then some other words in their first floor window. The front desk staff won’t be drawn on the situation.

Though David Combs’ famous painting of the Chelsea itself is under lock and key, the rest of the place drips with art: along corridors, in rooms, alongside every flight of stairs along the central stairwell. A sheet banner strung along a whole flight declares undying love for and devotion to the photographer Marcia Resnick. It’s hard to tell if she made it herself. The lobby is adorned with an erect dog. Heritage plaques on the outside say that this is the place where Dylan Thomas sailed out to die. Outside Sid and Nancy’s room there’s a picture of Nancy and a needle.


Tastes of the city: pancakes piled high in a lumberjack breakfast; cheese melted over a classic Reuben; fat, thick-rind bacon and grits at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant; a bowl of chilli at Katz’s deli; thin black coffee refills and ice water before you order; hand-pounded hot guacamole at Dos Caminos; nearly-liquid Kobe beef in delectable cubes at Joel Robuchon’s concession at the Four Seasons


A night at Jonas Mekas’ Anthology Film Archives with the short films of Pawel Wojtasik. They’re contemplative, with a touch of Brakhage-ish tension between the world represented and flat light falling on the screen. There’s something human about the porcine routine of Pigs: wake, squeal, piss, eat; but also something aestheticised in the rippling piggy hides, and the final money shot of a wall of pigs at war in the direction of a single trough is both hypnotic and repulsive. The Aquarium contrasts wild Alaskan waters with the Exxon-funded aquarium built in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill: neurotic sea-creatures engaged in repetitive swimming routines. Nascentes Morimur is a film of an autopsy, from first incision to the removal of the brain. It approaches coyness with a digital apertures opening and closing on the work of the scalpel and saw through human flesh, hinting, but also taking something away. Afterwards, Pawel is in conversation; someone asks about filming the autopsy. He shot several autopsies, but used the first: the element of surprise and discovery was present for him as well for the audience. Even a dead person still looks like a person, he says, until they peel away the face.

Recent acquisitions: poetry

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

The horror of buying a novel is having to read it. Fascinating discoveries from second hand bookshops and chainstore threefertwos alike pile up on the shelves, taunting you with your laziness and their unreadness; novels that have been read are no better, merely taking up space as you slowly forget their plot and characters, destined to either be lugged from house to house as you move, or given away as fodder for Oxfam in its quest to become the Tesco of secondhand bookselling.

A book of poetry, on the other hand, is never finished. The most dog-eared and memorised volume of verse is all the more valuable for that; the smallest anthology is always capable of revealing new lines and new perspectives. And never being finished, starting is easy. Dip in, find one good line, one satisfying couplet or image, one short poem that you can read to your other half in bed, and the book has already paid for itself. Moreover, there’s never any reason not to buy a book of poetry today just because you bought one yesterday.

And so, recent acquisitions include:

Jerome Peignot, Typoesie
A gorgeous anthology of visual poetry, bought for me as a leaving present by my lovely colleagues at the ICA. It contains some beautiful flower poems by concrete poet Mary Ellen Solt, who shares with abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute not only a first name but being a true pioneer in a field dominated by men. I have a small dream of one day curating a small Mary Ellen festival devoted jointly to the work of both.

Tom Chivers, How to Build a City
I did my little bit to save Salt by buying this (great though they are, their constant self-publicising does border on the annoying). The author is not to be confused with the London Paper hack of the same name, though this book is all about London. Dense, allusive stuff. Contains the word ‘lozenge’ in the first line of the first poem.

The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry
Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. led me here, looking for Robert Creeley (title) and Clark Coolidge (Guston collaborations), as well as some Beat context. Postmodernism’s a dirty word: postmodern less so, the further you get from the 1980s. Very familiar names rub up against very (to me) unfamiliar. There could be a lot of education in this one.

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
A P.O.T.H. impulse probably led me here, too. I wish that Koch’s name rhymed with Hanhan Höch’s, but instead it rhymes with Coke. Seven hundred-plus pages of poems I will probably never read most of, but a few short beautiful and funny ones including  ‘Permanently’ and ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

Johannes Kerkhoven, Mixed Concrete
Acquired in Housmans and published by Hearing Eye, a book of contemporary visual poetry. Intriguing, but some of it borders on the tritely aphoristic.

Pot! Poetry Olympics Twenty05
An output of Michael Horovitz’s small empire. I saw Horovitz, editor of Children (and Grandchildren) of Albion,  perform at a recent London Liming at the RFH. Coming on with his ‘anglo-saxophone’ after a young woman had read a rather self-righteous poem about how she preferred the power of words to the power of drugs, he performed an excellent poem about being stoned out of his gourd which was many times better than hers. Later he could be seen by the side of small the stage tapping his foot to the dubstep poetry of Spaceape. This book also contains the very funny ‘Spam’ by Stacy Makishi, who performed at London Liming’s QEH outing last year.

City State, New London Poetry
Edited by the aforementioned Chivers, a sampler of new London writers from Penned in the Margins, every one of which is younger than me. More by Chivers himself, Chris McCabe and Caroline Bird (another Liming performer). East London references probably win out over any other corner of the city, but the range of poetic practice is satisfyingly wide.

Generation Txt
Another Penned in the Margins/Chivers effort, a self-consciously zeitgeisty collection of six young poets. Better than it sounds: there are already some favourites here, including Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Sestina for my Friends’ which he performed at the recent Oxfam launch of The Manhattan Review. James Wilkes’ ‘A Postcard from the New Forest’ is a piece of visual poetry curiously reminiscent of Ben Marcus’ invented worlds.

Peter Finch, Selected Later Poems
Signed by the author, and acquired at a reading at the ICA. Hearing Finch read was like feeling poetic horizons physically widened. The fact that his reading was so viscerally oral is neither undermined nor lessened in  works committed to dead tree. Some of it borders on the concrete, some of it can be heard with the mind’s ear; all of it adopts a relentlessly unforgiving playfulness with language (From ‘Paint’: “Winter Arse …  Blueberry Sandinista … Mango Vagina”). This is the second book in the list to contain a parody of William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’, entitled ‘The Plums’. (Tom Leonard has written another: I may devote a tiny aberrant corner of my Mary Ellen festival to this form).

Two threads of commonality: four of the books contain poets who I have recently seen perform. Five of the books in some way relate back to the ICA’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. All of them remain resolutely unfinished books. Forever.

Conceptual art dream number nine

I was making a series of painting on small square canvasses. These consisted of small sections of copies of other paintings, cut out and wrapped around canvas frames to form new paintings. Their arrangement and relationship to each other was important. In order to add craft to the process, I painted over the copied paintings with new paint, not going over the lines. Then I tape-recorded Nathan describing the paintings, intending to later do the same myself and intersplice our identical words in a new sound work. Instead, the paintings were burnt, producing a residue of greenish ash in a small plastic beaker. I ate the contents of the beaker while tape-recording myself describing the taste of the second-stage work, which would take the place of my half of the tape. I woke up thinking of Paul Sharits’ Word Movie.

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.