Tag Archives: mcdonald’s

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.

SuperFloodManifesto

Flooded McDonald's

Superflex: Flooded McDonald's

I.

McDonald’s as the Marie Celeste, a perfect desertion. The low hum of attendant machinery in the background. Rubbish on the floor, a meal on a table, a crisp french fry dipped in still-glistening oleaginous ketchup. Everything placed as if in an experiment, the excrescence of human activity without active humans. The employee of the month smiles from the wall, as silent as the man-sized Ronald standing sentry by the counter. A pot of filter coffee waits to be poured, a droplet hangs in the spout of a soft drink dispenser.

Then water begins to well in from under a door a ripple flowing across the floor, as if a toilet has overflowed. It dusts the litter, moves it around a bit, knocks over a yellow ‘wet floor’ sign. Laps at the chairs’ legs. It doesn’t take much of a swell to float the big hollow Ronald. He rises and bobs around like a greeter, welcoming us to the restaurant. Eventually he overbalances and topples, lying helplessly on his back.

The machines shake. One by one glowing Ms go out as their electrics shortcircuit. Tiny Ronalds, in happy meals and on wall displays, topple into and drown in the rising waters. The chairs wobble away. The water rises inexorably, biblically. It reaches the tables and lifts the trays and their abandoned meals, works its way into the ketchup, emulsifies everything.

It all ends in gorgeous chaos, the chips and coffee and rubbish floating around in the increasingly opaque water, the way a burger, coke and fries must do once you’ve wolfed them all down. The connection between meat production, global warming and rising sea levels passes me by. I’m thinking that when the floods subside, it isn’t the water that’s dissolved the houses, it’s the shit left behind that makes them impossible to live in.

II.

Earlier, in the same place, solicitor Daniel McClean (joint editor of the Ridinghouse/ICA 2002 Dear Images publication, a discursive handbook on art and intellectual property law) gives a slightly-overlong talk on copying and the law in art. He begins with a discussion of the history of art as copying: sketches and engravings taken from paintings, Ravenna after Raphael and Raimondi, Picasso’s Déjeuner after Manet’s, and so on. He posits the idea that all of art history is predicated on a tacit ‘creative commons’, the resources of other artists available to all other artists and goes over some of the copyright basics. He introduces the idea of copyright as an economic measure, enshrined in the US constitution (but doesn’t address the parallel European notion of moral rights).

The most interesting part of his talk is individual cases, the thought experiments of right and wrong, and in particular the cases of three contemporary art superstars caught red-handed incorporating other people’s work into their own products: Damien Hirst’s giant copy of his son’s Young Scientist Anatomy Set; Jeff Koons’ sculpture based on Art Rogers’ Puppies and Glenn Brown’s near-copy of Anthony Roberts’ Double Star.

Hirst and Brown settled out of court, and Koons, claiming parody, lost in court to Rogers. There’s something offensive about these cases, and it isn’t either that appropriation is wrong, or that the boot is often on the other foot (Fischli & Weiss had every reason to be outraged by the banality of Honda’s The Way Things Go rip-off). Rather, there’s something about the elevation of contemporary art that allows for an arrogant attitude towards the materials it makes use of. Humbrol’s science kit is ‘only’ a toy; Art Rogers’ photography is contemptible, and Anthony Roberts is ‘only’ a hack paperback cover painter.

There’s a simultaneous need and contempt for popular culture in the high art avant-garde going all the way back to Greenberg’s 1930s essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch which counterposes the avant-garde’s “superior consciousness of history” with “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those … insensible to the values of genuine culture”. If you believe that your artistic acts are a transcendent category, then like the contemptible Shepard Fairey, you quickly become a hypocrite, defending only your own creation of (literal) value, even as you sell it from your own back pocket.

IIa.

Superflex‘s Rasmus Nielsen at last takes the stage from McClean with his laptop. Superflex do ‘process art’, stuff that mostly takes place outside a gallery and doesn’t take the form of objects. Starting from their student biogas project, DIY cowshit-to-fuel generators, they first ran into IP trouble with their biogas PH5 lamp, a sustainable lightsource in the shape of a 1950s Scandinavian design classic by Poul Henningsen. The artistic intention seemed simple, to reinvest value in a modernist ‘universal object’ that had long-since become merely a symbol of bourgeois comfort. Henningsen’s lawyers disagreed and delivered a (‘what do you call these things?’ – Nielsen possesses that superb deadpan of the near-native English speaker) cease-and-desist, not the only one Superflex have ever received. Their subsequent projects have often worked around taking on IP as a tool to modify, rather than revolutionise, the economic terrain.

Copy Shop is a franchise to facilitate challenges to the intellectual property regime. They got a lot of press for Free Beer, an open-source brewing project (rather missing the point I think as you can’t physically copy a bottle of beer, more’s the shame). Another bottle project was Guaraná Power, when they worked with smallscale Brazilian guaraná growers to create and market an ethical alternative to InBev’s grower-crunching corporate version. It originally came in brand-satire bottles; following yet more cease-and-desist, it’s become more-or-less just another ‘ethical brand’, but following the publicity, one stocked in Danish 7-11s.

Their Supershow, in which rather than being charged an entry fee, entrants were given two francs to see the Superflex show in Kunsthalle Basel, which consisted of the audience itself, had overtones of a typically awful artworld surplus reflexivity. There was better street theatre in Free Shop in which ordinary grocery stores were funded to give everything away for free for a day, presenting customers with a zero receipt at the till. One quote from a pharmacy considered the disruption of daily routine a threat to the mental health of their psychiatric drug customers, reinforcing the idea that not paying for things is literally insane.

Neilsen reminds us that Mark Getty told The Economist: “Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century.” It’s no surprise to find the Getties at the top of the pile, but oil means war. If the Koonses and Faireys of this world are warlords, talking liberation only when it suits them, and Superflex are the guerrillas, always subject to the seduction of peace talks, then Lessig and the Creative Commons stand by like the UN, praying hard for peace but powerless to stop the chetniks descending on Srebrenica (actually, I think Lessig’s currently doing the tribunal). Is this a war in which only artists are combatants?

III.

Later, in another place, a bar full of people collectively read aloud the Freee Manifesto for Guerilla Advertising (after the Revolution) in front of a new bar poster commissioned from the art collective. This is a manifesto in favour of manifestos, an invocation to self activity. Bracketed by a very self-conscious narrative about the social construction of manifestos (all of which we read out, it takes about thirty minutes), a fat ten points of rage, an invitation to abandon art for the tactics of art:

Down with art’s police! Down with the protectors of the common good! Down with the experts and officials who keep the artworld ship shape! There are no experts on happiness! There are no experts on liberation! There are no experts on art!

it goes. The crowd stumble along in classroom rhythm, enlivened by the occasional shouting of a key word (‘Andre Breton!‘ ‘Lenin!‘ ‘Wankers!‘). I actually get quite excited by this bit:

Abolish culture-led regeneration! The correct response to public art is anger! Smash all the town centre fountains, statues and heritage sculptures! Make your ideas public! Publish! Publish! Publish! But know this! Publishing is not an arm of town planning!

and start to imagine cruising the Isle of Dogs smashing up the dreadful corporate dogturds of public art that litter the peninsula. Oh yes, I want to go to places like Basingstoke and Bury, smash their crappy sculptures and piss all over their insulting ‘culture quarters‘. I reminisce about days when the police ran from demonstrators under a hail of bricks and bottles. Meanwhile, the manifesto rumbles on:

Look at us! We are not politicians….
Look at us! We are not administrators….
Look at us! We are not managers….
Look at us! We are not bureaucrats….

chant, in unison, a bar full of managers, administrators and bureaucrats (mostly ICA staff). Who’s taking the piss out of who here? Freee have a nice ear for propaganda, a nice pen for a slogan. But if they don’t mean it, then they’re just wankers like the rest of them.