Tag Archives: tate

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.


A very short history of very short stories

In just 161 words, as rejected this morning by the Tate’s Shortness Symposium.

The term ‘flash fiction’ first gained currency in 1992 with the publication of Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories, an anthology of stories of less than 750 words, which could be read on facing pages of a book.

Since then, flash fiction has reached Haiku-like precision with genre-based sub-forms like the Drabble (100 words), the 55er and the 69er, but there have also been more literary takes, like David Gaffney’s well-regarded Sawn-Off Tales. Despite precursors in Zen Koans and Islamic Hadith, the key feature of contemporary supershort fiction is the miniature but complete story arc.

Social media may be its natural environment. At one end of the scale, someone tweets Moby Dick, 140 characters at a time. At the other end, twitterzine Thaumatrope now tells complete stories in 140 characters or less. While many cry foul at new media which tease short attention spans, the challenge for contemporary writers is packing full and rich narratives into the short time we have.


Dan Iggers flickr.com/fortinbras

Felix the Cat. Photo: Dan Iggers flickr.com/fortinbras

What can you learn from a Turner-prize winning artist? In the queue that runs down the ICA concourse waiting to get into mid-winter’s hot ticket, a performance lecture by Turner-winner Mark Leckey called ‘Mark Leckey in the Long Tail’ (arranged while he was still only a nominee), at least one fan seems to think it’s a question of fashion: he has the shoulder-length dyed-blond hair and non-matching whiskers to a T. For a couple of weeks after he won the Turner, I thought I saw Leckey everywhere: at work, on Oxford Street; now I wonder if it was merely his army of clones…

We’re kept waiting twenty minutes or so for final arrangements to be made, but eventually we’re allowed in. The performance begins with an offstage recitation of Charles Sirato’s Dimensionist manifesto of 1936, a standard-issue modernist invitation to abstract an aesthetic from the turbulent times: literature leaves the plane, painting becomes sculpture, sculpture is no longer static, and finally cosmic art places the five-sensed human subject at its centre.

Leckey takes the stage and lectures from a lectern, with a large desk to his left, a projector screen on his right, and various contraptions inbetween. Behind him is a blackboard, which is later flipped around on its horizontal axis to reveal further scenes. He begins with Felix the Cat, star of the first experimental television broadcast. Engineers placed a small doll of Felix atop a record turntable before illuminating and scanning the image into 60 lines to create a test pattern for broadcast. Using a remarkably shonky-looking contraption of wooden discs, Leckey recreates this process on stage (or at least seems to): an image of Felix revolving, his convex face bulging into the lens, appears on the projector screen. Leckey meanwhile discusses the revolutionary moment of television and the dematerialisation of Felix as cosmic sculpture.

A similarly revolutionary moment, he contends, occurs with the birth of the internet as mass media, and on the blackboard behind him he sketches a power-law graph line, as an illustration of Chris Anderson’s idea of the Long Tail. He does a fairly poor job of explaining the actual economics of the long tail, merely conferring to immaterial culture the benefit of near-zero-cost reproduction at an infinite number of nodes along the tail itself. He draws a wonky circle at the top of the line to indicate the bestsellers of the mass market. But when he sits down at the desk we notice that his office chair has been augmented with a large mechanical cat’s tail that twitches and moves with electronic motors (the tail itself is a recurring theme in Leckey’s recent work). And when he begins to talk about pornography as the ultimate realisation of the monad at the end of the network, and how spilling seed is no longer dissipation but fulfilment, we realise that he’s in fact drawn a giant sperm on the board behind him.

He returns to the dimensionist manifesto and presents to us a solid glass block: the cosmic sculpture. Light falls on it, and we see that inside are servers: Leckey introduces us to the idea of ‘cloud computing’ (again, he’s slightly off: the point is not that we can access these servers from anywhere but rather that they can be anywhere) and the final evaporation of the economy of desire. The pièce de résistance: the blackboard flips forward, dry ice pours forth and the giant inflatable head of Felix the Cat edges forward to float over us all, a symbol of our dematerialised desires, as Leckey ecstatically proclaims the new age of infinitely satisfiable cultural need. And then it’s over.

The language that Leckey uses throughout sounds at first to be the usual art-academy jargon-ridden nonsense. He’s no natural performer, and he reads verbatim from his notes, occasionally stumbling over words. It’s Leckey’s use of language that’s always made me suspect him of hollowness, the feeling that this mangled verbiage of critical theory is there to create a marketable impression of seriousness and intelligence rather than communicate properly critical thought. Parts of the talk become impenetrable, and I’d like to go over a transcript sometime to try to understand what he actually said. But both humour and feeling seem genuine, real communication and entertainment rather than the abstract posturings I’d expected.

Indeed there’s something about his tangled, intuitive references, and euphoric exclamations that’s infinitely preferable to the earnest deadliness of the ‘proper’ proponents of web-2.0ism, dweebs like Charlie Bedwetter and Clay Shirky. And like James says, art talks aren’t accurate in the way ‘intellectual’ talks are, but they’re far more entertaining. But the lecture is clearly not to everyone’s satisfaction. As Leckey finishes, from behind the curtain you can hear that he still has his head-mic on: ‘Jesus,’ he almost-whispers, ‘ that was terrible.’ Then he re-emerges, to take his applause and tell us that he hopes we understood some of what he was trying to get across. For a moment, under the gaze of Felix, I almost did.