St.Paul's in the South Bank
Another week, another prominent contemporary German artist. As I mentioned in the piece on Anselm Kiefer, Tate Modern has just opened a major retrospective exhibition of the work of Sigmar Polke. Although I had booked a ticket for this afternoon, I almost didn't make it. A painful shoulder problem ("rotator cuff tendonitis", ow...) compounded by a painful steroid injection into the affected area -- don't you love it when a doctor says "This may sting a bit"? -- had caused me to clear my diary over the weekend, including what had promised to be the most spectacular 60th birthday celebration yet (apologies, Alasdair R.!).
I'm glad I did, though. Apart from the obligatory South Bank photo-hunt -- it was a perfect day for it -- it's a good show, stimulating in that creatively antagonistic way of art that is purposefully provocative. If I'm honest, I found 80% of the work on show pretty negligible; without Polke's name attached, you would probably dump many of the paintings into a skip without a second thought if you found a stack of them in your attic. You wouldn't want them on your living-room wall. But then, that is largely the point. This is art, folks, not interior decorating.
Now, Polke did a lot of acid and, in the immortal words, smoked an awful lot of dope, and it shows. The sections dealing with his work in the 1970s made me feel quite nostalgic but also, after a bit, quite annoyed. In one dark room there is a video of Polke and chums looning about in a vaguely arty way, mixed anarchically with footage from a TV programme about Nazis and from Polke's visits to Afghanistan and South America, overlaid with a soundtrack that is basically a Captain Beefheart live album (I must admit I didn't know there were any). It's fascinating, but in the same dot-to-dot way that the visuals were fascinating on The Old Grey Whistle Test. It's all a bit art college, self-indulgent and basically lazy, and relies on the viewer's capacity and willingness to make significance out of random connections.
I remember meeting those serious-minded German stoners, back then. You'd be looking at some of them for a very long time before concluding that wit, whimsy and lightness of touch were their natural bent. They were intense, sometimes in a scary way. I recall spending several days camped on a beach in Greece, in 1973, where a bunch of them had established a sort of commune around a bar. It was a heavy scene, man. You can tire of hedonism as a competitive endurance sport surprisingly quickly.
Although in later decades he was able to mix with a better class of party animal, Polke's art has clearly emerged from a succession of such scenarios. You can't help but feel, looking at these riddling, deliberately under-achieved paintings, "Well, I suppose you had to be there"... Behind all the work you sense the absence of key in-jokes and private references that, being withheld, create empty mysteries of an intriguing but nihilistic kind. As so often in the more disillusioned wings of contemporary art, the innermost secret is that there is no secret.
Stamford Street, Southwark
BFI IMAX cinema and Waterloo Hospital