There's a big show on at the moment in our local municipal gallery, the Southampton City Art Gallery. In fact, the entire gallery has been cleared of its permanent collection, in order to make room for British Art Show 8, a touring exhibition of contemporary art, put together every five years by the Hayward Gallery. The Southampton permanent collection is one of the best provincial art collections I know – a bit of the best of everything from mediaeval altarpieces to Antony Gormley – so you have to trust that the curators believed the effort was worth it. The John Hansard Gallery on the university campus is also hosting part of the show. It's big!
Now, I like art. I am prepared to go a long way down the road of defending some of the loonier "practices" that contemporary artists choose to indulge in, against the factitious huffing and puffing of philistines and Daily Mail readers. But – and I concede this may be just another of the symptoms of the onset of old age – it's a disturbing sensation, when you have spent most of your life believing you are involved in the great human project called Art, whether as a producer, consumer, or engaged bystander, to feel inclined to call out a major show like this as in large part a collection of tales told by an assortment of idiots, signifying nothing.
Consider It A Valid Job
The trouble is, contemporary artists have been repeating the same moves now for the last several decades, if not longer, and it's getting really rather boring. It's not just the conceptual art (I've talked about this here or here); most contemporary art strategies have been hanging around for far too long, and have lost any intrinsic impact. Video, installations, ironic appropriation, shock tactics... It all pretends to be so new, but it's all so old. Do you recall Carl Andre's "Equivalent VIII", for example? That was put together in 1966 and the work was acquired by the Tate in 1972. Seems like only yesterday, doesn't it, that the tabloids were working themselves up into a frenzy over the Tate buying "a pile of bricks"? (There's an interesting discussion of some contradictions inherent in this sort of work in this Tate Paper). This exhibition does, of course, have its very own, um, equivalent equivalents: rolls of carpet on the floor, a disassembled car, etc. No surprises there.
Now, there are some extremely valid points that need to be made about the nature of "art", its production, value, and place in society, but these have become over-familiar and are now transmitted as an uncritically-received dogma, taught and absorbed in art schools in the way life-drawing once was, to the extent that the meta-commentary has replaced the thing itself. "Art about art" has become just another style. Also, weirdly, artists (or at least those artists cultivated by gallerists and exhibition "curators") have come to regard themselves as thinkers, primarily. And yet – let's be honest – this is not a game they are suited to, or have been trained to play. Sadly, to have strong feelings about certain issues is not the same as having original thoughts about them.
It's probably not entirely fair to draw attention to the collection of artists' statements that enliven this show, but then without these statements what on earth would you make of the work itself? Consider Stuart Whipps's work and words above. Really? What possible light on the industrial relations of the Thatcher Years does this cast? What benefit are the ex car-workers deriving from this artistic "intervention"? I speak feelingly, as two uncles were made redundant from the Vauxhall car factory in Luton in those years, as was my father from his engineering factory a few years previously. In 1979 I was myself a politically-active trades unionist, opposing Thatcher and all her works, in the public-sector union NALGO. Needless to say, Whipps was born in 1979.
Too many of these artists mistake intention for action and aesthetics for agency. Their language is all about "provoking discussion" by "gesturing" at issues, "exploring" those issues by making tenuous linkages, "challenging" our presumed complacencies, "making reference to" areas of important but totally unrelated activity and knowledge, and "drawing out" cultural, social and historical resonances, while doing no such thing. W.H. Auden famously declared that poetry makes nothing happen; well, double that for self-important, self-declared "political" art. It also seems that many artists either lack a sense of humour, or are smoking far too much weed. A few quotes will do:
The mop heads in Kentucky (2010) – dyed and woven together in the manner of a modernist tapestry – make reference to both labour and trade.
Choosing to treat clay as "a versatile and democratic" sculptural medium, rather than one reserved for craft, Aaron Angell constructs ceramic works whose amateur appearance belies the highly-skilled processes involved in their production.
Nicolas Deshayes's floor-based sculptures ... explore industrial and anatomical infrastructure that usually remains out of sight. Closely resembling pipes laid out on a construction site ready to be placed underground, they also recall the body's internal pipework.
Laura Prouvost's films and installations feature objects and narrators that order, coax, and cajole their viewer. While previous works have seen her stage a conversation between an electronic cigarette and a block of butter, in Hard Drive (2015) she gives voice to floors, lighting and electronic devices – things that we usually take for granted.That's probably enough, although there's plenty more where that came from. It just brings out my cruel streak; some expression about breaking butterflies on the wheel comes to mind. I swear I have made none of that up.
Most of the artists represented in this show, I suggest, are actually the current-day equivalent of the forgotten painters, etchers and linocutters who poured out of art schools in the middle decades of the last century, repeating the same old moves and the same old "thoughts" because, well, that's what art looks like, isn't it? If these works are a representative sample of the best in British contemporary art – even if very much a curator's-eye view (a curator's egg?) – then we are clearly stuck in an ever-repeating recycling loop not unlike the one that has reduced pop and rock to their current sorry state.
There's an amusing online questionnaire you can fill out, intended to gather and calibrate reactions to the show. One of the questions is "How did the exhibition make you feel?", to which only one of the following list may be chosen:
Happy, Amused, Inspired, Excited, Peaceful, Impressed, Proud, Connected to other people, Sad, Annoyed, Intimidated, Bored, Angry, Confused, Uncomfortable, Isolated from other people, Other, please specify.Definitely "other", I think: "happily annoyed" might cover it, or perhaps "peacefully bored"? That may be a little unfair, as there were some pieces that I enjoyed. There is some good video work, in particular, if you've got a couple of hours to spare (though, again, of the sort that makes you wonder when the "experimenting" with form will stop, and the actual serious work begin). There is a surprising amount of fabric and textile work (usually done in collaboration with professional carpet or textile makers), which I find oddly comforting: it reminds me of the sort of shaggy, woolly, woven things that a friend's mum, a secondary-modern-school craft teacher, used to produce and hang on their living room wall in the early 1970s. But there was nothing that made me feel "inspired", "excited", "impressed", or even "intimidated" or "confused", despite the curators' claims that the show is "a series of works that demonstrate the strength of art practise [sic] in this country today". No, it was mainly what I believe the young people call meh. Wouldn't it be nice to seem something inspiringly, excitingly, intimidatingly, confusingly new?
Most of the work on show seems to be trying too hard to find the sort of new "angle" which, when found, is too quickly exhausted. "Novelty" is a temporary, trivial phenomenon, quite different from the "new". This is particularly the case for the conceptual crowd. Listen: if the only idea you really have is, "Hey, look, anyone can be an artist and anything can be art", then I hear you; thanks for the permission! It seems I've got my very own houseful of installations at home. Two rolls of carpet on the floor? Check. Disassembled car? Check (I may reconsider having it towed, despite neighbours' complaints*). Art is everywhere, you're right! But, wait... You want someone to buy these particular rolls of carpet? For HOW much? So, let's get this straight: you want to be famous, and you want make a good living, simply from telling the rest of us, over and over again, that "anyone can be an artist and anything can be art"? Or "women are oppressed by patriarchy"? Or "the poor are exploited by the rich"? Or "things are more complicated than you think"? Guys, these are not startling insights, these are starting points. And, with the greatest possible respect, no one is really expecting any artist to have startling insights into such matters, anyway. Get over it, or get into a different career.
For me, the issue of sales raises a crucial point. Setting aside the questionable price-tags, virtually none of the works on show could ever be displayed or experienced in a normal domestic interior. I'd be surprised if even the super-rich can accommodate a gallery-sized installation, even a modest, disassembled family hatchback. These are choices of medium and scale that proclaim, in the face of any political posturing: admire but do not touch, no point in even asking the price, this is not for you, move along. Perhaps there is an anti-bourgeois strategy going on here: don't even think you could own or re-contextualize my work in your ticky-tacky 30s semi! Well, fair enough. We used to do that back in the day, too. But I doubt this is the case. In fact, the only viable clients for this art-that-expands-to-fill-the-space-available are wealthy corporate entities – many of these works would definitely add a certain tone to the lobby of an international consultancy firm – or the permanent collections of major public art galleries. In other words, either the artist is looking to live off the big bucks of global bad guys, or wants to short-circuit the route to state-supported immortality, like modern entertainers who go from zero to global hero overnight, bypassing the "gigging out of the back of a van" stage. The problems and contradictions arising from either are surely too obvious to point out, aren't they?
Finally, though, let us consider those price-tags. Despite the pretentiousness of the supporting statement of intent, I rather liked the look of Simon Fujiwara's "Fabulous Beasts (Desert Hide)" above, with that agreeable range of warm tones, and those bold faux-naive marks, so reminiscent of an Aboriginal bark-painting or an American Indian teepee (but which, sadly, are not being "referenced" here, it seems, so scratch that idea). I wondered how much one would cost; not because I was contemplating buying it, but – idiotically – because here was something I could imagine making and selling myself. So I found out which galleries represented him and had work from this series available, and asked the price. I was told 22,000 Euros. Which, I think you'll agree, is quite a lot for a shaved fur-coat stretched onto a frame. That is, until – of course! – you realise these "apparently abstract surfaces reveal each coat's laborious production methods", thus exploring "grander narratives about history and society".
But, as I say, this onset of philistine cynicism may be just another of the symptoms of approaching old age. And at least "Fabulous Beasts (Desert Hide)" would hang on a wall.
* Statement: In the site-specific work Allegro Ma Non Troppo (2016), the collective known as Mike Chisholm draws ironic attention to petty-bourgeois notions of rectitude, by staging an ongoing provocation and intervention. By replacing wheels with bricks, he draws attention to the decline of both car-making and construction work in Britain since 1979, the year of Thatcher's triumph and this car's manufacture. The "square wheels" also echo and amplify the metaphoric power of the notorious square steering wheel of this Austin Allegro, produced in the nadir of the British car industry. Algae and moss are being allowed to colonise the rusting bodywork, referring both to a post-industrial, indeed post-human future in which nature and natural forces of entropy reclaim the humanist, humanized landscape, and a post-colonial, globalized present in which heavy industry is relocating to the developing world.
Price: On enquiry, but if you have to ask, you can't afford it.
Please do not touch.