Dorothea Tanning @ Tate Modern

This is the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work to be held in the UK for 25 years.

It brings together 100 pieces from her seven-decade-long career (she lived to be an astonishing 101 years old, 1910 – 2012) across a range of media, including oil paintings, pencil drawings, ‘soft’ sculptures, lithographs, a massive installation, and a film about her. It is as comprehensive a survey of her artistic achievement as you could wish for.

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Tanning was born in provincial America (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1910. As soon as she was able to, she moved to New York, where she soon afterwards saw the famous Surrealism exhibition of 1936. It was a coup de foudre which changed her life. She began painting in a boldly Surrealist style and in 1939 set off to Paris to meet the leaders of the movement.

Unfortunately, Hitler had other plans, and the advent of the Second World War saw her coming straight back to New York but, happily, so did half the Surrealist artists, fleeing the Nazis. These fleeing artists included one of the leading Surrealists, Max Ernst (b.1891), who she fell in love with and married in 1946.

Surrealist paintings

The exhibition features a generous selection of the Surrealist paintings she made from the mid-1930s to the end of the 40s.

Tanning said she wanted to depict ‘unknown but knowable states’ and the pictures show humans in strange postures, or morphing into inanimate objects, or bursting into flames, or standing in deserts littered with incongruous objects, or standing in bedrooms among strange and Gothic figures, or staring into sunflowers which are changing into mirrors, or standing in front of doors opening onto other doors.

Some of these are really powerful images, although many felt to me like they were channelling existing Surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali, the man who had crystallised the Surrealist ‘look’ in the late 1920s, introducing an immaculate finish to his oil paintings which depicted random objects or events, melting watches, elephants on stilts, melting limbs propped up by crutches and so on.

In other works you can detect the influence of Giorgio de Chirico (b.1888) with his mysterious abandoned Italian squares and brooding neo-classical architecture. In some of them you can see the Magritte who painted a man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face.

For example the blue skyscape at the bottom of this Surreal image of a chess game, and its startling optical illusion it gives that the rest of the painting has been draped in front of a landscape, reminds me of the deceptively simple blue skies of Magritte paintings.

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

But all that said, many of Tanning’s paintings do have a unique and distinctive feeling.

The recurrence of women in the paintings is nothing special in itself, since the Surrealists as a movement thought of the female as being more instinctive, irrational, closer to the unconscious and an all-purpose muse figure – so Tanning’s depictions of women with bared breasts (or herself with bared breasts) don’t cover any new ground.

But I felt that her depictions of girls do capture something unique. Pre-pubescent girls are not such a common motif in male artists, who tend, all too often, to depict shapely, nude and nubile women.

I think Tanning’s depictions of pre-pubescent girls and the depiction of women not as sex objects but as individuals – I’m struggling to put this into words, but her depiction of girls and women – did have a different and distinctive feeling, capturing something genuinely strange about a girl’s experience of the world. I thought of Angela Carter’s retelling of fairy tales from a girl’s point of view.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Prismatic style

In the 1950s Tanning and Ernst moved to Paris and this marked a seismic, comprehensive reinvention of her visual language. It is signalled in the exhibition when you walk into the next room and are confronted with the massive and staggering painting, Gate 84.

Installation photograph of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, 2019

Admittedly this is from a lot later, 1984, but Gate 84 captures the massive change in style which happened in the 1950s. It depicts two girls drawn in vivid graphic style with the use of strong border lines, emerging from a background of violent flaming yellow. Dividing the painting right down the middle is part of an actual door and door jamb which has been embedded into the canvas and sticks out of the picture plane. Both the girls are wearing thigh-length dresses, the one on the left is performing an acrobatic leap so as to hit the door with outstretched hand and foot; the one on the right is more lazily sitting, with her right leg outstretched, her foot pressed flat against the door as if keeping it shut.

I visited with my wife who said this reminded her vividly of the fights she was always having with her own sister, when they were kids. And she got talking to another middle aged woman standing in front of it, who agreed that it reminded her of her childhood with two sisters, rampaging and fighting. A very female sensibility capturing something vivid and dynamic about girls’ experiences of the world.

What struck me more than anything was the chunky realism of the legs, the muscular thighs and the weight and tension in the calves and feet. The entire depiction of the human body is utterly utterly different from the rather attenuated, pallid, doll-like figures in the Surrealist paintings.

And this proved to be true of all her paintings from this point onwards. They become a) much larger and b) much much more abstract, great billowing shapes.

And yet, paradoxically, the graphic element becomes clearer. Faces and bodies and fragments of bodies appear as if out of a rampaging fog and, when they do, are often painted with strict anatomical accuracy, or even a kind of super-accuracy, a monumental accuracy. The arms and thighs and bottoms reminded me of Michelangelo.

It is like the work of a completely different artist.

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

In Dogs of Cythera, at bottom left you can make out what might be an arm going round a woman’s breast, in the centre something like the top of a shaved black skull, at bottom right another arm bent at the elbow, leading up to a hand with splayed fingers.

So there are people, or people-like objects in the painting, but quite clearly something radical and massive is going on that utterly eclipses them, or only uses them as raw material in a bigger and bewildering process.

To quote the wall label, these works mark:

a more abstracted ‘prismatic’ style of painting, and her brushwork and compositions became much looser. Where her earlier work used precise realism to present fantastical scenes, in these paintings it is colour and light that bring imaginary worlds into being. The possibilities of her medium became more important to her.

‘In looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.’

In Tanning’s Surreal works the human body, mostly female, is often stylised, thin, elongated – or given an eerie, science fiction otherworldliness, as in this disconcerting girl being covered in flowers. The subject is set in a recognisable space with perspective to create depth and often to draw the eye to some Surrealistically disturbing detail, such as the fireplace which opens onto clear blue sky.

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

In this later, ‘prismatic’ style, there is no depth or perspective, there is only a great storm of cloud happening right on the surface of the canvas from which parts of one or more bodies threaten to temporarily emerge into focus before disappearing again into the tumult. The paintings vary quite a lot in feel, some lighter and airier, others really dark and stormy – but all in the same immediately recognisable style.

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

There are over twenty paintings in this maner, it looks like most of her output after the mid-1950s was like this, and I loved them.

Many of the Surrealist works are wonderful, inventive and mysterious but I couldn’t help the nagging through that she was working – often to marvellous effect – but in someone else’s idiom. With the ‘prismatic’ paintings it seemed to me Tanning became completely free. I loved the tremendous sense of energy they convey, the sense of muscular, lithe bodies struggling, fighting, embracing, tumbling through clouds – as different as could be from the absolutely static, dream-like, frozen tableaux of the Surrealist works.

They reminded me of the last stanza of Yeats’s poem, Near The Delphic Oracle.

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,
Peleus on Thetis stares.
Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,
Love has blinded him with tears;
But Thetis’ belly listens.
Down the mountain walls
From where pan’s cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.

Bellies, shoulders and bums all appear momentarily our of the seething fog of these strange, visionary paintings. Some are sensual, even sexy. And in some the human figure entirely emerges to be given a surprisingly traditional and realistic treatment, like this one, Tango Lives, from 1977, which seemed to me to be channelling Degas’s studies of ballet dancers on a stage, strongly lit from below.

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

But many others convey bewilderment and confusion, and some of them seem genuinely dark and terrifying, visions of a weird hell where monsters are eating each other. More than one of the dark ones reminded me of Goya’s Saturn devouring his children in a swirling fog.

Soft fabric sculptures

And then – something completely different, again.

In the 14-minute film about her – Insomnia – which runs in the final room, Tanning herself explains that at some point in the mid-1960s she just got sick of the smell of turpentine and, by implication, of painting as a medium.

So she got a sowing machine (she is shown in the film using a classic black Singer machine) and began making soft sculptures.

She used the machine to sew together strange shapes which she stuffed with wool to become free-standing sculptures. Like the prismatic paintings they hint strongly at bodily parts – not least because many of them are made out of flesh-coloured fabric – with long tubes which could be arms flung around bulbous shapes which might be bodies. Take Nue Couchée which is made from cotton textile padded with cardboard and filled with seven tennis balls and a load of wool.

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

There’s one round pink shape with a wide crack open in the front which is lined with jagged pieces of wood, obviously a rather nightmareish face. And the biggest piece is a mysterious black pin cushion, studded with giant pins, containing strange pinnacles and spouts, as well as worrying orifices.

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Tanning made it when she was living in Seillans, a hill-top town in Provence. From 1965 to about 1970 she made about twenty of these cloth sculptures.

By far the most dramatic work along these lines was an enormous room-sized installation which is in fact a life-sized model of a room, complete with open door and fireplace, but which is infested with cloth sculptures looming out of the floor and bursting from the walls – a three-dimensional, if rather dingy, homage to the Surrealist nightmares which shook her imagination all those decades earlier.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Conclusion

There’s also a section devoted to her work for the stage, designing Surrealist sets and costumes for collaborations with the choreographer George Balantine – and a sequence of lithographs which, to me, smacked of the covers of 1950s science fiction novels, of the more abstract, harrowing, post-apocalyptic flavour.

But overall her career can be divided very broadly into these three threads

  1. Dali-like Surrealist paintings
  2. huge billowy ‘prismatic’ paintings
  3. mysterious and unnerving soft sculptures

In light of this, I think the curators have made an excellent decision which is to mix it up.

I suspect that if they’d hung the works chronologically it might have been a bit boring, each room would have risked being a bit samey. A couple of rooms of non-stop Surrealism, one of the strange 1950s lithographs and stage designs, a couple of rooms of just prismatic paintings, and then a room or two of just soft sculptures – each space would have been limiting and samey.

Instead the curators have mixed it up, with works from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s all in the same room, huge oil paintings next to lithographs, early drawings next to Surrealist classics.

The net result is to create thought-provoking connections and juxtapositions of subject matter and style – in short, to foment the kind of rather dreamy, disconnected, unsettling effect which I’m sure Tanning herself would have appreciated.

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The promotional video

Women curators

Dorothea Tanning is curated by Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Cambridge and Ann Coxon, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern, supported by Emma Lewis and Hannah Johnston, Assistant Curators, International Art, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion @ Hayward Gallery

Kader Attia is ‘one of today’s leading international artists’ and this exhibition is the first major survey of his work ever held in the UK.

Attia was born in 1970 France. His parents were of Algerian origin. He grew up in one of the banlieues or suburbs in north-east Paris, in a multicultural environment where Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religions mixed. Attia has dual nationality and has returned often to the family home in Algeria. In the mid-1990s he worked and travelled in the democratic republic of Congo where he held his first exhibition.

Since then he has gone on to forge a career as an exponent of deeply fashionable ‘post-colonial art’, working across a dazzling array of media to criticise western imperialism, western colonialism, western racism, western cultural appropriation of native lore and art, western control of its immigrant populations, and so on.

‘I try to trigger a political feeling in the viewer. My job is like all of us confronted with reality. What interests me is when a work poses a political question not only from a linguistic point of view, formal, but more from an ethical point of view.’

Political feelings. Political questions. Well, the show as a whole struck me as a sustained attack on western values, history, art and culture. The assault is sustained across six rooms on the ground floor of the Hayward gallery, plus the Heni Project space entered from the gallery lobby.

Transgender sex workers

When I learned that one of his earliest successes was a project to photograph and ‘document’ the lives of a community of Algerian transgender sex workers, and that a slideshow of 160 of these images won him international recognition when displayed at the 50th Venice Biennale, my heart sank.

What could be more crushingly obvious, inevitable and clichéd? Is there any other subject as fashionably outré and yet as well trodden? I immediately thought of:

  • Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde at the Barbican, which featured lesbian, gay and transgender artists and performers
  • diane arbus: in the beginning currently the sister exhibition to Attia, upstairs in the Hayward, which features a ton of male female impersonators and performers from the 1950s and 60s
  • Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers at the Photographers’ Gallery, with hundreds of photos of transgender and cross-dressing people from the past century, notable:
    • the well documented life of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, born a male in Algeria, who became a famous French transsexual entertainer with the stage name of ‘Bambi’
  • The photos taken by Olivia Arthur of the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities in India which featured in the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum
  • Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican, which featured photos by half a dozen photographers of sex workers and transgender people, namely:
    • Daido Moriyama’s photos of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo
    • Walter Pfeiffer’s portfolio of photos of his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene
    • Casa Susanna, a historic collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites in upstate New York
    • Paz Errázuriz’s project depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile
    • Teresa Margolles’s series of enormous colour photos depicting transgender sex workers in Mexico
  • Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain which was packed full of transsexuals, transgenders and same-sex desires

Identity and ‘trangressive’ sexuality are the fashionable subject of our age and yet curators and artists conspire to imagine they are still hugely taboo subjects which you have to whisper about and which an artist is oh-so brave to address.

Instead of a boringly predictable subject which has been comprehensively ‘explored’ by every art gallery in London.

This set the tone for my reception of Attia: he and his supporters think he is a grand rebel, an incisive critic of western historical narratives and norms – but all of his critiques seemed to me extremely old and over-familiar and passé.

When I went to the Sensation exhibition of young British Artists in 1997 I was genuinely bowled over by their dazzling new approaches to an amazing new range of subject matters. This guy is retreading ideas and approaches I got bored with decades ago.

Room 1 – modern architecture

Room one is dominated by an awesome projection which covers one entire wall of a camera very slowly moving up the facade of one of the shitty council housing blocks which make up the dreaded banlieues of Paris, the post-war sink estates where Paris sent all its working class and immigrant population to live and which, more or less every summer, erupt in rioting and car burning.

Post-war concrete high-rise council estates are crap. Not a new idea, is it?

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by Linda Nylind

The wall label tells us Attia is drawing attention to the way these blocks were built around principles of surveillance and control similar to those used to subdue colonial populations.

As it happens a) I grew up on the edge of one of Britain’s all-concrete post-war new towns and b) I’ve been reading a lot recently about post-war town planning and architecture in the social histories of David Kynaston:

Although the subject of post-war town planning was fraught with controversy and disagreement I’ve nowhere read anything suggesting that the new estates were designed in order to monitor and control their inhabitants.

Sounds like Attia has swallowed his Michel Foucault whole. (Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic whose theories address the relationship between power and knowledge and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. He died in 1984. Foucault was awesomely fashionable in the early 1980s when I went to university and read half a dozen of his books. It was when I found myself reading an interview from the mid-70s in which Foucault explained how ‘we’ [the radical student movement] could use Maoist concepts to battle against the fascist French police, that I began to realise that Foucault had little or nothing to offer me in the actual political and cultural situation of Thatcherite Britain that I found myself in.)

The mistakes the planners made had nothing whatever to do with surveillance and control. In knocking down the old slums and rehousing people, they decided that, instead of rehousing them on the same locations, they would move them out to clean new locations which had no historic restrictions on design. All the architects were fans of the fashionable Le Corbusier who promoted cities in the sky and also adopted high rise builds as solutions to shortages of space.

It was only as tenants moved into these gleaming and fashionable new blocks that the drawbacks became clear: very often the planners had forgotten to build in shops and facilities, pubs and churches and you centres and the miscellaneous kinds of places where people meet and hang out. Public transport into the city centres was poor and irregular, and they were too far way to walk to.

More importantly it turned out that various elements needed expensive maintenance, especially the lifts without which people couldn’t get to their flats. Getting rubbish out of people’s flats down to collective rubbish collection points didn’t always work and anyway resulted in overflowing bins which bred rats.

Most subtly, it was discovered that traditional communities are self-policing. Where you had an old-fashioned street you had windows on the street and, in any kind of good weather, people sitting out on stoops and steps watching, generally congeries of mums watching their kids playing, or owners of the various small shops in a neighbourhood similarly watching what was going on.

These acted as an informal and highly informed police. If fights broke out, if kids did something dodgy or rude or bullying and so on, there were scores of eyes watching and people could intervene, often mums who knew the mother of the wrong-doer. Thus communities were able to police themselves with little or no intervention from the authorities. This is something I’ve seen described in Somerset Maugham’s novel Lisa of Lambeth, have read about in 2,000 pages of David Kynaston’s histories, and was really emphasised by a recent BBC 4 documentary about Janet Jacobs who wrote the classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) describing how over-intellectual architects and planners, dazzled by the futuristic designs of le Corbusier and other fashionable European architects, were destroying the neighbourhoods of old Manhattan, replacing rundown but friendly and self-policing communities, with windswept high ‘projects’ – just like the French banlieues. Into the projects American planners decanted a lot of their cities’ poorest which tended to include lots of blacks, just as Paris decanted its poorest, which included lots of Algerian immigrants, into its banlieues.

The result? Vast expanses of concrete high rise buildings where ‘community’ has been destroyed, and the public spaces belong to the worst kind of tearaway teenagers who patrol in gangs, peddle drugs, stab rivals and erupt in violence if the police try to intervene.

In everything I’ve read and watched on this subject, no-one has mentioned the idea these wretched estates were built to to monitor and control their inhabitants. A far simpler explanation is that they were the disastrous result of planners and architects falling under the spell of fashionable French and German theorists with sweeping intellectual attitudes: demolish the old, build the shiny gleaming new cities of the future.

This is what went through my mind as I stood in this first room looking at the awesome film of a camera slowly moving up the side of just such a concrete high rise building, next to a model of such a building.

My conclusion was that Attia is deliberately and wilfully ignoring the real motivations and the complex social history of these places, in order to turn them into a cheap and obvious jibe at the police and authorities. The claim that these places were built solely so the authorites could control their inhabitants is 1. factually incorrect 2. a deliberate distortion which allows Attia to quote Foucault and so sound wondrously intellectual and clever and 3. 40 years out of date.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, who is surveilling and controlling the inhabitants of these horrible slums if it isn’t the owners of multinational American corporations, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook and twitter to name but a few? But the internet is a bit too up to date for Attia. He is still lost in the 1970s when it was cool and path-breaking to take photos of transgender people (wow) and use new Left Bank ideas to deconstruct notions of power and control (“have you read Foucault, man, he’s just soooo cool”).

Away from the leather-jacketed student politics, I liked some of Attia’s more allusive pieces, such as this piece of minimalism, although I still found it weird that he made it some forty years after minimalism had become well established as a style in America.

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Narcissus (2012) by Kader Attia. Concrete block, mirror and wire

Room 2 – joy, fear and humiliation

This is a massive room devoted to scores of big prints of his photos of 1990s Algerian transgender sex workers, capturing ‘moments of elation experienced in the course of an otherwise precarious and difficult existence’.

Attia is obviously yet another artist who subscribes to the view that prostitutes and sex workers are privy to a kind of special knowledge and insight concealed to the rest of us, that photographing hookers reveals a ‘secret world’, that the mere act of photographing them ‘breaks taboos’ and ‘transgresses’ conventional bourgeois values. Really?

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

La Piste d’Atterrissage (The Landing Strip) by Kader Attia (2000) © the artist

He says:

I wanted to present the whole picture of their lives, to show that even illegal immigrants working as transgender prostitutes have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope.

‘Even illegal immigrants have moments of joy, of happiness, of hope’. How patronising. How patronising to his subjects to treat them like some kind of remote tribe in New Guinea, instead of people like you or me, and how patronising to us, the viewers, that he feels he has to explain that prostitutes are people who have feelings. Really?

As to the transgender thing, some of us have been totally comfortable with, not to say bored by, the whole idea of cross-dressing and transgender for nearly fifty years. (‘But she never lost her head, even when she was giving head…’)

Like the room criticising soulless concrete housing estates this took me right back to the 1970s.

The opposite wall displays a number of black-and-white press and publicity photos of world famous politicians and popular singers, entitled Field of Emotion. Apparently, this work

explores the ambivalent role that emotion plays in all areas of our lives… Attia asks us to consider how and whether powerful emotions might help heal rather than create conflict.

Emotions play a role in our lives. Hmm. Really. Do you see why I felt I was being patronised?

Anyway, what struck me about the display was how very dated all of the images were. Miles Davis, Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Edith Piaf, Moshe Dayan, Lenin, Mussolini, Ella Fitzgerald. It looks like the wall of a radical student on the Left Bank circa 1974. “Right on, baby. Have you heard Lou Reed’s new album? And what about Foucault’s new book?” Dated dated dated.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery

Room 3 – Chaos + Repair

I liked this big ball made out of fragments of fabric, broken mirrors and wire. Apparently it is an attempt to capture the ambivalence most people feel about aspects of their cultural, political or personal identity. Is that how it makes you feel? Do you feel ambivalent about aspects of your cultural, political or personal identity?

I just liked it as another example of the minimalist thread in his thinking and creating.

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Chaos + Repair = Universe, 2014 by Kader Attia. Photo by the author

Room 4 – joy, fear and humiliation

Attia is, apparently, critical of

the museological impulse to classify and categorise [because it] is part of a much broader and more problematic system of control. In many of his sculptures and installations, he typically invokes the display methods and subject matter of a typical 19th-century natural history or ethnographic museum… in order to explore the ways in which colonialism continues to shape how western societies represent and engage with non-western cultures.

I profoundly disagree with this on all kinds of levels.

Abandoning all the achievements of science All western science is based on the collection and sorting of data. Medicine is based on a vast array of anatomical, chemical, biochemical and medical information which has been painstakingly collected, sorted and categorised over the last 200 years. Does Attia really think the inhabitants of Algeria would be better off without antibiotics, anaesthetics, innoculations and vaccinations which European scientists devised after years of collecting samples, experimenting and cataloguing? If so, he is an idiot.

Valorising voodoo His work, he says, is looking for a way we can escape from ‘the obsession of the Western modern mind to organise the universe’, which sounds very cool and Foucauldian. “Let’s smash the system, man.”

But just really, really think for a moment what it would be like to live in a world where there was no organising, classifying impulse, where knowledge was not recorded, and collated, in which each generation was born into the same old ignorance and fear. The world of the illiterate wode-painted heath-dwellers who the Romans found in ancient Britain, performing human sacrifices to placate the anger of the gods. Is that the kind of world you’d like to live in, ruled by shamans and witch doctors. Don’t think the transgender prostitutes would last long in that world. Or any woman who defies tribal customs.

Luckily Attia with his irresponsible views and the entire class of dilettantish modern artists to which he belongs, has absolutely no effect whatsoever on politics, economics, medicine, science or technology.

Classifying and categorising A few years ago I went through every room in the British Museum and discovered that the five dark, dusty, wooden-cabinet-lined rooms on the east side of the central courtyard are devoted to showing how everything we know today had its origins in the impulse of all sorts of people, from the Holy Roman Emperor to English parish vicars, to collect all manner of weird and wonderful objects, and to sort and organise their collections.

These rooms look boring but turn out to be full of quirky and highly personal collections of everything from bones and fossils to Roman antiquities, types of rock to the shape of clouds.

All human knowledge is based on the impulse to collect and categorise. The impulse to collect is a fundamental human attribute. Everyone does it. I arrange my books into categories. My daughter puts her photos into different Instagram albums. My son organises his music into different spotify playlists. Who doesn’t ‘curate’ their own content on social media and the web?

Well then, it turns out you are in the grip of the Western world’s sick and dubious ‘museological impulse to classify and categorise’. It turns out you employ ‘problematic system of control’.

Of course some of this classifying and categorising can be used for evil purposes, as the Nazis categorised humans into different races, starting with the distinction between Jews and Aryans, and imperial authorities may well have categorised people into ‘white’ and ‘native’ for all kinds of bureaucratic reasons. And it is very much this tradition of classifying people and in particular the inhabitants of the colonised nations of Africa and Asia which Attia has in mind.

But to say that the impulse to collect and categorise is in itself evil and to devote your work to finding ways ‘to escape this’ impulse is like deciding to abolish language because Hitler used language in his speeches and imperialists used language in their racist laws.

Hypocrisy And, it barely seems worth pointing out that all these works which are devoted to critiquing the wicked Western habit of wanting to organise and classify and categorise are being displayed in an art gallery where… they are being organised and classified and categorised :).

The walls of this exhibition abound in labels precisely dating each piece, carefully explaining the materials they’re made from, categorising them as photographs, sculptures, installations and soon.

The works are divided into rooms each of which has been organised around a central theme or concept.

And there is, of course, a big expensive catalogue of the works on sale in the gallery shop, ‘a fully-illustrated catalogue with an extensive interview between Kader Attia and Ralph Rugoff’, Director, Hayward Gallery, no less.

In other words, this exhibition itself demonstrates the very compulsion to categorise and organise which Attia claims to have devoted a career to trying to deconstruct.

When I was younger and experiencing the first heady rush of reading Foucault and Barthes and Adorno and Benjamin I might have interpreted this as sophisticated irony, or as ‘a playful deconstruction of the normative values which underlie the western historical narrative’, or some such.

Now I’m older and more impatient, I just see it as idiotic hypocrisy.

Technology Is Attia at any point using traditional tribal native-people’s media to create his art with? No. He uses digital photography, digital video, film, light shows and minimalist sculpture. All the hallmarks and media of the most technically advanced, post-industrial, post-modern Western art.

Ethnography But of course Attia isn’t really referring to the impulse to collect and categorise as a whole, whatever he might say. He is speaking much more personally about the West’s history of collecting and categorising the artefacts (and indeed peoples) of the non-Western, ‘developing’ world which he has taken it upon himself to be a post-colonial mouthpiece for.

No prizes then, for guessing that there might well be a room devoted to showing how Western culture has ripped off and appropriated non-western art and artefacts.

As long ago as the 1920s left-wing critics were criticising Picasso for ripping off African tribal masks. This accusation became a standard part of Marxist art criticism in the 1960s and 70s. Now it is entirely accepted, it is the utterly conventional wisdom of our time, that early 20th century artistic Modernism wouldn’t have existed if Picasso and Matisse hadn’t been able to see African and Oceanic tribal masks in the Paris Ethnography Museum. Which exhibition of Picasso and Matisse does not point it out?

Thus the Royal Academy’s exhibition on Matisse and his studio was at pains to prove how up to date and politically correct it was by ‘calling out’ Matisse for his ‘cultural appropriation’ of tribal artifacts, as well as his ‘orientalism’ for painting odalisques.

So – as with Attia’s pieces of minimalism, or his insight that concrete high-rise estates are horrible, or his oh-so-risqué photos of transgender prozzies – what really struck me about his western-modern-art-ripped-off-African-art pieces was how very, very, very old, clichéd and totally acceptable this fact is.

How he presents this is so glaringly obvious I thought it was funny, Here is one of his ‘artworks’ where he has placed a book with a cover illustration of Munch’s notorious painting The Scream next to a ‘Pende sickness mask’. Yes, Kader, I do get it. Munch would never have painted like this if it he hadn’t had sight of the African masks collected by wicked imperialists, and therefore his painting is a wicked wicked piece of cultural appropriation.

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Photo by the author

Naughty, naughty Western artists. Pablo and Henri and Edvard, you must all go and sit on the naughty step. Don’t you know that art must never copy ideas from other cultures. Only Europeans are this wicked. The Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians never copied art, writing or religions from of other people’s cultures. And even if they did, it’s alright, because they aren’t white.

What I found literally impossible to believe was the wall label for this work which explained that:

Several works in this room, including The Scream and Mirrors and Masks point to the still under-acknowledged influence of African art on the trajectory of Western art history.

Still under-acknowledged? By whom? This point of view has been knocking around for ages. I found it in full cry in an art history book from 25 years ago which I reviewed last year.

Do you really think this is news to anyone who regularly attends art galleries or knows anything about modern art? It is one of the clichés, one of the absolute bedrock certainties, of modern art history. Anybody who studies modern art will hear about it.

Room 5 – The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures

The biggest room in the gallery is given over to this massive installation.

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of The Repair from Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

The fundamental concept is ‘repair’. As Attia, a self-declared expert on Western and non-Western societies, confidently proclaims:

While Western societies seek to erase marks left by injury or trauma, ‘in traditional societies it’s the opposite: they have ways to fix an injury that also keeps it visible.’

Hence this collection of twenty or so metal warehouse shelf units as well as three vitrines which display hundreds of objects including African masks, vintage photographs, books, newspapers and a series of decorative, functional or devotional objects constructed by soldiers during the First World War.

In among all these objects are mingled busts which Attia commissioned from craftsmen in Carrara, Italy and Senegal, which depict members of an African ethnic group known for body modification including facial scarring – juxtaposed with busts of First World War soldiers with severe facial injuries.

The whole thing, then, is an ‘investigation’ into contrasting Western and non-Western attitudes to scarring and healing, repairing and fixing.

Another part of the display is a slideshow juxtaposing photos of First World War soldiers undergoing early and rudimentary plastic surgery, with African masks showing obvious signs of repair –

an unsettling series of juxtapositions that challenges our conventional ideas about wholeness, injury, beauty and otherness.

Ah. ‘Otherness’. Surprised it’s taken this long to get round to that familiar old shibboleth of cultural studies and critical theory.

The premise is that Western cultures try to cover, repair and occlude physical scars and injuries, whereas non-Western cultures don’t and often wear them with pride.

OK. I’ll buy that.

Room 6 – Shifting Borders

The most recent work in the exhibition is a set of three videos being shown on three big monitors with benches in front of them, and headphones for you to put on so you can listen to the talking heads.

Each of the videos features Attia interviewing mental health professionals, academics and survivors of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in which more than 600 people, most of them students, were killed.

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Shifting Borders by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2019. Photo by Linda Nylind

In one of the videos a Vietnamese spiritualist describes holding a ceremony for the spirit of an American soldier who had possessed her brother-in-law. In another a professional doctor declares ‘I don’t think a psychiatrist is the only one who can heal.’ In other words:

Through the spoken testimonies that make up the video element of Shifting Borders, Attia addresses different forms of healing and in particular the therapeutic role played by shamanistic and spiritualist practices in non-Western societies.

West bad. Non-West good.

Thoughts

The first impact is the scale and variety of the work, sculptures, photos, installations, videos on display – Attia is covering the whole waterfront of contemporary media.

Next I was struck by how very out of date so much of it seemed – finding 70s housing estates crappy, oh-so-edgy photos of transgender prostitutes, the claim that European modern art ripped off African masks, the claim that traditional non-western ‘healers’ know things Western scientists don’t understand, a wall of political and jazz icons from the 1950s – all of these struck me as old, old, old ideas and images. Non-western medicine might have alternative ways of healing? A new idea? Really?

He wanted a political response and so I have responded to the ideas on show and I find them thin, deliberately misleading, superficial and, although dressed up in fashionable curator-speak, in fact stunningly old and dated.

The one big theme which I did find thought-provoking or interesting was this idea of ‘repair’ which runs through many of the works. Thus in the room of African masks placed next to western books to prove how wicked wicked Europeans ripped off African culture, there was suddenly a big hole in the wall, apparently unconnected to the grim lecturing of the other pieces.

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Untitled (2014) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

I liked this. Like the ball made of fabric and broken mirror, I just found this an arresting artefact, object, thing. Not something you see every day.

I get so bored by hectoring, lecturing, dogmatic, ideological modern art. It’s a refreshing change to come across something which just… is. Which connects with you at some inexplicable level… Which gives you a funny feeling about space, and secrets, and interiors and wrecks and rubble.

It reminded me of some of the works of Anish Kapoor which play with the integrity of the surface of the gallery i.e. disappear into the walls and ceilings.

Something similar could be said of this hypnotic jumble of sheep horns, that it creates an eerie and uncanny sensation in the viewer, a kind of discomforting sensation in your mind as you imagine running your hands over its sharp surfaces.

Schizphrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Schizophrenic Melancholia (2018) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Unfortunately the wall label then goes on to give a lengthy explanation which does its best to eliminate all of the mystery and surprise from the piece, and convert it into another part of the heavy-handed anti-western lecture.

In this sculptural work, Attia elaborates on the relationship between contemporary Western medicine and traditional healing practices, in particular those that deal with mental illness. Attia’s research in this area – a key subject for the artist – took him to Dakar, Senegal, where he witnessed an ancient healing ceremony called ‘Ndeup’, in which the horns of sacrificial goats and sheep form the centrepiece of a ritual that involves the whole community. According to the Lebu people, by the ceremony’s end these horns would hold all the ‘bad energy’ that had been forced out of the afflicted individual during the ritual.

“Yeah, man, western society has lost its way, it’s like traditional peoples, man, they’re like so much more in touch with nature and their true selves, man. I’ve seen stuff on my trips, man, things you people can’t understand, stuff which defies western medicine, man.” Neil the hippy.

It was only on leaving the gallery that I realised that the enormous poster / hanging / digital print opposite the main entrance is also by Attia.

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

Rochers Carrés (2008) by Kader Attia, part of Kader Attia: The Museum of Emotion at Hayward Gallery. Copyright the artist. Photo by the author

It’s a striking composition although, like everything else in the exhibition, it cannot be allowed to simply be: it must immediately be stuffed full of Victorian moralising and curatorial meaning-making.

It has to be categorised and defined and described, to be titled and dated and explained and interpreted, in just the kind of way which Attia has made a career out of saying he is trying to run away from. So:

Kader Attia is interested in boundaries – ‘geographical, cultural, sexual, religious’ – and the way they function as in-between spaces. the son of Algerian immigrants, Attia grew up in Paris but spent his summer holidays in Algiers where he spent hours smoking, fishing and – like the teenagers in this photograph – watching the ships going back and forth between Algeria and Europe.

Rochers Carrés – in English ‘square rocks’ – is one of a series of images that Attia made of this breakwater ‘beach’ in the Algiers neighbourhood of Bab El Oued. In Attia’s words, this beach is ‘the ultimate boundary’ that separates these young people from their dreams of a better life.

Really? Is it really that much of a boundary to youths like Attia who could take a cab to the airport, get on a plane and fly back to their homes in Paris, secure in the heart of the scientific, economic, technological and artistic bosom of the West?

Summary

The world is much more perforated and mixed up and heterogenous and immigrated than Attia’s simplistic binary definitions (West bad, non-West good) allow.

And this big poster is a classic example of the way every single piece in the show has to be dated and defined, contextualised and interpreted, labelled and explained.

If Attia is sincerely trying to ‘escape’ from the European obsession with collecting and categorising, then this exhibition shows his efforts to have been a self-defeating failure.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Christmas slugs @ Tate Britain

Monster Chetwynd is the pseudonym of  Alalia Chetwynd, born in 1973, a British artist known for reworkings of iconic moments from cultural history in improvised performances. In 2012, she was nominated for the Turner Prize. In the past she has gone under the names of Spartacus Chetwynd and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. (This immediately reminded me of the punk band Spizz Energi who, in their heyday, changed their name every year, rotating through Athletico Spizz 80, Spizzoil and The Spizzles.)

Tate invited her to create a special Christmas installation and she has come up with the idea of two enormous soft sculptures of slugs, which currently decorate the main steps and entrance to Tate Britain.

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

To be precise, they are huge mock-ups of ‘leopard slugs’, their fabric bodies dotted with spots and lined with blue and white LED lights. Monster has explained to the Tate press people, the Guardian, the Telegraph and everyone else who’s interviewed her, that she got the idea after watching leopard slugs mate on Life in the Undergrowth, a television documentary series by David Attenborough.

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

Monster Chetwynd’s installation at Tate Britain. Photograph by the author

In the wild leopard slugs slowly rotate together, dangling from the branch of a tree by a glittering rope of mucus. The idea is that this night-time mating ritual can be reimagined to show that the darkness of winter can also be a time of renewal and rebirth. And that giant slugs can show us how.

Indeed, after dark, not only the slugs themselves light up, but the entire facade of Tate Britain is illuminated as if covered by a great web of limacine slime.

The facade of Tate Britain flanked by giant slugs and illuminated by limacine slime

The facade of Tate Britain flanked by giant slugs and illuminated by slime-like lianas of fairy lights

Merry Christmas!


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018 @ the Serpentine

This is a wonderful exhibition. I walked round it with a huge smile on my face and left with a spring in my step. What inventiveness, humour, precision planning, vision and persistence!


You may have noticed or seen news reports of the immense sculpture made of painted oil barrels which was erected on the Serpentine in London at the start of the summer.

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

It is titled The London Mastaba and is the work of the modern artist, Christo, born 1935 in Bulgaria (and so 83 years-old).

Since the 1970s Christo and his late-wife, Jeanne-Claude, have created a series of dramatic and well-publicised site-specific installations.

The most memorable (for me) were:

  • erecting a curtain of orange cloth across a valley in California
  • wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in golden-yellow fabric (1984)
  • wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminum in (1995)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude always refused sponsorship or contributions of any kind to their vast installations, instead raising money themselves by selling off sketches, plans, designs and other elements connected with the projects.

The Christo presence at the Serpentine this summer is in two parts:

  1. The vast Mastaba edifice itself, positioned in the east half of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, which will remain in place until 23 September.
  2. And a fascinating retrospective of Christo’s career being held in the main Serpentine Gallery, with particular reference to his enduring fascination with oil drums, as symbols of modern civilisation and for their sculptural and artistic potential.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018

Part one – Christo and barrels

I grew up in a petrol station. Well, in the house immediately behind a combined village store, petrol station and tyre bay. The smell of petrol, rubber, oil and all their associated products are part of my childhood. The massive shed-cum-warehouse at the back of the house stored hundreds of tyres, stacked vertically, reeking of rubber, especially when it rained and the leaky roof let the rain get in and made the tyres black, wet and shiny. Oily puddles were everywhere.

So I warm to Christo’s love of oil barrels. There is something primeval about them. Our civilisation, the entire world economy, is built on them. No oil – no cars, lorries, buses, lorries, planes, ships. No transport of people or food. No electricity. No light. No internet. No blogs.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

So I have deep autobiographical, and intellectual-economic reasons for being fascinated by displays to do with oil.

But there’s also something about ‘the barrel’ – as a shape, as an artefact – which is oddly picturesque.

Put it another way: the combination of the machine-repetition of hundreds, thousands, millions of identikit barrels – with the way that each one is then rendered individual by its unique collection of scratches, rust and dents makes them almost like human beings. Same basic model. A thousand variations, the dents of individual lives.

And in fact barrels do come in quite a combination of different sizes, makes and designs.

All this makes barrels a perfect material for artists from the schools of Arte Povera and Minimalism, committed to using industrial products and by-products, and to exploring the aesthetic impact of minimal combinations of simple, everyday materials.

Because of my childhood, because I like minimalism and the geometric in art, because I like the modern and urban, and I’m interested in political and environmental symbolism – I didn’t need any persuading to find oil drums, in and of themselves, beautiful objects, and that arranging them in patterns can be strangely attractive and beguiling.

Christo began with pots, apparently. Arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, he could only afford a small studio and became intrigued by the potency of paint pots. Pots plain, spattered with paint, or wrapped in cloth.

And then you can arrange them. One on top of each other, into little towers. Several towers next to each other. Some matt, some wrapped in fabric, some tied and colourised – some spattered. Experiment. Combine. Play.

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s paint pots and brushes of the same period. The joy of the everyday!

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns, 1960

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns (1960)

Then Christo moved into a larger studio, which happened to be near a loading yard. Full of barrels. Full barrels, empty barrels, new barrels, knackered old barrels, barrels of petrol, barrels of oil. (This explains the years given in the title to the exhibition – 1958 right up to the present day. Because it covers 60 years of Christo being fascinated by barrels and barrel opportunities.) Now he could ask the yard owners if he could take the oldest, pretty much useless barrels – and they were happy to get rid of them.

Following on from little towers of pots, Christo was now in a position to make bit towers of oil barrels! The exhibition includes some examples of those early ‘barrel columns’ in the flesh, as well as stylish black-and-white photos of the imaginative barrel combos he made back in the early 1960s, blown up to wall-size.

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Cool, aren’t they? Vaguely Heath-Robinsonish. Or like something off The Clangers. Humorous. Or, more seriously, they could be totem poles, the totems of our tribe, the gas-guzzling, fuel-hungry tribe which is destroying the world. Misguiding spirits. Hollow memorials, ringing false.

Quickly, Christo realised you could not only pile them on top of each other, but build things out of barrels. Most obviously – walls! As early as 1962 he constructed a cheeky installation using them to block a side street in Paris.

Wall of Barrels - The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Wall of Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Photos of this installation are in a room with several barrel sculptures and texts (in French) explaining the way that these barrel walls can hold, contain, limit, and block. And can be brightly coloured. Like the pixellations in old colour printing. Like Seurat’s dots. They eat up all kinds of references.

Beside the assemblages of pots and barrel totem poles and tripods, there are stylish sketches of how the Wall of Barrels could have been deployed as a fashion statement or design feature in the snazzy world of the early 1960s: at a gas station, on the ground floor of an apartment block, in your living room – if any architect had been mad enough to take up the idea.

Mur d'assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

Mur d’assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

If you can build walls of them on land – why not – floating barrels? Plans for a floating platform of barrels date back as far as the late 1960s, when Christo hoped to float a pyramid of barrels on Lake Geneva. In 1967 there were plans to build a floating pyramid of barrels on Lake Michigan.

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Like the best minimalist art works, arrangements of oil barrels are both absolutely everyday objects and packed with meanings:

1. There is something seriously aesthetically about this plan for a floating pyramid of barrels. It is a beautiful object – severe, planned, organised and arranged to display a deeply repetitive pattern, but pattern with variations, of texture and colour.

2. At the same time there is something highly symbolic and meaningful, in a medieval allegorical kind of way – a riff on the age-old proverb about oil and water never mixing.

3. The image is also rich with serious socio-political overtones, a sardonic reflection on our civilisation’s prioritisation of oil over water – especially in light of the kind of disastrous oil spillages we used to get in the late 1960s and 1970s.

4. And, then again, there’s something purely cheeky and comic about it. It’s the kind of thing Bart Simpson might suggest.

‘Hey, let’s make a floating pyramid out of oil barrels!!’
‘Yeah, cool, Bart.’

In the corner of the main gallery is a smaller version of this pyramid of barrels – only one barrel deep, so more of a barrel triangle.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Looking at this brings us up to date, as it were, and introduces us to the long-gestating idea of The Mastaba!

Part two – Christo and the Mastaba

If you look at it and ponder it and walk around it and think about it, the nature of ‘the barrel’ places certain limits on what you can build with it.

You can have a vertical wall – like the one blocking the street in Paris – because the round surfaces pile very neatly on top of each other – but only so long as you have something to brace the edges of the wall against. Without two walls to hold the sides in place, a rectangular arrangement of barrels would simply fall apart. If you want your barrels to be freestanding, the most stable arrangement is the triangle, as in the arrangement above.

But the facade is a problem. The tops and bottoms, or fronts and backs, of the barrels, the round ‘faces’ – are unavoidably flat. No way are they going to slope in any direction. Not unless you set each successive layer of barrels a set distance back from the one below – a foot, say, or half a barrel length. This would create a very sharp, stepped, zigzag effect. And it would have the drawback of being contrived – of not emerging naturally from the nature of the material.

And so, the logical conclusion of really thinking what you can build with barrels is the mastaba shape – two sides sloping gently with the natural slope created by piling rows of cylindrical objects on top of each other, each successive layer one barrel less wide than the one below. But the front and back faces of the pile rigidly flat and vertical, and so creating a straight, vertical wall.

Christo’s been working on trying to build just such a massive shape since the late 1960s. In the 1970s a great deal of planning and architect’s drawings were made to erect a massive mastaba painted orange to be sited amid the undulating sands of the United Arab Emirates.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

There are photos of the location, and group photos of the Arab engineers and designers who collaborated on the plans. There are detailed sketches and draft designs. There’s even a scale model of the enormous result, complete with tiny stick humans scattered around the base.

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard. Photo by the author

What with the desert and all, it’s hard to miss the blatant reference to the Egyptian pyramids. Mausoleums to dead tyrants. ‘Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!’ as future generations will look back on our fossil fuel civilisation, and not with affection.

But it was not to be (there’s no explanation in the exhibition why the plan for a massive mastaba in the desert didn’t come off, but IChristo’s career has been full of ambitious plans which never quite make it).

Instead, the last room in the exhibition shows the focus switching to London, where the powers-that-be obviously gave the go-ahead for it to be constructed, and Christo’s team of designers, engineers and architects swept into action – as described here in a welter of sketches, designs and architect’s plans.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

Conclusions

These images of Christo working with oil barrels, stretching back 50 years or more, indicate the enduring centrality of a lifelong interest in mass-produced industrial artefacts and what can be done with them, in their sculptural, architectural and aesthetic possibilities.

I used to associate Christo with wrapping buildings in foil, but for the rest of my life he will be ‘the man who was obsessed with barrels’.

The antiquity of some the sketches – dating back to the 1960s – indicate the incredibly long lead time required for all of his projects, many of which have taken decades to organise and fund, and which give you a real respect for his combination of ambition with dogged determination.

Plenty of time for the ideas themselves to be sketched, played with, and then planned in meticulous detail – all with the kind of safety and engineering requirements which bring in town planners, health and safety officials, engineers and so on.

The exhibition suggests the deep creative commitment required. And then the intensely collaborational nature of the final result.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo by Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

And that final result? Is rich and strange and puzzling – banal in everyday daylight, strange and haunting at dusk, throwing an endless variety of rippled reflections across the surface of the lake, a statement of… what?

An artistic statement, a political statement, a cultural statement, an environmental statement. All or any of these.

It is the Rorschach test-like nature of his works which I find so liberating. The London Mastaba is a big impressive thing and what you make of it is up to you, a test of your imaginative resources and open-mindedness.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is FREE and so is the Mastaba. There for anyone to visit and investigate, or just to pull up a deckchair and ponder.

I think it’s wonderful.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Tracey Emin – My Bed and J.M.W. Turner @ Turner Contemporary

Down in Margate to visit Turner Contemporary, the main effort went into visiting the big retrospective of Surrealist painter and poet Jean Arp. But off to one side, in a big light exhibition room is a funny, wry and stimulating little ‘exhibition’ which consists of the famous ‘bed’ by local-girl-done-good, Tracey Emin, juxtaposed with three big oil paintings of the sea by the great 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (Rough sea, Stormy sea with blazing wreck, Seascape).

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin

The bed was part of the show which won her the 1999 Turner Prize and helped define the era of Young British Art. I didn’t need any explanation or background notes to immediately think it was a masterpiece.

  1. It adequately, eloquently, comprehensively depicts the life and manners of millions of young people in our times.
  2. It’s by a woman, so it isn’t a show-off depiction by some young stud of how much he drinks and how many women he’s bedded, but something altogether more vulnerable and candid.

Very much like the tent onto which Emin sewed the names of everyone she’d ever slept with which, if it had been by a man, would have been disturbingly like a list of notches on a bedpost – but which was instantly disarming because it included her gran, and her baby brother, and all her teddy bears and toys, all memorialised by name.

It has the immediate impact of being just right, just the right size (room size), just the right proportions, just the right amount of mess and carnage. A classic in every way.

The visitor assistants at Turner Contemporary were all extremely helpful and, more than that, happy to chat about the gallery, Margate, house prices, Tracey’s comings and goings, the art market, and so on. They told me that, each time Emin re-exhibits the bed, she re-arranges it. It’s never the same bed twice. This is as well as the obvious signs of wear and tear, such as the unknown substance which the contents of an opened bottle of Orangina have turned into over the past 20 years.

Now, Emin is quoted as saying:

‘It is a portrait of a younger woman and how times affects us all.’

J.M.W. Turner

Turner needs no introduction. All you need to know for this exhibition is that he visited Margate quite regularly to paint vast, visionary lightscapes looking across the grey Thames Estuary, and that the gallery itself is apparently built on the very spot – overlooking the sea – where once stood the boarding house where Turner stayed. The magnificent views from the gallery’s high windows are the same views Turner saw, and painted. Poignant thought.

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

View from Turner Contemporary over the Thames Estuary

Emin chose the three paintings by Turner (from the vast collection held by Tate) for their stormy turbulence. They are impactful works in their own right, depicting huge, powerful, grey and stormy skies with Turner’s characteristic hazy impressionism.

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Rough sea (1840-45) by J.M.W. Turner

Strange meeting

According to the wall labels the bed represents a turning point in Emin’s life, after the collapse of a long-term relationship. It is intended to depict emotional turmoil. That, apparently, is the link, the secret sympathy which joins and jars these two very different works of art, for Turner’s seascapes are stormy and turbulent, too. Emin chose them for their echo of her emotions.

But I mentioned how chatty and informative the visitor assistants are. One of them told me a secret about this exhibition. She leaned forward, conspiratorially, and whispered – ‘You see the blue knickers in the middle of the bed?’ I looked, yes there they are. She said, ‘Now look at the Turner painting, the one nearest the bed.’ So I did – and in the middle of Turner’s massive white clouds – is a large patch of light blue. Same colour as the knickers adrift in the turbulent dirty cream colour of Emin’s sheets and duvet.

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Seascape (1835-40) by J.M.W. Turner

Aha! What mystical correspondence is here, what unknown meanings and messages abound in the universe, what alchemical ties of earth and air and sea and fire are hinted at, once the hooded thaumaturges have cast their runes.

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

My bed (1998) by Tracey Emin

Elemental correspondences

Turner – dishevelled white clouds
Tracey – dishevelled white bedding
Turner – wild seascapes
Tracey – wild vodkascapes
Turner – waves washing over the rugged brown land
Tracey – bedding washing over the wooden bed and sturdy little table
Turner – blazing wreck (in the third of the three paintings)
Tracey – fag packet and box of matches

Now it all makes sense.

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

Tracey Emin My Bed/J.M.W. Turner at Turner Contemporary. Photography by Manu Palomeque

The video

There is, of course, a video.


Related links

Purple by John Akomfrah @ The Curve, The Barbican

The Curve is the long, narrow, curving, dark, subterranean exhibition space at the Barbican. It is currently hosting several works by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah.

The first thing you see on walking down the steps, is a massive pile of car tyres reaching to the ceiling. This gave me a warm feeling as I grew up in a petrol station which did tyre repairs and had a huge shed with stacks of every kind of car tyre then on the market. Us kids used to play hide and seek in it.

Preliminal Rites

The first pictorial display is Preliminal Rites, two enormous triptychs i.e. sets of three very big stunningly detailed photos taken in a beautifully unspoilt hilly landscape (the Peaks, the Lake District?) in which a handful of humans stand in model-like poses, wearing old-fashioned dress, and dotted around at their feet are incongruous objects, most strikingly a big old-fashioned clock face. Time. Tempus fugitSic transit gloria mundi. An old idea, but conveyed in a striking composition in stunning digital clarity.

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Preliminal Rites by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

A world of plastic

As you continue walking along the dark, rather intimidating space, you come to a section entirely made up of scores of old, heavy-duty, white plastic canisters hanging upside down from the ceiling, with white lights above them. The effect is of a heaven of plastic shining down, pushing down, illuminatingly or threateningly, down on all of us. I stood beneath this junk firmament and reached up my arms to pray to the universe of synthetic polymers.

Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Purple

After plastic heaven you walk through a sort of doorway into the final section where a row of comfortable benches is lined up facing an array of six enormous screens on which is playing the one-hour long video, which gives the show its overall title – Purple.

Akomfrah has ransacked hundreds of hours of archive footage from numerous sources to edit together this vast portrait of man’s impact on the natural world. The images on each screen are all different, cut from scene to scene at different moments, and sequences on one screen jump to other screens then back again, and so forth – so on one level it is quite disorientating. But on another, quite hypnotic.

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Installation view of Purple by John Akomfrah. Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Broadly speaking there are two types of image or sequence: the archive footage, mostly in black and white, showing society from 50, 60, 70 years ago, faces, streets, cars, factories, power stations, coal mines, and so on — and a series of brand spanking new, up-to-date sequences which Akomfrah shot himself in a dozen or so locations around the world.

The aim of the whole thing is to convey the depth and reach of man’s impact on the natural world. I’ve written about this in other blog posts, the idea is simple: humanity is destroying the natural environment and wiping out our fellow species at a phenomenal speed, at a rate only matched by the previous big five extinction events in the history of life on earth.

The sixth extinction

As such we are responsible for what geologists are now widely referring to as the Anthropocene Age and biologists refer to as the Sixth Extinction.

The archive footage Akomfrah has selected is fascinating. I sat enraptured watching old black-and-white footage of coal miners working underground, of old geezers in muffled up coats walking the grim streets of some Northern town, then old men in doctors’ clinics having lung capacity tests, cut-away views of a human lung under a microscope – presumably damaged by coal dust inhalation and general pollution – a scientist kneeling down to scoop up some of the black filth lying in a gutter with a spoon to put in a sample bag. You get the idea. No commentary. No sub-titles. No explanation. Just the footage. You draw your own conclusions and make your own connections.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Beautiful world

But what lifts the film onto a completely different visual level is the astonishing, haunting beauty of the footage Akomfrah himself has shot, positioning solitary human figures in remote and stunning landscapes around the world.

These range from the vast open landscapes of Alaska and Arctic Greenland to the volcanic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. Apparently, they were all chosen as sites demonstrating climate change or acute pollution or environmental degradation – but they are shot with breath-taking, super-digital clarity which slightly overawes the ostensible purpose.

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The benches facing the screens were packed. Nobody moved. Everyone was transfixed by the haunting beauty of these truly dazzling sequences.

Ambient soundtrack

The impact is increased by the soundtrack. The music was composed by Tandis Jenhudson and David Julyan. Waves of very slow, ambient sound, sometimes rising to distinct piano melodies then fading back into washes of electronic sounds, designed to be assimilable, haunting, moody, sad and reminiscent (to me) of the slow sad music of Twin Peaks.

You can see the images, hear the sounds and listen to the man himself explaining it all in this Barbican video.

And…?

Are we meant to be happy or sad? I, personally, realised we are destroying the current environment when I read Silent Spring back in the 1970s – obviously new patterns and balances will eventually arise, new equilibriums be established, with or without humanity – but in our little lifetimes it is hugely distressing to realise how many beautiful, intricate species and life forms we are devastating and driving extinct, now, as you read this.

But what can you do? Everyone wants a mobile phone, a car, a colour TV, a home with running water and fresh food shipped in from around the world. More people want more stuff, and there’s more and more of these people – 3 billion when I was born, 7.6 billion now, 9 billion by the time my son will be my age.

I try to live modestly, avoid driving, flying, recycle my trash, cycle everywhere, but… well… I know it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. My life is an insignificant drop, a minuscule fraction of the vast pullulating population of locusts which is stripping the planet. We really are a plague on the earth.

Maybe you disagree. Either way, Purple is a really beautiful, haunting show about a vastly important topic, and it’s completely FREE!

So if you’re passing anywhere near the Barbican, set aside half an hour to drop in and be enraptured, inspired, maybe depressed, certainly affected.

Still frame from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Still from Purple by John Akomfrah (2017) © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions at the Barbican

Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017 @ Tate Modern

Tillmans and Tate

Wolfgang Tillmans is German – as you’d expect from the name – but has spent a lot of time in the UK. He studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in the early 90s, then moved on to London and, although he’s had spells in the States (New York, of course), he still has a studio in London and divides his time between here and Berlin.

Also, although photos of him from the 1990s make him look like a punk or street kid, a member of the hoody generation, Tillmans has in fact created a tidy place for himself within the British art establishment.

  • Between 2009 and 2014 Tillmans served as an Artist Trustee of the Tate Board. He is also a member of the museum’s Collection Committee and the Tate Britain Council
  • Tillmans was the first photographer – and also the first non-British person – to be awarded the Tate annual Turner Prize, in 2000
  • In 2014 Tillmans won the Charles Wollaston Award, the main prize of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
  • In 2015 Tillmans was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal and an Honorary Fellowship
  • In 2015 Tillmans was commissioned to create the official portrait of retiring British Museum director Neil MacGregor

Quite the establishment darling then, and with a very close connection with Tate which is – uncoincidentally – now giving him this huge 14-room exhibition.

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Iguazu (2010) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Tillmans’ photography

Tillmans was born in 1968 and so is a youthful 48. His career consists of ‘explorations of the possibilities of modern photography’. As a young gay student his early works depict bohemian men and, apparently, he was hailed as a chronicler of that queer boho scene – something he’s been trying to escape ever since.

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Juan Pablo & Karl, Chingaza (2012) by Wolfgang Tillmans

In fact the show reveals a determination to explore and diversify, to range over a huge variety of genres – portraits, still lifes, sky photographs, astro-photography, aerial shots and landscapes.

But he is just as interested in the presentation of the works as the subject matter, and this is one of the main themes of the show. It is emphatically not just a series of huge glossy photographs. Instead, there is a systematic exploration of the tremendous range of the media, of shapes and sizes and styles and formats, which the photographic image can come in.

There certainly are the big colour prints he’s famous for, but also photocopies and black and white prints, some enormous, some tiny – some expensively framed, some not – some are enormous and formally hung, some are in a cluster of Polaroid-size snaps just pinned up to the wall.

Also there are rooms full of display cases showing the range of arty or fashion magazines he’s worked for. Other rooms show collections of articles from newspapers and magazines concerning ‘issues of the day’, juxtaposed with relevant or related photos.

How we consume the image is as much a part of the show, as the images themselves.

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Collum by Wolfgang Tillmans

Every room an installation

Quite quickly you realise that ideas and issues about photography are just as important as the images themselves

Thus, right at the beginning we are told that each room is a separate entity; each room has been individually created and curated – ‘specially configured’ – to address specific issues or themes or topics. The intention, then, is that each room (as a unique assembly of images) serves a double purpose – addressing varied issues and subjects but also exploring the wide range of formats which images can come in, ‘exploring’ the nature of the photographic image.

Operating on the basis of the fundamental equality of all motifs and supports, through this continual re-arranging, repositioning, questioning and reinforcement, Tillmans avoids ascribing any ‘conclusions’ to his work and thus subjects his photographic vision to a perpetual re-contextualization

To professional theorists of photography and the digital image, for all art and media students generally, this show is a goldmine of conceptualisation and theory. To ordinary gallery-goers simply curious to see arresting, beautiful or imaginative images… maybe not quite so compelling.

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

paper drop Prinzessinnenstrasse (2014) by Wolfgang Tillmans

Read the booklet

Indeed at the entrance to the exhibition the visitor attendant on the door tells us there will be no wall labels giving context and information, as is usual in most modern art exhibitions. Instead, the visitor is told they must consult the free booklet given out at the door to read up on what each room is about, what it is trying to say, the idea behind the installation.

There are 14 rooms so that’s 14 short essays. That’s quite a lot of reading, quite a lot of information processing to be done before you even look at anything.

And the only snag is that, the more you read, the less impressive the concepts and ideas become. As early as room 2 we learn that Tillmans spends a lot of time in his studio, making prints, planning exhibitions, collecting materials, gathering ideas and so on. Thus room 2 contains photos of… his studio, which, like most workplaces these days, consists mainly of computers on messy desks, with odd shots of cardboard boxes full of bottles, a colour photocopier taken to pieces and so on. It looks, in fact, like a really boring office.

But the commentary tries to gee it up by quoting from the man himself. Among other things it tells us that Tillmans has often described the core of his work as:

translating the three dimensional world into two dimensional pictures.

Wow. Profound. Isn’t this a tad… obvious? Do you think there has been any artist since about 1300 and any photographer since about 1850 who hasn’t been aware that they are engaged in transferring the 3D world onto a 2D surface?

In room 3 we learn about Tillmans’s project to travel the world and deliberately spend just a few days in each place photographing his first impressions, untainted by any understanding or knowledge of the local culture. He did, we are reassured, use ‘a high resolution digital camera’. And this approach led to some pretty impressive revelations, to a number of ‘shrewd observations about contemporary worldviews’.

For example? Well, he noticed that the shape of car headlights has changed in the past few decades. Herr Tillmans detected that car headlights are now much more angular than they used to be which, giving them, as the booklet helpfully explains:

a predatory appearance that might reflect a more competitive environment.

Golly. He spent four years travelling round the world and discovered… that car headlights are more angular than they used to be. Do you see what I mean by the ‘concepts’ and ‘ideas’ underpinning the show not being that…. impressive. Don’t get me wrong: the photos of car headlights are beautifully shot, big, perfectly in focus, very much like… well… high def adverts for car headlights.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Headlight (left)

Room 4 is devoted to a series of display cases showing a project titled truth study centre which has been rumbling on since 2005. Photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, objects, drawings and copies of his own images are laid out in cases to highlight the revelation that – the media sometimes contradict themselves, politicians sometimes make statements about things they don’t understand, scientific knowledge is limited and partial, you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

I’m helping my daughter revise for her GCSE Media Studies exam. I know for a fact that these are the kinds of ‘insight’ which are quite literally taught to every 15-year-old schoolchild in the country.

It began to dawn on me that if you expect people to spend a lot of time at your exhibition reading about your ‘insights’ and ‘concepts’ – it would be a good idea to have something worth reading about. By room 5 I stopped reading the booklet for any ‘insight’ it gave me, but purely as a source of unintentional comedy.

Another example of the overconceptualisation of the stunningly banal is room 7, a nice-sized room with roof-height windows looking out over the Thames. In it are placed a very expensive sound system and some state-of-the-art loudspeakers which are playing a loop of tracks by Colourbox, an English band from the 80s that Tillman likes. And some benches to sit on.

That’s it. The idea seems to be that bands spend months in music studios recording music on incredibly hi-quality digital equipment – and then lots of people listen to this music through dodgy headphones via their mobile devices. The Big Idea seems to be: doesn’t that seem a bit of a shame?

I sat staring out at the view, tapping my feet to Colourbox and reading the rest of the booklet in a private game of ‘bullshit bingo’, spotting pretentious clichés and choice examples of curator-speak (otherwise known as ‘art bollocks’). According to the booklet the music room – ahem, I mean the installation entitled Playback Room – is:

An example of Tillman’s curatorial practice, he has chosen to include it here to encourage others to think about how recorded music can be given prominence within the museum setting.

Well, I bet nobody’s ever thought of playing music in an art gallery before. Truly we live in an age of exciting innovations!

The Painted Word

In his blistering satire on the 1970s New York art world, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe describes how it suddenly dawned on him – as the new movements of minimalism and conceptual art became prominent in the early 1970s – that the concept, the idea, the project, the word, had now become the truly creative part of a work of art – and that the actual painting or photo or sculpture, was merely an appendage, an afterthought, a kind of dubious, oh-do-we-really-have-to illustration of the idea for the work.

The idea, and its formulation in words, was now the creative achievement. Hence his title – the insight that a lot of modern art is merely a sort of painted word. I couldn’t help thinking of Wolfe as I was obliged at the start of each one of the 14 rooms here to read the short essay in the booklet to find out what the devil the room was on about. Increasingly ignoring the text, I had the subversive idea of looking closely at what was actually on display.

Four thoughts

1. Abstracts Once you actually focus on the art, then a number of the really large abstract prints, in the series named Silver and Greifbar, really stand out. Large swirls of colour which are apparently created without using a camera but by manipulating light and chemicals directly onto photosensitive paper. Big bold and attractive – though maybe because they look so much like the abstract expressionists I’ve been reading about recenty. They are a sort of cross between abstract expressionism and a funky advert for ice cream being mixed. Or maybe shots of campari or whiskey being twirled in a glass.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans at Tate Modern featuring Greifbar 29 (left) and a portrait of a guy picking his toenails (through the doorway)

Good, aren’t they? And massive. Immersive. And immensely familiar because you feel like someone somewhere has surely been making pictures like this for decades, but you can’t quite remember who. Maybe they haven’t. Either way, big and very relaxing.

2. Ugly A lot, in fact every single one of the many, many portraits sprinkled throughout the exhibition, are ugly. Some of the famous people – the usual arty suspects like Vivienne Westwood or Patti Smith or Morrissey – are fairly old and raddled to start with, but even the various-sized portraits of his young gang, his mates, scruffy sneaker-shoed arty types in dodgy-looking flats and apartments, gay men, gay women, young boho types, ALL of them are done with a deliberately unflattering, anti-romanticism.

In this respect Tillmans combines, to my mind, the deliberate willful ugliness of much modern photography and contemporary art, with an extra helping of the traditional German taste for the grotesque, a lineage which stretches from Dürer, through the German Expressionists, to George Grosz and Otto Dix and on to Joseph Beuys – a lot of German art has foregrounded ugliness, crudity and ungainliness. No grace. No poise. Scruffy unshaven blokes in duffel coats. Clunky hairy people with all their spots and pimples.

Given his queer punk credentials it’s a little surprising how few sexually explicit photos there are here, but it’s entirely characteristic that the two really rude ones – of a man’s bollocks and a woman’s pussy – are hairy and unglamorous. Shrewdly composed and framed, alright – beautifully in focus – technically perfect – but determinedly, almost brutally, real. (See below) The aesthetic is in the refusal to retouch, soften, smooth out or prettify. In cold white light, in perfect focus, in unforgiving colour –this is what it is.

3. People reading the booklet instead of looking at the art Half way round I noticed just how many of the visitors were standing heads-down, intently studying the curator’s booklet and not looking at all at the supposed ‘art’. As a private joke, I began to take photos of visitors reading the booklet instead of looking at the art. I like to think this is a new artistic genre which I have just invented – ‘Photos of visitors to a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition who spend more time reading the booklet about the exhibition than actually looking at the works in the exhibition’. Maybe I’ll enter my portfolio for the Turner Prize.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #1

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #2

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #3

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #4

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don't look - Read! #5

Wolfgang Tillmans: Don’t look – Read! #5

4. ‘Practice’ Usually in the commentary on a contemporary artist we learn that they are challenging, subverting, investigating, questioning and engaging with contemporary issues – more often than not these days, issues of gender and identity, the favourite subject of artists and curators alike.

Tillman does all that, of course, but I couldn’t also help noticing the obsessive repetition of the word ‘practice’ in the booklet:

  • … these elements [photographing everyday life and contemporary culture and displaying the prints as whole-room installations] remain central to his practice…
  • … cultural attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality have become more open over the three decades since he began his practice…
  • [the sound room is] an example of Tillman’s curatorial practice…
  • [since his high school days Tillman] has found ways to resist the idea that the photograph is solely a direct record of reality. In 2011, this area of his practice was compiled for the first time in his book Abstract Pictures
  • An acute awareness of fragility endures across Tillmans’s practice in all its different forms…
  • Since 2014 he has allowed performance to become a more prominent strand of his practice…
  • Portraiture has been central to Tillmans’s practice for three decades…

This word ‘practice’ always reminds me of GPs or vets – probably because, looking after two children and two cats as I do, I spend a LOT of time either at the vets or the GPs’ – and so I kept finding myself standing in front of big or little photos, of the sea, or a dusty car, or a garden weed, or ships in China or a roll of paper or someone’s bollocks, with the titles of James Herriot’s vet books drifting through my mind in ironic counterpoint.

If Only They Could Talk

If Only They Could Talk

Let sleeping vets lie

Let sleeping vets lie

It shouldn't happen to a vet

It shouldn’t happen to a vet

The sea

The final room contains two huge photos of the sea. Like lots of Tillmans’ giant pics, what’s not to like? Big bold beautifully shot, nicely framed.

However, because none of us can be expected to really get these photos unless we’ve read the booklet and had the curators properly explain to us what we’re looking at, I quote the relevant paragraph in full:

Symbol and allegory are artistic strategies Tillmans is usually keen to avoid. The State We’re In, A 2015 is a departure from this stance: the work’s title is a direct reference to current global political tensions. Depicting the Atlantic Ocean, a vast area that crosses time zones and national frontiers, it records the sea energised by opposing forces, but not yet breaking into waves. Differing energies collide, about to erupt into conflict.

Now do you understand this photo? (And thanks for the tip that the Atlantic Ocean is vast and crosses several time zones. I might pass that on to my daughter for her GCSE Geography exam which she is taking tomorrow. The Atlantic Ocean is very big. One to remember. Where would we be without artists, curators and their amazing insights?)

Conclusion

Although most of the text and installation paraphernalia was bollocks, I actually enjoyed this exhibition. The music room was nice and relaxing and the really big abstracts (the Silvers and Greifbars, the series showing rolls of paper as abstract shapes) are wonderful. The enormous photos of the sea or a market in Africa or a dusty car or the messy desk in his studio or two guys playing chess in China are all very quaffable, easy on the eye, slip down a treat.

I spoke to another visitor who commented that it was all very ‘cool’ in the older sense of the word – there was absolutely no emotional affect in any of it. Once you realised that the ‘concepts’ and ‘installations’ were based on incredibly simplistic schoolboy ideas (pictures are 2D representations of a 3D reality, it might be nice to have music in galleries, cars are sleeker than they used to be, attitudes to gender and race are more relaxed than they were thirty years ago, some of the stuff you read in newspapers isn’t strictly true) you felt free to ignore them completely, and just drift among this haphazard selection of all kinds of photographic images – large and small, colour or monochrome, framed or tacked to the wall – and like whatever takes your fancy.

And without the verbiage of the booklet – if you consciously ignore the attempt at conceptualisation, the frameworks of the installation and so on – then the real message that comes over is one of enormous randomness – haphazardness, aimlessness, arbitrariness. Sea, a weed, a car, some random people, a computer, big abstracts, rolls of paper, magazines, more random people – it’s like going for a walk through Google Images – each done to technical perfection, with a high gloss finish, perfectly in focus, made with Germanic precision – but completely odourless, uninflected, unaffecting.

In fact it bears out one of the few bits of the booklet which had any real purchase – that Tillmans believes in ‘the fundamental equality of all motifs’. Everything is the same. As an old boss of mine used to say, When everything’s a priority, then nothing’s a priority. Alles ist gleich. The apple tree outside his window, Hannah the lesbian, the Atlantic Ocean, a cardboard box, some Chinese guys, some Pakistani guys, a desk, a waterfall, a shiny red car, the Director of the British Museum, some students in a room…

It all goes into the Tillmans machine and comes out wonderfully and completely bereft of meaning or significance, entirely inconsequential – and so, all taken together, producing an effect of great calmness.

A very relaxing and soothing experience – and if you throw in a game of bullshit bingo or watching-people-read-the-booklet, very funny too.

Vielen Dank, Herr Tillsman.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Products for Organising by Simon Denny @ the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

This is really up-to-the-minute art. Simon Denny is a youthful 32-year-old New Zealander and arrives in Hyde Park hotfoot from an acclaimed installation at this year’s Venice Biennale, with a show designed specifically for the symmetrical space of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery and titled Products for Organising.

This is Denny’s first solo exhibition in London and it presents a number of challenges:

  • It tackles one of the major issues of our time, one which nobody in fact fully understands – the worldwide explosion of digital technologies, the role of hackers understood in the broadest sense, and their impact on large organisations.
  • It addresses this complex and multi-faceted subject in a visually and intellectually demanding way – not in tidy 2-D paintings but via scaffolding, vitrines, display cases and architects’ models, which are themselves stuffed with texts, notes, labels, TVs showing historic footage as well as countless objects, from cooling fans to the cuddly toys which IT dudes like throwing at each other in the office, magazines, corporate logos, books of management theory, T-shirts and trivia, all these and much more are stuck, glued, appended, inserted, stuffed into and dangle from Denny’s packed and hectic installations.

Whereas Transiencethe exhibition of paintings by Michael Craig-Martin up the road at the main Serpentine Gallery, deals with the surface, the look and design of modern digital products – smart phones, laptops, electronic door passes – Denny’s installation looks at how digital technologies are changing the way organisations are conceived and managed, and interrogates – ie displays for our wonder and dismay – the rhetorics of corporate language. Products for Organising digs beneath the surfaces Craig-Martin so lovingly depicts, goes behind the scenes of modern technologies. So it’s entirely appropriate that it’s made out of behind-the-scenes materials – scaffolding, computer racks, abandoned hardware. All the wrack and paraphernalia of the Big Data revolution.

Take Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) – basically the frame for a stack of computer components which has been adapted to incorporate a spiral train track on which runs a model train (a Roco steam locomotive BE 23.10, in case you wondered). Painted up the front is a snakes and ladders-style ladder listing key moments in this history of computer hacking.

The information on the base says the whole thing refers to technicians and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who, just after World War II, set up the ‘Tech Model Railway Club’, to experiment with ways of circumventing and altering official computer programs, experiments which later led, among many other things, to the first attempts to illicitly tap phone calls, so-called ‘phreaking’, in the 1950s.

They called this and other ways of getting round official technology, ‘hacking’ – and thus the word – and an attitude and a whole area of human activity – was born.

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny introduces Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking is a snapshot of history, explaining the origins of ‘hacking’ via the detailed information label, but also dramatising it in the form of an object taken from the milieu being described and then repurposed, with a large dollop of humour (the train, the ladders), as… as a what? A 3-D embodiment of the moment, of the movement? An art work in itself? A museum exhibit? A teaching device?

Products for Emergent Organisations

The space at the Sackler gallery is made up of four equal-sized corridors forming a square around a pair of rectangular central rooms. Denny’s installation is divided into two distinct parts, each with its own title – Products for Emergent Organisations and Products for Formalised Organisations.

On the left as you go in is Products for Emergent Organisations, dominated by a scaffold which you climb in shallow steps, next to which are a further series of computer racks modified to explain various moments in the history of hacking. They display old-fashioned payphones, computer screens and keyboards from the 1980s. The top one (visible in this photo) contains a carefully assembled pile of Red Bull energy drinks – classic fuel for the all-night ‘hackthons’ which the rack refers to.

Installation view of Products for Organising by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Installation view of Products for Emergent Organisations by Simon Denny at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Continuing round the corner you come across more displays showing how information and objects, computer parts, motherboards and fans and keyboards and screens, embody the interpenetration of hacking activity and organisational logic, the spread of acronyms and attitudes from ‘breakout spaces’ to buttoned-up bureaucracies. It is a potentially overwhelming amount of stuff, but one which is maybe appropriate to the information overload of the subject matter…

So is hacking good or bad, I asked him? Too simplistic a question. The press and media and movies have given the word bad connotations – especially in light of the illegal hacking of celebrities’ phones by our bestselling newspapers – but it refers to a very diverse set of people and activities, the bad, the ugly but also the very good.

Many members of the far-flung and diverse hacking community are committed to liberal causes like keeping the internet accessible for all, developing free open-source software, exposing bad corporate practice and revealing illicit government surveillance.

Many large technology-based corporations employ computer whizz-kids solely to try and breach their security defences, to be constantly testing and probing their data protection. Many organisations have, over the past decades, encouraged off-the-wall and radical rethinking of their products, their marketing, their entire approaches to doing business.

Hacking as a concept, goes much wider than eavesdropping other peoples’ calls.

Products for Formalised Organisations

Which brings us to the other half of the installation, Products for Formalised Organisations. The objects in this second section show how management techniques, organisational structures, corporate governance, bureaucratic procedure and so on have, over recent decades, been penetrated and transformed by the looser, more ‘creative’, less structured approach pioneered among the software development community, by the hackers. So this section addresses a different, a more ‘formal’, application of the same movement of thought.

The Products for Formalised Organisations installations are on the right-hand side of the gallery as you go in, and – in contrast to the rectangular racks and scaffolding which convey something of the hand-made, individually constructed and therefore deconstructible nature of what Denny has broadly defined as hacking – over here on the right, in the world of corporations, it is all circles.

Simon Denny introduces Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Thus, in the main right-hand corridor are lined up four large circular installations. The first one sets the tone (and physical pattern) by being a two-metre tall model of the building housing GCHQ, the UK Government Communications Headquarters, a hollow circle in shape and fondly known as ‘the Doughnut’. At the other the end of the row is a model of the proposed new Apple headquarters in California, ‘Campus 2’, already nicknamed ‘the Spaceship’, and next to it another architects’ model of the headquarters of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer.

Agile as art

The installation in the photo above, pictured with the artist explaining, is titled Formalised Org Chart / Architectural Model: GCHQ 2 Agile (2015).

As the capitalised green sign AGILE suggests, this work refers to / draws from / demonstrates / explains the newish approach to project management known as Agile methodology. In old-fashioned project management you created detailed plans to be implemented over a year or more and stuck rigidly to them, come what may. Hence (its critics claim) the notorious overspend and calamities in (especially) large government procurement projects – the NHS database, Ministry of Defence aircraft carriers etc.

Agile takes the opposite approach: larger goals are broken up into small units which can be delivered quickly in so-called ‘sprints’, often run over as little as a week. If they’re completed earlier than planned, there is a backlog or ‘locker’ of similar sized components which can be incorporated into that sprint and completed ahead of schedule. Members of the team or stakeholders are invited to judge and assess the results of each sprint, so that the entire project’s goals can be re-evaluated, new learnings incorporated etc, on an ongoing basis. It is short-turnaround, iterable, flexible. You don’t have to wait two years and then have a ta-da! moment when the developers unveil the product and everyone looks at each other and says, No, that isn’t what we wanted.

The yellow post-it notes in a spiral in the centre of the piece explain the Agile methodology. The white shapes on the right-hand side contrast an old fashioned static layout of desks and tables with a modern agile or hot-desking approach, the desks arranged to encourage informal communication and debate. Various circular logos stuck elsewhere on the frame convey the importance of Agile being a process of continuous improvement, relentlessly seeking perfection.

I happen to work in government IT and so am very familiar both with Agile in theory and the problems large organisations face in implementing it in practice. I totally agree that these new ways of thinking and working ought to be registered in art somewhere, art which – after all – generally ignores the vast world of work which the majority of us inhabit for most of our day.

Reflections

But is this the right way to do it? Does it shed light, explain, clarify these issues? Is it even intended to? Or is the subject a pretext for making things, making objects with their own value and aesthetic, making artworks out of the bric-a-brac of these big social, technological and organisational ideas? Hard to decide…

It’s certainly a way to do it, to communicate these topics, but it requires quite a lot of commitment on the part of the strolling visitor, commitment to read the labels for each piece – and it assumes a fair amount of background knowledge to relate what they see to their own lives and work practices. Only around that point, maybe, when you’ve done the preliminary study, can you start to ask whether this is art as we know it. Or a new type of art? Or management theory masquerading as art? Or the only way this kind of complexity could be captured and conveyed? Carefully contrived to appear spontaneous and slapdash? Is it agile theory turned into art, quick and effective rather than perfect, encouraging stakeholder criticism, do it again, do it better? Continuously improving art.

Holacracy

In one of the two central rooms, where the brick of the building has been left raw and unplastered, is a further series of circular installations. Here Denny explained some of the thoughts / issues / ideas related to or arising out of the concept of HOLACRACY. This is, apparently, ‘a system for redistributing authority throughout the organisation’. As well as the bunny-bright, hand-made wording stuck all over it (see the photo below) there are attached to the steel circle more detailed texts explaining the theory of holacracy, as well as books with titles like Why Work Sucks And How To Fix It and The Happy Manifesto and Peopleware. Hacker mentality, hipster thinking, coming to your workplace, any day now…

Simon Denny introduces Products for Organising at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Simon Denny explains Formalised Org Chart/Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace (2015) at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Photo: Simon Port

Despite the larky presentation, the handmade signs and the cuddly toys (see the toy alligator bottom left in the photo above – there are plenty more hacker-related toys elsewhere) I don’t know how accessible, how assimilable, how comprehensible this arresting and challenging show will be to visitors without a background in computers or big organisations.

There’s no doubt it addresses head-on massive issues and ideas – the relatively unexplored history of hacking and the way new, looser ways of thinking about all manner of social relations have passed into the practice of big and influential organisations and are percolating everywhere.

It puts into quirky, striking and unexpectedly physical form some of the difficult and quite abstract concepts which underpin the ongoing social, organisational and technological transformations which are affecting all of us. If you make the effort to read and study everything displayed for your attention, then it raises all manner of thoughts and implications to take away and ponder.

Not an easy show to visit, though. Not easy at all.

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