Monday, 4 April 2011

MODERN BRITISH SCULPTURE (2)

...concluding our look at this current Royal Academy exhibition, on until 7th April. (First part here.)


Un-wowed: Landscape Lies Uncaptured

The next room “encourages us to step figuratively onto the ground itself” as “sculptors began to challenge the convention that sculpture had to be physically present in the gallery.” But rather than unifying around this concept the room splits quite neatly into two. The first group definitely are physically present in the gallery, but look like they’ve merely taken something from the outside world and dumped it here. Richard Long, for example, is rather appropriately named because ‘Chalk Line’ (1984, below) does exactly what it says on the tin. Looking at these tiresome works is rather like being inside Brian Sewell’s id, they’re like some gormless parody of ‘modern art’, like Duchamp’s readymades without the wit or audacity. We’ve seen before how Moore’s sculpture grew in scale the less he had to say. These pieces give us only the scale.


 Happily, the other half of the room is a little less empty. These mostly consist of photos or postcards of something outside the gallery. Rachel Harrison’s ‘Contact Sheet (Should Home Windows)’ (1996, below) merely photographs rubbish bags piled against a bin, yet in such as way as to suggest at a Moore-like figure. Rather than make just another work of art, it’s cooler of course to nudge our vision until anything around us can be seen as art. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then why not empower that eye?

But you only really get the suggestion of the figure from the gallery context, you’d walk past the bags in the street just as blithely as do the figures in the photo – in short, we need to stay in the gallery even if the work doesn’t. You can’t help but feel that sculpture is less being modernised and more being abandoned.


As much as this room sparks interest (which frankly isn’t much), it doesn’t come from the stated theme but a more sublimated one – the change from stasis to motion. If ancient art was about the eternal, mostly realised through its sculpture, surely modern society is defined by flux. Unlike many commentators, who seemed to mostly fixate on what wasn’t there, this was one of the few times I felt something to be conspicuous by its absence. Where is the kinetic art? Yet, from an (admittedly perfunctory) on-line search, I couldn’t find one British adherent of this movement. Do we Brits just not do motion? Must our sculpture just lie back and think of England?

Wow 3: The Great Outdoors (Turned Indoors)

The theme of the next room is the vitrine, or glass display case. The American artist Jeff Koons is held to be the instigator of this: “Jeff Koons’ vitrine creates a sealed space within the gallery, its cubic nature allowing it to be faithfully reproduced as sculpture.” Antipathy to Koons may be blinding me here, but surely the Surrealists were busy with their cabinets of curiosities before him?

The room is dominated by a large Damien Hirst work, ‘Let’s Eat Outdoors Today’ (1990/1, below), which has been about as ubiquitous in the media as Hamilton and Pasmore have been absent. As the poster boy of Brit Art, I have never had any time for Hirst. He is quoted later in the exhibition commenting “any artist’s big fear is being ignored.” So... not losing inspiration, running out of things to say or do but being ignored. It’s the artist as celebrity, generating headline-chasing notoriety, as Robert Hughes comments “functioning like a commercial brand.” As the Stuckists acknowledge, “Hirst’s work does mirror society [but that] is not its strength but its weakness.” Battle lines have never been more cleanly drawn since Cable Street.

I absolutely loved this work.


 A standard barbeque set-up, complete with picnic plates and cuts of meat, has maggots released into it on the opening night, which turn into flies and start to feast and lay eggs. By the time I was there, the table was thickly carpeted with black corpses, whose brothers obliviously buzzed and fed on. Reminiscent of much of the recent Gustav Metzger exhibition, it’s a process-based piece dedicated to entropy, parodying the supposed permanence of a work of art.

This does admittedly mean that the best place for this work isn’t behind the paywall of an exhibition. Were it housed in a lobby or busy throughway, somewhere people pass recurrently, they would be able to take in this process of decomposition. Though photos of it appear elsewhere, you mostly get this essential sense through the exercise of imagination. (This is a duplicate of a work first shown in 1991, but I couldn’t find anywhere where or how the original was displayed.)

But there’s also another dimension. It’s partly reminiscent of ‘The Birds’ in the way the familiar is transformed into the threatening, like tuning into an unnoticed background noise whose hum then can’t be switched off. Though clearly in some way about the return of the repressed, there’s a necessary nebulousness to it, a sense that to pin the image to anything too specific would rob it of its evocativeness.

Yet, while Du Maurier’s novel could be successfully transplanted to America for the Hitchcock film, flies are as British as they come... Hirst is described as “peculiarly British” and, perhaps of all the works on show here, this is the most British. It is precisely because of our narrow summers that getting the barbeque out of the shed becomes such a ritual – the squeaky greeting of the title, the overly familiar white plastic chairs, the little pots of salt and pepper. Flies are persistent but peripheral irritants to all this, they don’t normally swarm like locusts or sting like mosquitos. The result is a work which is not strange but strangely familiar. It reminded me of Pinter’s celebrated phrase, “the weasel in the cocktail cabinet.”

Un-wowed by Value:

The final room, ‘Value Systems’, examines “the difficulty of maintaining a radical stance outside the dominant value system.” Which is of course an excellent question. Alas, though, it is not one necessarily addressed by the room.

The afore-mentioned Gustav Metzger now appears with a wall of Page Three girls, virtually as ubiquitous as those flies, updated daily with each new copy of ‘The Sun.’ Seeing these photos lined up together, not served up consecutively, does throw up their trite formality. There’s basically three poses – hands by sides, hands behind head, one hand doing each. Characterful faces are not sought after as they’re not what we’re supposed to be looking at.

But this is an update of a work from 1977, and unfortunately it shows. The point is presumably how prevalent “the female nude” is in art, and how these photos are a reflection of that merely aimed at another class group. But porn is now so ubiquitous that it’s not at all surprising to see it in a gallery. Like the recent reshowing of COUM Transmissions ‘Prostitution’ it feels dated, trapped in time, more removed from us than the vitrines. The Guerilla Girls have offered a pithier and more vital take on such themes. (Which means, in a supreme irony, l liked Hirst’s Metzger-like piece more than Metzger’s own!)

But Metzger’s piece is at least of a time, if not ours. Opposite him is a wall of clippings of reviews and news accounts of the exhibition. We’re seemingly asked to thrill to the modernity of these being incorporated into the show while it is still on, creating a post-modern feedback loop, but if anything it just displays a redundant print fixation. It might have worked better if less ostentatiously displayed, or if it had invited some form of audience interaction. (Perhaps inviting you to rearrange the clippings, according to your favour.)

This exhibition was often poorly received by critics, accusing it of two kinds of straying. The first was from sculpture itself. Hirst’s vitrines, for example, are they sculpture or installation works? Frankly, I don’t care. This exhibition showed them to me, and I was glad to see them.

It’s also accused of straying from the greatest hits and, implied by association, failing at a through-line. As Ossian Ward grumbled in ’Time Out’: “Rather than a heavyweight survey of moulding and assembling, 'Modern British Sculpture' is instead a rough-hewn slab from which we have to carve out our own meaningful history and lineage of the form.”

He says it like a bad thing, but in every other way he’s right. The show is best thought of as a mixtape rather than some ’Reader’s Digest’ crammer of the classics. Many of the names people complain about being absent don’t appeal to me anyway (Amish Kapoor or Rachel Whiteread), but more importantly the very point of a mixtape is to stir it up and show you something new. You may have less in the way of pantheonic tick-lists to learn, but it’s more stimulating and at times it’s even fun.

The lack of a through-line admittedly means there’s little to hold your attention in the sections that are less to your liking, and the show’s so diverse that it’s unlikely that many will take to all of it. For me it went from awesome to risible and back several times. But at the end of the day it packs a good three (perhaps four) wows. Which isn’t such a bad bang for your buck...

Coming soon! For the shame of it, more out-of-date stuff...

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