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Friday, 26 April 2013

CONTEMPORARY ART – IS IT ALL JUST A GREAT BIG STEAMING PILE OF CRAP?



A detour round Tate Britain, taking in Jess Flood-Paddock and Jake Chapman, the better to ask the questions which everybody else does

Now, despite what that Daily Mail style header might suggest, I am not some traditionalist type who would suppress everything that happened after Landseer and who regards those Impressionists as dangerously modern and quite possibly foreign.

But as I was watching the recent repeats of Robert Hughes' 'Shock of the New' series, I noticed he seemed as keen to find end-points for Modernist movements as beginnings. Indeed, sometimes it feels like Modernism inhabited a bit of a bubble. From Impressionism to Fluxus... the 1870s to the 1960s... it rode a wave of technological and social change. Radical and innovative art seemed not a fringe, not even a response to but a component of a wider trend.

Once that era was over, what were we left with but a series of spent gestures now divorced from their meaning? Arriving after Modernism's last supper, we were inevitably left with nothing but the dirty dishes. Art became beached in Post-modern purposelessness.

Take for example Jess Flood-Paddock's 'Mindless, Mindless', (up top) in which a bunch of over-sized bicycle seats are artfully arranged on a section of Tate Britain floor. This, we are given to believe, is a comment on the recent riots. Bicycle seats often get nicked, something which Flood-Paddock has used to  (and I quote) “explore the exchange value of objects and, more specifically, their emotional value” in a work which is “concerned with the rhetoric of over simplification and misrepresentation.”

It is of course a great big steaming pile of crap.

Even if I were convinced that bicycle seats were an insightful emblem of the riots (which I'm not), there's no way you'd make that connection simply by looking at them. Works like this seem to think they're being conceptual when they're actually being ineffective. The work isn't a package for the idea so much as an oblique general pointer towards it, like getting street directions from a shaky drunk. You need to read the sign just to know what you're supposed to be pontificating about.

With Lis Rhodes' recent 'Light Music' (as covered here), you had to experience the work to get it. Here it's all happening backwards. You feel the artist wrote a proposal promising a cutting-edge challenging piece about a hot social issue. She knew her audience and what they'd go for.

But that audience isn't even the audience, it's not you or me. Of course the whole caboodle is aimed at the ones with the real purchasing power - the curators. You can so easily imagine them getting all excited...the urban riots! ...the ones that happened a few short miles from this gallery! ...how now, darling! ...how edgy! The work itself and it's relation to us punters is secondary at best. The sales pitch was successful, the commission was won. On to the next one. This isn't art as social comment. It's art as blag.

I emerged from the room speculating that if there's more riots, and if they break in the gallery and make off with those stupid oversize seats... that would be an artistic statement worth making.

When you see such sheer unadulterated crap it would be easy to go on to dismiss all contemporary art, to claim everything that came after Modernism was mere post-modern claptrap, a sea of signs signifying nothing. But that would be as easy as it would be blind. For it to be true, you'd have to buy into that most post of all Post-modernism's doctrines – that history ended, and all we can do now is repeat and revive. (Clue – if absolutely everybody in the world is standing still, history has ended. If you see anybody still moving about, it's most likely still going on.)

With hindsight, it might seem like Modernism had it easy. But I doubt it felt like that at the time. And just as each Modernist movement broke with the past, rained on yesterday's parade and devised new ways to engage with the contemporary, so should we.


And sometimes, every now and again, people even do. Take for example Jake Chapman's 'Chapman Family Collection' (2002, above). Stumbling across this room elsewhere in Tate Britain, I was pleased to see a display of some splendid-looking African fetishes. True, I was also a little confused as to what they were doing there, and wondering if I'd passed through some secret passage to the British Museum.

You can look at them for some time before you notice. One is clutching what is surely a carved bag of fries. Another has a familiar-looking curvy 'M' inscribed on his shield. The clownish face on that one there, haven't you seen it before? Then it's all around you. A few may be decoys, but most make reference to McDonalds at some point or another.

The cool thing, in direct inversion to all that in-the-know Flood-Paddock crap, is that you have to notice this for yourself. The title and indicia keep up the fiction this is some genuine African collection. In fact, as I was later to discover, when this was first shown at the White Cube gallery, a deadpan press release enthused over these recent ethnographic finds from Camgib, Seirf and Ekoc. (Try them backwards.)

In a way, this is post-modern. The African art, that seemed so authentic to Picasso and his Modernist brethren, is now often expressly made with the collector market in mind. Woodcarvers labour in sweatshops, trying to guess what the Western eye would most want to see. Meanwhile, our fetishes have become the toys and figures we collect with our burgers, or the action figures which have replaced books on bookshelves.

But rather than suggesting that if us gallery-goers get it we must be smart, so are surely above all that, Chapman cunningly implicates us in the process. We enthuse over the figures first, then notice the trick. We're not flattered but ribbed, perhaps even challenged. It's art for our era that still questions our era. To borrow a description I heard somewhere it “explores the exchange value of objects and, more specifically, their emotional value” in a work which is “concerned with the rhetoric of over simplification and misrepresentation.”

The answer, then, to our initial question is – most of the time, yes. That's why I keep turning up to Modernist exhibitions like a man out of time. But not always. Sometimes, even today, art can still have some bite to it.

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