Friday 29 July 2016


(Yes, twice in a row! Reviews of art exhibitions which are still on!)

”I want the work to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.”
- Mona Hatoum

The Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum is effectively a double exile. Her family had been forced to flee Palestine for Lebanon before her birth. Then, visiting London in 1975, an outbreak of civil war effectively cut her off from home. Such themes, it's generally held, pervade her work.

Which they do. But rather than the polemical artist this might suggest, her work is actually strongly influenced by Surrealism. Of all Modernist art movements, Surrealism may be the one of which people have the most skewed impression. As it's most successful self-publicist Dali came to characterise it after himself, portraying the idea that it's something frenzied and shrieking. Yet Hatoum has none of this in-your-face shock but is instead quietly disturbing, to the point it's sometimes hard to work out how her works have their effect. For example her frequent use of domestic objects, in the show's words, “find the unsettling within the everyday... making the familiar uncanny”.

And at the same time as it unsettles Surrealism can be genuinely funny. It is to society what the Joker is to Gotham city, looking at a mad world and deciding the best response is to laugh. Her performance pieces do sometimes seem set to shock. Her notes for 'Live Work for the Black Room' (1981) even promise “DEATH, DISASTER, DOOM & GLOOM”. But many works have the Surrealists' impish humour, for example with titles which echo their love of wordplay.

'Grater Divide' (2002, above) for example is a food grater blown up to the size of a room divide. While 'No Way' and 'No Way II' (1996) are respectively a colander and sieve with the holes uselessly plugged, form's link to function broken. Both are reminiscent of, for example, Man Ray or Meret Oppenheim. While a chair conjoined with a desk, part of the installation 'Interior/ Exterior Landscape' (2010), recalls Magritte.

Put together these two influences and what results is art which has a political impetus without being politically assertive. It may be relevant that the scale of her work can vary, from large-scale room-sizes installations which can look like grand public statements to very small pieces which we more associate with personalisation.

Hatom herself has said “I’m never trying to make a direct political statement. There are issues in my head, but they’re in the background; they’re not foregrounded in the work, and they’re not specific to my own history... The tension is between the work’s reduced form and the intensity of the possible associations.”

Or “each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand... I don’t want to pin a single meaning on each one.... I want to make use of... contradictions, play on ambiguity, never take anything for what it appears to be.” And to be political without polemical is in itself a hallmark of Surrealism, as in for example their response to the Spanish revolution.

In the early performance piece 'The Negotiating Table', (1983, a still above) she lies prone and plastic-wrapped on a table, surrounded by empty chairs. It's akin to Gilroy's classic cartoon 'The Plum-Pudding In Danger' but here the artist has substituted her own body as the prize to be carved. Her becoming Palestine (and by implication all occupied territories) makes the point in a visceral way – for many, this is a flesh-and-blood issue. It's common for Hatoum to place her self physically in her work in this way. Even in her more conventional artworks, where she's not personally present, she'll use her hair and nails as materials.

But the chairs being empty, that's as significant as the table being full. The politicians and diplomats who decide our fate don't occupy the same space as us, they are absent from our lives the same time as they devour us. The chairs become totems of power, magnifying it through absence, like the master’s boots in Strindberg's ‘Miss Julie’.

And in general in Hatoum's work, the absence of the human body can be as significant as its presence. Take for example, 'Homebound' (2000, above). It's a domestic situation, kitchen utensils scattered on the table, children's toys on the floor. But nobody's home. Even the clothes rail is bare of clothes. With the empty hangers and mattressless wire-frame bed, it looks like some kind of bare skeleton of a dwelling. This is perhaps the closest to her signature work, the domestic situation shot through with something defamilarising until the scene becomes menacing. And in this case, it's literally true. An electric current runs through the scene at intervals; it's hum rising to almost a shriek, the lights building to a glare them dimming away again. You hear that hum before you encounter the scene, like the thunder of an oncoming storm.

The show states “the title plays on ideas of domestic confinement or house arrest”. And perhaps the bare bed does suggest torture by electrocution. While a small cage, for a pet mouse or gerbil, is recursively placed within the scene. (And watch out for that cage motif.) But overall I think the opposite. Literally, our perspective is outside, looking in. Of course we can't enter the scene, at least not without getting ourselves fried. But the bars between us and it seem less required health-and-safety initiative than part of the work. Many Palestinians have been driven out of their homes in precisely this way. In some cases it has been forced on them so suddenly they have had to leave almost all their belongings behind, creating a scene not unlike this one.

The video work 'Measures of Distance' (1988, still above) explores similar themes. In the soundtrack, Hatoum reads out correspondence between herself and her mother. Voices in Arabic can be heard beneath, apparently a conversation between the two. The video images are of her mother, but they're indistinct, not the equivalent of the neat and arranged family snapshots you'd stuff in with a letter. (Her mother's actually in the shower, but you only know that once told it.) And, much as the soundtrack is layered, they are then placed behind a screen of Arabic writing.

The screen becomes not a portal but a membrane, likened by the show to “a curtain or veil”. With her mother speaking of her “being born in exile”, it seems a much more personalised work. But perhaps, like 'Homebound', the point is that we the audience are outside the picture. The distance to us is immeasurable, the experiences unknown and unknowable, the English translation only marginally more comprehensible than the Arabic.

But, as is common of Hatoum's work, at the same time it hints at a universal experience. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can never go home again”, and so it's significance takes on a positive feedback loop with it's inaccessibility. The more we can't get back, the more we want to look. We all have Fall myths about how we lost our close connection to things, whether religious or political. But perhaps they all come down to the personal, our veneration of our own childhood perpetuating the sense of that childhood being external to us.

'Light Sentence' (1992, above) is formally reminiscent of Conrad Shawcross' 'Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV' (2009), shown as part of the Hayward's 2013 Light Show exhibition. In both a light bulb is remotely moved within a wire cage, to change the play of shadows on the walls. Yet beyond that formal similarity the works are entirely different, as different as two canvases might be while still using oil paint.

Shawcross uses a much smaller cage, across which the bulb travels proportionately further. The effect is almost like a simulated fairground ride, as the shadows fly around the walls you have the feeling of hurtling through space even as you stand stationary. In Hatoum's work the bulb moves slowly, up and down between two banks of wire-mesh lockers. And what's evoked isn't a ride but an entrapment. The cages suggest containment without refuge. They reminded me of the way soldiers are given their own kit to look after, but are expected to have it not just arranged in a determined way but available for inspection at any point.

Similarly, the title suggests at imprisonment. The shadows playing on the walls around the viewer create a double layer of wire mesh, as if we the viewers are being enclosed by the work. But it also suggests the modern open-plan office, granting you a small square of territory but at the same time opening you up to scrutiny. As with 'Homebound' the absence of the human figure creates menace, as if we're looking at a space created for people which gives no consideration to them.

When an artist's biography is, to us, exotic there is a temptation to turn it into their Rosebud. This may be exacerbated when that artist is Palestinian, due to the drastic nature of their situation and the media's tendency to reduce them to either terrorists or victims. Our antennae can be out for 'Palestinian voices', who might interpret the situation for us.

Yet exile is a double-edged affair, and Hatoum has said quite explicitly that her work is as informed by arriving in London as it is by leaving Beirut; “My first impression was the control on the individual, the surveillance issues, cameras pointing at you all the time. That’s why these things came into my work right from the beginning... At the Slade, my first encounter with a big institution, I was shocked by the coldness, by all the rules. I was this chaotic person who wanted to find space. But they wouldn’t give me any.” And sometimes it takes an outsider to show your own country to you. She's also commented that the Slade contains the mummified body of Jeremy Bentham, deviser of the omnipotentPanopticon.

'Cellulites' (2012/13 above) in many ways reprises these themes. Open metal 'cells', something like metal lobster pots, echoing the wire mesh lockers, contain glass-blown red hearts. The hearts look as though their shape may be conforming to the imprint of their cages. Or alternately they may be squishing themselves through the gaps, unlike their prisons unconfined to a fixed shape. And then the biological-sounding title suggests at another possibility – the human heart is kept in a cage, we even call it the ribcage.

'Performance Still' (1985), as the name might suggest, is a still from a performance work where she walked around Brixton dragging Doctor Martin boots behind her which were tied to her feet. It feels as internal as 'Homebound' and 'Light Sentence' are external. Perhaps analogously to the proverbial monkey on the back it suggests that we can never really remove our boots – we always drag behind us the dead weight of ideology.

The exhibition shows us both this still and a video of the performance, but strangely at quite separate points. And perhaps ironically the close-up still is much more effective than the video. The video cannot help but highlight the difference between her and everyone else on the street. Some laugh at her, while she's straightfaced. But even when they just ignore her it's still too reminiscent of the Jesus-like suffering artist, bearing the world's sins on behalf of others more concerned with frivolous things.

'Impenetrable' (2000) is again reminiscent of the wire mesh cages. A block of thin rods appears to float etherially, reminiscent of marsh reeds or a bamboo forest – simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. It's immediately aesthetically enticing, in a way that's unusual for Hatoum. It's only when you go up to it do you realise that the smooth-looking rods are barbed. I kept trying to parse this and finally realised the point was that you can't. As the name suggests, it calls to the eye at the same time a meaning can't be hung on it.

If this is not a perfect show, Hatoum is not a consistent artist. Some of her work does stray into the post-modern. (For example, 'Don't Smile, You're On Camera', 1980, a performance piece where she video-scans herself and then members of the audience.) And too many pieces are commentaries on another artist's work, when that work is not even particularly well known.

Plus the show is over-reliant on boards to document her performance pieces. Which reminded me of when museums just line up broken bits of pottery along a shelf. If Hatoum has spoken of the effect upon her of the cold, institutional world of Britain some stills of her work place them in haunted institution surroundings. These work so well it suggests the best place for this exhibition would be the peeling paint and exposed piping of some disused post-war office block, rather than the neat and clean tourist trap of the Tate galleries. The above does focus on the highlights. But then the highlights... well, they're high...

Friday 22 July 2016


Tate Britain
(Yes, a review of an art exhibition that's actually still on!)

”Conceptual art was a critical art rather than a contemplative one – not necessarily for looking at, but for analysing or for reading.”
- From the indicia

”No Rhapsody Here”

Things you will see if you attend this show...

Art made from non-art or even perishable materials, such as oranges, sand and ice. Photography, but clearly intended as documentation rather than as artform. Sometimes documenting the perishable stuff before it... well, perishes. (See for example Bruce McLean's 'Six Sculptures' (1967/9) below.) More widely, a focus on the paraphernalia of recording - on reports, on filing drawers and card index systems. Documentation as a thing in itself, often at the expense of what's being documented.

Hamish Fulton's 'Hitching Times From London to Andorra, And From Andorra to London' (1967), rather than give us photos or sketches of his trip, provides a dryly typed list of the time it took him to get from one place to another. For 'The Spring Recordings', (1972) David Tremlett took field recordings of spring sounds from each of the eighty-one English counties. The eighty-one cassettes are displayed lined up neatly on a shelf, with a sign to helpfully tell us what they are. And with no means for us to hear them.

But what you will really come across is text. Reams and reams of the stuff. Normally in bold geometric fonts, as if serifs weren't considered sufficiently rigorous. The group Art and Language, in the show's words, “echoed the conventions, format and content of academic philosophical journals”. No. 1 of Vol. 3 of their journal was headlined 'Draft for an Anti-Textbook' (1974, below).

Some works come ready-built with their own indicia. While others effectively are their own indicia, words in a frame or just thrown up on a wall. With both, of course, the show then recursively slaps their own indicia on. The show comes to look like the largest and most comprehensive optician's eye test in recorded history.

Okay... so... what do we make of all of this?

Reviews of the show, which were almost universally negative, focused on it's dour tone, it's monochrome look, on those uninviting chunks of text. Adrian Searle in the Guardian called it “uptight... bleak... pleasureless... [and leaving] a taste of ashes”. And it's true, it does have a similar hair-shirt tone to the Godard films of this era. You know, the ones with the five-minute shots of someone eating an apple at the camera while someone else recites Marx. Even the dates it gives in its title are unrounded and unwieldy. It's like it has a disdain for the digestible, like it's decided it'll best gain attention by scraping it's nails down a blackboard. As Art and Language proudly declare, “there is no rhapsody here”.

But beneath the dry deadpan surface there's traces of an impish humour, as if all this is a mischievous provocation. The show's quoting Marcel Duchamp's “art of the mind” as an influence before we've even got in the door, and his philosophically pranksterish brand of Dada does seem a strong influence.

Keith Arnatt's 'Self Burial' (1969, above), is made up of a time lapse series of photos in which the artist, maintaining an identical pose, sinks deeper and deeper into the ground. It couldn't be closer to Duchamp's mission statement to “annihilate the ego of the artist”. Ian Burn's 'Mirror Piece' (1967), quite adequately described by it's title, is one of those works which comes with it's own indica. Which also seems to be channelling Duchamp, stating “any of the materials may be replaced at any time necessary/The technique of assembly must be devoid of any interest/ the process is to be simple and ordinary.”

Because this is conceptual art of a particular kind. It's not art in service to a big idea, with anything not conveying that idea in the most direct way possible dismissed as irrelevant. It's concept is art, which is another way of saying it's concept is itself. And it exists not to clearly convey that concept but confound the brain. It doesn't seek to make art in new ways, but corrode the art already made. This is the King exposing himself in your face and defying you to claim he's wearing clothes.

It's true some of Duchamp's chief strategies, such as the use of the random, aren't particularly taken up. But the main way they differ from him is by taking it further. He, for the most part, used objects as art. He didn't use art objects as art, but found objects or assemblages of non-art materials. But times had moved on. Anthony Caro, for example, would make his sculptures from any old bits of metal, not necessarily the 'classical' bronze. So the conceptualists mounted an attack on the art object in itself.

As Joseph Kosuth said in 1969: “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art... Painting is a kind of art. If you are painting you are already accepting the nature of art.”

Toppling the Plinths

And those dates in the title, however unwieldy, tell all. By the Sixties Modernism was no longer the wild child but the steady parent. As seen in the earlier 'Out There' show at Somerset House, local authorities by that point had a budget to stick modernist statues up in shopping centres and around housing estates. People now knew what it was and where to find it. It had triumphed. Which of course meant it was time to depose it.

As Richard Cork said, looking back on this era: “It was extraordinary; everything was being questioned, everything opening up, nothing was sacred at all. And all the work you had grown up thinking was revolutionary, like Caro, all that was being superseded.” Caro seems to have been a particular target, which suits me as I've never taken to his work. But Moore and Hepworth, in fact pretty much everybody seen in 'Out There', were doubtless in the sights too.

Take for example Bruce McLean's 'Pose Work For Plinths' (1971, above) in which the artist improbably substitutes himself for his artwork. In some pictures he does valiantly seem to be trying to pose, but in others he's more trying to settle back on them like into the world's worst sofa. The repeat images become like a kind of cartoon strip which betrays how impossible this task is, as he tosses and turns in different failed combinations.

This time the joke's so visible you almost need to look past it for the point. The differently-sized plinths stand for art removed from it's environment, possibly for hierarchy in general. They stand not just for all the plinths in all the galleries, but all the perspex vitrines, the little bits of red rope and watchful attendants. Those plinths need to be toppled.

But, inevitably, it may have been not an artist but art theorist Clement Greenberg (champion of American Abstract Expressionism) who functioned as their main Aunt Sally. John Latham borrowed a copy of his 'Art and Culture' from the St. Martins College library, held a party where guests were encouraged to chew and spit out it's pages, collected these in a jar then sought to return it. His contract was instead suspended.

But the attack was not always so direct. The show says “placing and context for the artwork were seen as key issues”. And this was true in both the immediate and the general sense. Once people figured they knew what a Modernist artwork was, making those elements absent was to deliberately with-hold them. And conscious with-holding starts to take on an almost totemic force. What's not there matters as much as what is.

Art and Language's Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin provide two anti-maps, 'Map of a Thirty-Six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean, West of Oahu' (1967). It's entirely accurate but, being just of the surface of the ocean, entirely blank. While the somewhat gloriously titled 'Map Not To Indicate' (1967, below) is of the United States, but showing only the states of Iowa and Kentucky. (Chosen, I suspect, because both have borders which are simple straight lines.) Keith Arnatt even called a work 'Art As An Act of Omission' (1971).

“Artists were making blank films,” said Lucy Lippard in 1969. “They locked galleries and practiced doing nothing. They were denying conventional art by emphasising emptiness, cancellation, the vacuum, the void, the dematerialised, the invisible.” (Most probably about the similar American scene, but it's too good not to quote.)

Art is Language

The second big influence, at least as big as Duchamp, doesn't get mentioned by the show at all. Which is probably because it wasn't itself an art movement. But then Conceptualism was almost unique in being an art movement based in art schools and academia. Normally, you went to art school only if you wanted to join a band. Not here. Art and Language for example were based at Coventry College of Art.

And they picked up on the then-current academic interest in Structuralism and – increasingly, as the Sixties progressed – Post-Structuralism. This was the notion that language was not just slippery or open to abuse. It contended that what language really described was itself, it was a self-referential, self-defining system. Language was not a neutral labelling device, providing tags by which we might describe the world, but a mechanism by which we impose meanings upon it.

We're used to the idea of institutionalisation, of how a powerful organisation can not just win people's compliance but shape their thinking to its moulds. We're used to the idea of this being achieved partly through language, by devising terminology that people inevitably then adopt. Get them to talk your talk and you're almost there. But this, it was contended, was inherent - language always worked that way.

And more, it threw open the definition of language - seeing it as a system of signs. The clothes you wear, they're a language where you 'say' something about yourself to the world. Road signs and traffic lights? Language. And visual art? Language, too. Art, in seeming to spring from the individual genius artists, is quite possibly ideology in it's neatest form. And visual art may be the most pernicious form of ideology. Images appear to us to be naturalised. Literally, and with it metaphorically, they seem to be not saying anything.

So all this text as art was an attempt to jog us into seeing art as text – to look in the same critical way that we read. As the show says of Art and Language, “language was to be used as art to question art”. And as soon as you convert image back into words the outline of a critique starts to appear. Supposing you read something like “this painting is a portrait of a Seventeenth Century landowner, at home with his possessions”? There's no real value terms in the sentence, no 'feudal' or 'exploiter' or even 'wealthy'. But doesn't it sound like it's already being set up for a social critique, the lead-in to the John Berger chop?

Props Without Agit

The show seems keen to connect this movement to the tumult of Sixties political events, devoting a long wall to a timeline paralleling show openings with anti-Vietnam demonstrations and the like. Those unwieldy years in the title are themselves politically driven, spanning from the start of the Wilson government to the end of the Callaghan.

And, unlike Post-Structuralism, Marx is mentioned. Art and Language in particular declared “a class analysis through the study of meaning in discourse, and the practice of class struggle through didactic activity”. The even said it in a work not so subtlety titled 'Dialectical Materialism' (1975). There's talk of “an art that might reconnect with the world, and act within it”.

But is any of this earned? Like Post-Structuralism, Marx was then fashionable in academia, a name to cite if you wanted to be in the cognoscenti. You could carve a career out of studying him. True, we shouldn't get too sweeping here. Many took up academia as the best means available to combine earning a living with spreading Marxist ideas. But all too often Marx, the man whose axiom was “philosophers have only interpreted the world”, became the subject of academic interpretation. And Marx without the commitment to social engagement isn't Marx any more.

So, in the precise mirror image of Post-Structuralism, Marx is mentioned when he probably shouldn't be. It's like that Godard film with the five-minute shot of someone eating an apple at the camera. Without the other guy reciting Marx.

There's something strangely rarified, even hermetic about this world, those neat shelves of tapes, card index files and aligned text. However rigorously insistent it is that art as a whole should be critiqued, that art is a social product, it seems strangely uninterested in that wider society. Look back at 'Map To Not Indicate'. Something it doesn't indicate is the wave of civil rights, black power and anti-Vietnam agitation then raging across the USA. In fact, it spotlights two states where those movements weren't particularly strong.

The Sixties as we think of them, a conflagration so bright and vibrant, are happening somewhere else. It's almost entirely unlike the agit-prop art of Pete Kennard, so recently seen at the Imperial War Museum. And certainly it's stark monochrome anti-aesthetic and it's incessant problematising is the polar opposite of hippie subculture, with it's dayglo psychedelic posters and it's “do what you feel” hedonism.

But what's perhaps most surprising is how unlike it is to the other Dada-derived movement of the era. Fluxus (originally Neo-Dada) had it's Festivals of Misfits, it's iconoclastic happenings, it's pranks and stunts and jamming of high culture. Fluxus was as messy, as convulsive, as Conceptualism was neat and rigorous. Just compare those neat lines of aligned text to the scrawl and collage of the 1963 Fluxus manifesto (below), before you even get on to the content calling to “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART”.

The critique commonly (if wrongly) made of Dada is that anti-art was still art. Whereas the critique of Conceptualism, that anti-academia is still academia, that an anti-textbook is still a textbook, is much more on the money. This was, let's face it, scarcely inflammatory stuff.

Conceptualism's impersonation of academia was simply too successful, the infiltrators gone native. By rooting itself in art colleges and public funding, it was genuinely trying to bite the hand that fed it. But who else was it encouraging to do the same? You wonder what kind of audience it considered itself to be aimed at. The attempts to reach “the people” by the public artists of the 'Outside In' show may have been flawed, and to a degree even patronising. But at least there were some.

So have the Tate simply gone for the wrong target, and it's Fluxus we need to be spirit guided by right now? Certainly the summation of the manifesto is stirring stuff - “FUSE the cadres of social, cultural and political revolutionaries into united front & action.” But it's not just that it was active in the political and cultural spheres simultaneously. It's that it seized culture by it's lapels and shook, audaciously stoking up people's imaginations. Dissent was made to seem not just necessary but enticing and attractive – we were too cool for rule. That is something we seem to have lost hold of in more recent years.

But it might be truer to say that the two movements were the broken halves of what needed to be one thing. Inheritors to a radical tradition, Fluxus was never as hippy-dippy or bliss-out hedonistic as other Sixties scenes. But it was more concerned with iconoclasm than incisiveness, more about motion than substance. It was often accused of uncritically replicating that radical tradition, of diligently reassembling the past and so making yesterday's mistakes today. While Conceptualism was merely critical. One frenzied, one lucid. 

And perhaps those halves mirrored the two wings of original Dada, the cerebral questioning of Duchamp on one hand and the savage tracts of Grosz and Heartfield on the other.

Time For Strife

The show states “by the mid-1970s there was a widespread recognition and institutional support for conceptual art”. Which of course meant orthodoxies had to be overthrown all over again. And in fact the final room, 'Action Practice', is so different from all that’s come before that it’s like walking into a different exhibition. As the name suggests politics finally enters the frame, and as it does the monochrome anti-aesthetic departs.

Why should that be? This segues into another point. While earlier it seemed far from convincing this wasn't the British wing of an international movement, making the parameters of the show somewhat arbitrary, here the context does seem more uniquely British.

In Britain 1968 had not been the seismic year that it had in other countries. In France, they talk to this day of soixante-huitards. While the Wikipedia article ‘Protests of 1968’ doesn’t even contain a section on Britain. It's widely accepted that here the social changes most associated with 'the Sixties' almost entirely happened in the Seventies.

And the politics employed have moved from the theoretical to the concrete. Two of the main works are concerned with feminism and the troubles in Northern Ireland. Feminism had not been shy of savvy media events, such as the 1970 Miss World protests. But it's backbone had been grassroots consciousness-raising groups, and it had devised the now-well-known slogan 'the personal is political'. If much Sixties activism had been no more than the radical chic and attention-grabbing antics it's detractors claimed, feminism was one of the exceptions.

And those roots gave it a staying power. Moreover, while it was as keen to expose and question unstated norms as Conceptualism, it was not some dry and disengaged formal enquiry – it was directly concerned with lived experience. (It was only at this point I noticed how few women artists there'd been up till now. So much for my political credibility!) Northern Ireland, in some ways similarly, was a slow-burning issue – something which refused to go away.

In fact, when you start to look at Margaret Harrison's 'Homeworkers' (1977, above) and Conrad Atkinson's 'Northern Ireland 1968 – May Day 1975' (1975/6) you can still see traces of Conceptualism's dry formalism. Neither work is at all concerned with self-expression, but with social enquiry – art as reportage. Harrison's subject is the then-widespread practice to get women to perform piece work from home, so she stitches in examples of the things those homeworkers would assemble – buttons, stamps and jewellery.

While Atkinson juxtaposes quotes from Loyalists, Republicans and British soldiers. One squaddie is reported as wishing the Catholics were “wogs”, the easier to shoot them with impunity. It's posted up without comment, it's for us to decide how we feel about it. This is still some way from the heated agit-prop of Pete Kennard. Yet in art the aesthetics matter. And Harrison's work in particular looks mid-way between a collage and a banner, messy and immediate, art as weapon in the culture wars.

Downhill To Here

Okay... so... that's what to make of it was. But a more pertinent question might be, what does it look like from here? Whatever the faults, I think the short answer to that is “we look back up at it from downhill”.

Complaints made about this show often suggest that this is where we got sold the magic beans. Conceptualism was a bum deal where, seduced by fine-sounding film-flam, we swapped aesthetics for empty gestures. At which point it normally gets associated with Brit Art. For example the Stuckists, Brit Art's perennial antagonists, use the slogan “death to conceptual art” (variant above). But if people associate the two that's because they dislike both, so figure they must be linked.

Art and Language always exhibited under the group name. (Even if I've followed the show's convention and credited individual artists here.) Can you imagine Brit Art doing that? It marked the inevitable degeneration from artist as individual genius to artist as celebrity. Art became the means to propagate yourself as a brand, just as music had before it. Tracy Emin's bed gets displayed in a gallery like Kurt Cobain's smashed guitar, something come down from the world of fame which we can gaze on. It was because of this that Brit Art could become the public face of contemporary art.

But the face is not the body. Go to a regular, not a well-known, contemporary gallery and chances are it won't be Brit Art you'll see. And it's this art, the crappy polaroids attached to some polysyllabic screed, which is a debased parody of conceptualism. (See here for a particularly egregious example, but there's plenty of them.) It's like the difference between piss and shit. Shit smells worse, but piss is more prevalent.

It's chiefly characterised by what Alix Rule and David Levine tagged as International Art English. And you can see the degeneration from Seventies conceptualism to IAE right on the gallery walls here. Try...

“By deciding one area to be the 'area of attention', then the area that is designed as 'not the area of attention' will demand a sufficient amount of attention for it to be acknowledged as 'not the area of attention'.”


“...anathema to an understanding of a modernist compositional syntax that valued quality of presence over process.”

The first is from Art and Language describing their work 'Air Conditioning Show' (1966/7). The second is, irony of ironies, from the show's own indicia describing Art and Language. The first is sharp and witty and above all does actually mean something. (It describes, for example, the white surround on Malevich's 'Black Square' perfectly accurately.) The second... well I don't think it means anything. But more to the point I don't care. It's just so damned uninvolving. It sounds like its saying something clever. So let's just assume it is, rather than bother reading it again.

What's significant here is that this is so unlike the pseudo-poetic luvvie speak so often associated with art writing. It's prose is sterile and bloodless, the jargon of academia without the content, the glossolalia of intellectualism. Ben Davis called IAE “the joke that forgot it was funny”. Just like anti-art became art and anti-music became music, this deadpan parody of discourse became discourse. Yet by remembering when it was funny, by looking back up that slippery slope we rolled down, perhaps we can get out of that lake of piss art is now in.

Saturday 16 July 2016


(You guessed it, another art exhibition reviewed after it closes!)

Modern Art In A Modern World

Let's start the way the show does, with the 1951 Festival of Britain. Which showcased important sculptors, among them Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein. (All mentioned in past posts.) But that was only the half of it. It was possibly the closest we Brits came to the Year Zero moment in art, as experienced in Russia after the revolution of 1917.

That might sound not stretched so much as fanciful, akin to saying the nearest thing we had to the Tatlin tower was the Blackpool illuminations. Yet the comparison is there. Art didn't just become intertwined with politics, which implies two separate elements working closely together. Instead there was more of a fusion, the disaffected bohemian replaced by the cultural worker and social engineer. And if we never got quite that far, this was our closest shot.

The War years had disrupted traditional class divisions. But it was with the immediate post-war era that those changes became cemented, that it became clear things weren't going to slip back into the way they were. (The documentary 'Spirit of '45' recounts this in a more-or-less accurate way.) To generalise we could say that society came to be seen as an association of people, so it should be run by those people and for their benefit as much as possible. (An idea which now seems to us blindingly obvious and hopelessly impossible.)

And the Festival of Britain was the point where those changes became manifest in art and design. As I said after the recent Barbara Hepworth show, “living in a newly invented world, they needed a newly invented art to go with it.” The show describes it as “a new art which celebrated the general public, the hopes and ambitions of a new era”.

And while Modernism had once seemed entirely foreign, a continental import as strange and indigestible as their food, large sections of the public took to this new art. Hugh Casson, Director of Architecture at the Festival, commented “we did not see why the exhibition should be either highbrow or lowbrow. We believe in concertina brows”. Prior to the Festival, a 1948 open-air exhibition of sculpture in Battersea, it's poster listing the artists alphabetically in bold Modernist type, allowed punters to touch the works and was popular enough for there to be six follow-ups. (The last in 1966.) There were two touring exhibitions of Contemporary British Sculpture, in '57 and '58.

Modernism had set itself the task of making art direct and accessible again, works you didn't need a degree in Classics to decode. And the response to its efforts was almost invariably “I don't get it”, “what is this weird stuff?” or “I'm calling the police”. Here artists were producing art for “the people” which was actually appreciated by people. Which is pretty remarkable in itself.

And the open-air busting the bounds of the conventional gallery setting shouldn't be underestimated as a factor. Sculpture was being transformed the same time as re-sited, the two went hand in hand. “If sculpture is nowadays the Cinderella of the arts”, said David Sylvester that year, “the Festival of Britain has provided her with glass slippers, a carriage and six white horses.”

Two examples should hopefully convey this (both above). The photograph of the Constructivist-looking 'Skylon' (by Powell and Moya), shows it pointing straight upwards from the South Bank. An elegant exclamation mark, feet in the world of now, head raised boldly to the stars. It's unclear whether it's sculpture, architecture or science fiction prop. While Peter Lazlo Peri's 'Sunbathers', hung on a wall near the entrance to the Festival, is snapped with heads peering down on it's figures. They're both invigorating images, suggesting new perspectives ahead. And in both cases the work gets much of it's impact from it's environment, from where it's situated.

If we're going to bust the myth of individual artistic genius and insist artworks can only be part of their surrounding society, then that must include the system of patronage which allows their creation. Change the way they're paid for and you change the works. And as the Illustrated London News points out, as quoted in the exhibition, “the Government today has perforce become the big patron of the arts; in the past rich individuals, princes and the church fulfilled this function.” (8/7/67) Notably, it was in 1946 that the Arts Council was created. (By John Maynard Keynes, no less.)

To quote again from my Hepworth review: “...the new taste for public projects proved both a context and a market for large, site-specific sculpture. Once a hospital might have hung in it's lobby a broad oil of its generous benefactor, for the rest of us to walk respectfully beneath. The creation of institutions such as the NHS allowed for sculpture to celebrate the doctor or surgeon, or perhaps just the idealised human form.... like the NHS, Hepworth sees art as playing a public role.”

It's true those patrons could also be corporate. Hepworth's 'Winged Figure' 1957, above) adorned the side of John Lewis' in Oxford Street, Geoffrey Clarke's 'The Spirit of Electricity' (1958/61) the Thorn Electrical Industries building and Dorothy Anna's now gone 'Expanding Universe' the Bank of England. However, as they conformed to the same overall aesthetic, the message they gave was that the corporations could also be benevolent and public-spirited. After all, they funded art the way a public body would. In each example the sculpture is outside the building, part of public space, not in a central lobby.

Moreover, art wasn't just in sculpture parks or adorning central London headquarters – sometimes it would even come to you. Whereas today Councils aren't given enough money for even the most basic amenities, back then they had a budget for public art. The exhibition focuses on Harlow as one of the many post-war new towns, begun in 1947 and designed to be “a Modernist Florence”. No less than sixty-five sculptures were sited there.

As an example of the post-war focus on planning, its Chief Architect Fred Gillard refers to it as being “like a motor car or a sewing machine”, as a component of parts. Once towns just grew, the only question being whether they did so freely or within controls and limits. Now they were to be planned from scratch, with art included as one of the amenities. Urban planning and an interest in social space go hand in hand. Without this, every building is a separate unit, and the spaces inbetween somewhat like the spaces between words in a sentence - necessary but unimportant.

The role of artist, architect and engineer often overlapped. William Mitchell's wall for the Lea Valley Water Company, in 1964, (above) was made through 'faircrete', a combination of concrete and modeller's clay. This innovation allowed sculptural reliefs to be created in modular form, the better to cover large areas. They were advertised, rather wonderfully, as “sculpture by the yard”. Like the combination of 'artistic' and 'industrial' materials, the result looks modern and traditional at the same time, recalling Nazcal symbols or cave art.

Of course once you start to ask what went into those plans or how those roles overlapped, divisions started to appear. One view was that “the architecture was the art”, that to add a statue to it post-hoc was to suggest it was previously incomplete. The 'This Is Tomorrow' exhibition of 1956 quoted architect James Stirling: “why clutter our buildings with pieces of sculpture when the architect can make his medium so exciting that the need for sculpture can be done away with?” (Something which could easily have been said by a Soviet Constructivist.)

While sculptor Franta Belsky took a less utopian tack: “There's a need for art in today's towns. The economics of production force up dehumanised, machine-made boxes.” Here we need art as a salve. Like that beer after work, it's something which makes daily life bearable.

There was something genuinely egalitarian in this new world of planning, but at the same time something paternalistic which tipped into condescention. And it's art did not escape this. Photos repeatedly show a child looking up at an oversize sculpture (see above), suggesting a parachute drop of high culture in the low spaces. No-one involved would have thought of this as propaganda art. Yet part of the project was putting it in the path of impressionable minds in order to impress them. The public needed educating and improving, and sculpture was a less laboursome method than broadcasting Elgar from loudspeakers to housing estates.

Which was perhaps inevitable. The post-war consensus hadn't eliminated the class system, so much as brokered a kind of truce. Which left the few still deciding things for the many, just with an added obligation to consider their welfare. Inevitably this opened the door to expertise, and to bureaucracy.

Back to Angst

But the artist as social engineer couldn't last forever, and soon the disaffected bohemians were back. How could it be otherwise? If the next generation of artists were to continue with the universalised public art of Moore and Hepworth they would merely have been imitative of them. And Modernism simply wasn't built that way.

Rather, it existed in perpetual opposition to the orthodox and accepted. The Russian Futurist Manifesto had been titled 'A Slap In the Face of Public Taste' and spoke of the poets' right to “an insurmountable hatred for the language existing before their time”. You knocked the art of the generation before off its comfortable plinths, and in upsetting it you sought to upset everyone around it. That was just how it worked.

And besides if those post-war gains had been delivered, didn't that just expose how timid they really were? They weren't the 'socialism' they were so often labelled, so much as a more mitigated version of capitalism. Most people still left their domestic units in the morning to take their allotted place at the production line or in their work cubicle, perhaps now passing a modernist sculpture on the way. It art wasn't arresting, if it just blended into this bland world, then what was the point of that? The post-war consensus was at once too inadequate and too naturalised, simultaneously taken for granted and stultifying.

And it was this which took us into a strange paradox. For all of my adult life political battles have largely been defensive, about keeping for example the NHS in the face of pro-market “reforms”. Which was, and remains, completely the correct thing to do. But even as we fight those fights we shouldn't forget that the post-war consensus was first challenged from our side. It was never what we really wanted. Just what we could get.

Given all this, the surprising thing isn't that art goes back to expressing angst and alienation. The surprising thing is that, so comprehensive had the institutions become towards creating publicly funded art, that this new wine simply pours into the old bottles. The most private art came to appear in the most public settings. Many of the artists connected to what became known as the Geometry of Fear group, (sometimes 'pylon art') such as Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick, had first been exhibited in the Festival of Britain.

Michael Neyland's bleakly existential 'City' looks something like the Tzar's wedding cake image, balanced on the shoulders of workers, but instead of a neat hierarchy a series of interchangeable cells in various stages of dissaray – tower block as existential prison. It's one of the unlikeliest contenders for public art by some margin, but at that time that was where the funding lay so that's what it became. (Alas I couldn't find an image of this on-line.)

But of course the new wine would explode the old bottles eventually. And by the late Sixties the post-war consensus was already straining. The poster for the 1968 'New British Sculpture' exhibition in Bristol (above) played on this, using a black-and-white photo of cops examining a bright yellow abstract sculpture, like a corpse at a crime scene. A proposed City Sculpture Project in 1972, found the participating artists “made challenging objects”, which came to be much criticised and even vandalised. 

The meeting of minds between Modernist artist and the people at large had become a headbutt all over again, and they soon retired to their opposite corners. William Turnbull was to comment “the problem with public sculpture is with the public – not the sculpture”. Warren Mitchell noted “the phone literally stopped ringing with British commissions in 1974.”

Modernist Heritage?

The show talks about this art's “value as part of our post-war heritage”, and ends with boards displaying works both already lost and under threat. Indeed, curated by Heritage England, this is the show's raison d'etre. Trevor Tennant's 'New Horizons' wall relief was added to the bright open-plan lobby of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 1963. Yet a telling photo in the exhibition shows how it came to be almost entirely obscured by a vending machine. Aren't they right? Shouldn't we try to push back that vending machine?

Yet after the Festival of Britain, the Skylon and many of the other works, having performed their function, were simply melted down. It recalls Owen Hatherley's fine polemic 'Militant Modernism', “a defence of Modernism against its defenders... it attempts to reclaim a revolutionary modernism against its absorption into the heritage industry and the aesthetics of the luxury flat”.

Once people had faith in the future, had invested themselves in the notion that by working together we could make something better than the present. Now, in the blackest of ironies, all we can do is feel nostalgic for that. Can we really preserve a modernist public sculpture, the way we would a Tudor cottage?

With Lynn Chadwick's 'Trigon' (1961) we see a cast of the sculpture itself look resplendent in the gallery. But seen in situ, in a photo of Harlow Broadwark, it sits sadly and anonymously between a McDonalds and a 99p store. (The photo above isn't from the show, but is similar.) Compare that to a photo of it in it's heyday (also above). Then picture the proverbial Japanese soldier on his remote island, not knowing the war is over. Now imagine him transplanted to downtown Tokyo, surrounded by the signs of multinationals, but still with no idea the war is over.

One video (from 1955) shows a contemporary reaction to Belsky's 'The Lesson', newly erected on a housing estate. Though the work itself is representational and unchallenging, the reaction is almost entirely negative. (Most insisting the money could have been spent on more vital things, though it would be interesting to have that unpicked further.)

While another features a recent campaign in Tower Hamlets to prevent the sale of Moore's 'Draped Seated Woman', (above) nicknamed “Old Flo” by locals. Bob and Roberta Smith's sign painting 'I Tried To Save Old Flo' (2013) quotes a local: “if we sell it we might as well sell ourselves”. And of course that's just what is happening. To come across a public sculpture in the street and see only a saleable commodity on the art market, that's neoliberalism in a nutshell. And yet, while the work was saved, it was moved to a sculpture park while the housing estate it was originally placed in was demolished. Do we count that as a victory?

The two videos aren't about the same artwork in the same location. Yet couldn't they be? Couldn't locals have originally objected to the imposition of an interloper in their midst, who over time become familiar and finally over-familiar? Which fits the changing way politicians like Tony Benn came to be viewed over the same time period, passing from dangerous extremist to valiant stalwart. Increased respect was simply a sign of decreased effectiveness. The art existing in a physical context matched the way it fitted a political context, it was part of a new world being built. To retain just the art is to retain only a token, an exotic memory of an era so far away it's almost a fairy tale. We don't want to save the works. We want to rekindle the era that created them.

The benefits of getting past heritage thinking are clear enough. We've become conditioned to see art as some tension between individual self-expression on the one hand, and commodification and marketability on the other. You want to make art that is you, yet you also need it to sell. This era of public art, however limited it may have been in practice, makes it clear that those things aren't in opposition at all - but merely two heads on the same hydra. Both need lopping off if art, or for that matter society, is ever going to flourish. 

Yet even when we see examples in front of us it can be hard for us to think our way back to that. If it's hard for that soldier, standing like a sentry in the shopping centre to perceive the war is over it can be as hard for us to remember what it was like when it raged.

Gallery goers were able to pin up their thoughts at the end. I'll let the last words go to one of them...

Coming soon! A non-out-of-date exhibition review... no, honest...