Letter from London
Franko B at the Great Eastern Hotel
Damien Hirst at White Cube
Franko B is an artist most well known for his performance art. I saw one, I Miss You, last year at Tate Modern. In it, Franko walked down a catwalk of white canvas bleeding from both arms. His rotund, short frame was painted completely white and as he walked, drips of red fell down his side, dappling his body, and creating, on the ground beneath, a magical pattern of footprints and spots. The silence during the walk was astonishing; for nearly fifteen minutes, the audience sat mesmerized as the baroque drama unfolded, offering as it did insinuations about endurance, pain, fashion, devotion, and beauty.
If this performance—emblematic of his live work—approached a religious experience, the objects he makes after can rightly be seen as relics. Created from the now painted canvas, Franko covers everyday things—toys, televisions, bicycles, furniture—with cut up bits of square cloth. On their own, they exist as miniature puzzles on the nature of art production and appropriated form. Referencing Dada and pop, each object grows more complicated as you try to unravel it. There is the glue holding the canvas down, the labored layering and application of the swatches, the scissors that had cut them, and the choice of the co-opted form. They are haptic objects, rich with handling and physicality. And beyond their "thingness" is the essence they hold of their history, the act of fabrication of material which is the literal integration of artist’s body into concrete form.
Grouped, the objects attain a stature and physicality that reintroduces the grandeur of the original performance. Such is the result attained in Franko’s recent installation at the chic Great Eastern Hotel. Franko has transformed one of its spacious guest rooms: from reupholstered furniture, to bedsheets and curtains, it’s an all-encompassed tour de force that operates on the scale of Claes Oldenburg’s bedroom. While the room projects muted solemnity and compels hushed tones among visitors, it—like death—is a complex sobriety. Franko reflects this by displaying a mix of upscale and campy objects: champagne glasses in the mini-bar but a rat under the bedside table, an inhaler nearby an ashtray, a plant whose leaves are encased.
The installation succeeds because it plays on our contemporary aesthetic sensibilities, hovering brilliantly on the edge of decorator kitsch. Next to the dark mahogany walls, the palette of white, cream, and burnt sienna (the true color of dried blood) engages the loose modernism of our age. Less successful is the bathroom where the smell of the saturated towels was nauseating, and the normality of the bloodied scene revealed how collapsed the spaces of the bathroom and the crime scene have become in our cultural imagination. Here, nuance is lost and there is no room for wit, imagination, or provocative association. Which ironically, gives an impression that feels close to some of the other blood scattered in the East End right now, the cow’s blood at Damien Hirst’s first gallery show in eight years at White Cube.
Empirically, the gallery is installed spectacularly well. Set up in the form of a church, glass cabinets filled with a panoply of medical equipment, religious paraphernalia, and junk store crap illustrate the deaths of the twelve disciples, the physical form of whom are represented by cows’ heads in formaldehyde in front. Underneath the cabinets are pools and splatters of cow’s blood (the first time I visited, an attendant told me it was Hirst’s) and a nasty odor wafts over the room. Two large butterfly paintings in fluorescent pink and purple transform into stained glass windows from the dense application of butterfly wings. Up front, pale blue canvases with adroitly placed butterflies flank a white cabinet where empty beakers cohabitate with a single white dove representing The Ascension. It looks rather like a Bodum store window.
There is work upstairs, but frankly, it’s more of the same and/or older work that Hirst has tried to jazz up (for instance, a white-on-white dot painting enhanced with gold leaf). There is oppressive excess everywhere. Everything is glossy and brand spanking new. Far worse than earlier work which at least made a statement through scale and sensation, the new works try to eek by just being expensive, elaborate creations (for example, each cows’ head upstairs is stabbed with about twelve Wüsthof knives). This is not creativity, nor is it critique. It’s simply ennui, as expressed through Hirst’s sheer lack of interest—either in the creation of the works that show neither touch nor ingenuity, or the show itself (he didn’t appear at the opening). Moreover, it was evident that the crowds, which while massive, were neither surprised nor appalled. In formal repetition and transparent presentation, the works had no efficacy to conjure notions of life and death and felt instead like a waste.
The work of both Franko B and Damien Hirst has caused scandals in the British art world, usually within the slippery domains of what is moral and decent. However, when faced with the objects themselves, an underlying respect accompanies Franko’s work that compels deeper consideration. With Franko, it is impossible to separate his personal fervor from the thing, a quality that Hirst has never seemed to embody. Increasingly, this lack is what is felt in the largeness of his forms. And although something like conviction may not be a necessary prerequisite for "good" or "interesting" art, I wonder if perhaps it isn’t a piece of what warrants more than a single exhibition.