Letter from LONDON and DUBLIN
Curated by Clarris Wallis
Tate Britain, Duveen Galleries, London
It is rare that an institutionally staged exhibition of contemporary art succeeds in clearly articulating the limits of the law. For obvious reasons, publicly accountable museums and galleries steer clear of exhibiting work that addresses the ideological, economic and legislative systems that govern them. And on the occasions when these areas have been tackled, as in the case of Hans Haacke’s 1971 Shapolksy et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, the results have been momentous. Haacke’s work, which famously investigated links between members of the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and shady property dealing, led to the cancellation of his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim and the firing of the curator responsible. More recently, Haacke’s contribution to the 2000 Whitney Biennale, Sanitation which drew parallels between Mayor Giuliani’s censoring of Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin Mary (withdrawn from the exhibition Sensation at the Brooklyn Museum of Art) and Hitler’s designation of modern art as ‘degenerate’ caused a controversy that made international news. But such examples are few and far between. Art as a fully engaged institutional critique, capable of extending its frame of reference directly into the political sphere is, if not a purely historical phenomenon, then one that is now associated, almost exclusively, with contexts outside Western centers of culture and commerce.
In the UK, the world’s oldest democracy (as politicians take pleasure in reminding us), there has been a distinct failure on the part of contemporary artists to address the general public though anything other than provocative gestures designed to incite moral outrage. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, and well into this decade, the most visible British artists have interpreted their entitlement to ‘free speech’ as permission to push the limits of what is morally and aesthetically acceptable. The State’s implication in the social and political injustices of our time—the systematic destruction of the welfare state, the Middle East and Balkan conflicts, and in this decade, the far reaching repercussions of 9/11—have been met with indifference, silence even. Instead, the YBAs, who depressingly remain the dominant force within British art, at home and abroad, together with the institutions that support them, have colluded in the creation of a domestic art scene perceived for the most part by the general public as a spectacular freak show. As a result, contemporary art rarely incites mainstream debate, and on the rare occasions when it does, the discussion circulates around what does, and does not, constitute an offence to moral sensibility.
Against this trend, Mark Wallinger’s work has, since the 1980s, consistently addressed issues of race and class in the construction of British identity; what he calls ‘the politics of representation and the representation of politics.’ His current exhibition, State Britain, showing at Tate Britain until August, takes the logic of the YBA’s courtship of the mainstream media and flips it neatly on its face. State Britain is a meticulous reconstruction of peace campaigner Brain Haw’s rambling construction of banners, photographs and peace flags originally installed in Parliament Square directly opposite the seat of British government. On 23 May 2006, following the passing by Parliament of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act prohibiting unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometer radius of Parliament Square, most of Haws demonstration was removed overnight by police. Taken literally, the perimeter of the exclusion zone bisects Tate Britain, running precisely through the middle of the beautifully proportioned Duveen galleries that form the spine of the building and in which State Britain is installed. The parameter of the exclusion zone is marked on the floor by a line of black tape that swoops through the building, passing under Jacob Epstein’s Jacob and the Angel and alongside Nicolas Hilliard’s portrait of Elizabeth I, and neatly bisects Haw’s demonstration as evidence that it now lies both within and outside the zone.
In June 2001, Haw began his protest against economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in and, together with his ever-expanding demonstration, camped out opposite the Palace of Westminster for the better part of five years. During that time the twin towers fell, Afghanistan was invaded, and sanctions against Iraq turned into occupation and civil war. Madrid and London were bombed, abuses of human rights in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo made headlines and the British Government passed three separate pieces of anti-terrorism and prevention of terrorism legislation, all of which placed significant restrictions on civil liberties and freedom of speech. As the years passed, Haw’s demonstration grew to a 40-meter-long ramshackle wall whose proportions, coincidentally, match those of the Duveen galleries more perfectly than many of the works that in recent years have been commissioned specifically for them. The main structural components of the demonstration are battered placards that proclaim, ‘Baby Killers’, ‘You Lie Kids Die BLIAR’ or feature lurid, scaled-up photographs of the victims of war. They rest satisfyingly between the Duveen’s neo-classical columns, the spaces around them filled—like improvised votive shrines in a cathedral—with teddy bears and limbless dolls piled in little cardboard coffins. Wallinger’s reconstruction is faithful in every detail to the original. It includes a lean-to for making tea and various remnants of Haw’s stay—tobacco, biscuits, drinking water and a sleeping bag—for, like Kurt Schwitters in his Merzbau, Haw actually lived inside his construction.
Wallinger’s work invokes a whole gamut of art historical reference. The arching black line that marks the boundary of the exclusion zone slices a virtual bisection through the real architecture of the Tate like one of Gordon Matta Clark’s ‘building cuts.’ The pathetic, grubby toys suggest the early work of Mike Kelley. The compulsively ordered accumulation of miserable objects recalls installations by Joseph Beuys and Thomas Hirschhorn. Wallinger seems to be asking his audience to consider Haw’s creation, as well as its individual components—agitprop cartoons and journalistic documentation—as art. The entire construction is a ready-made, a simulacrum of a non-art creation magically transformed, and legally redeemed, by its presence in an art gallery.
Curated by Jens Hoffman
and Christina Kennedy
Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin
A jump over the Irish Sea and into Dublin. Thomas Demand, expert creator and recreator of simulacra, opens the second day of the symposium Beyond the Studio by tracing the changing role of the studio in artistic practice from the early Modern period to the present. Tellingly, Demand’s presentation begins with a nod towards Wallinger’s facsimile, which as the German artist pragmatically points out, required studio production of great skill and complexity in order to come into existence twice, the second time to reassert its message in a context that permits free speech. The day before, the symposium’s keynote address by Daniel Buren had tackled the subject of institutional critique more explicitly and in greater length, though with disappointingly little development from the position expounded in his essay of 1971, “The Function of the Studio.” Today Buren’s text reads as a period rant against the failure of curators and institutions to respect the integrity of the artwork, which according to Buren, loses its potency in the transfer from studio (‘the essential, unique space of production’) to gallery. The logical extension of Buren’s claim—that only when it circumvents the museum does art retain the truth of its relationship to its creator—is that artists should engage in guerrilla exhibition making in the public domain, a bit like Brian Haw.
The pretext for the symposium is the Hugh Lane Gallery’s inauguration of _The Studio, _ a substantial exhibition curated by Jens Hoffman (formerly of London’s ICA and now Director of the CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco) and Christina Kennedy (Curator of Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery) which sets out to investigate the role, idea and function of the artist’s studio as the main space of activity in the making of art and includes work by John Baldessari, Daniel Buren, Gerard Byrne, Thomas Demand, Urs Fischer, Fischli/Weiss, Isa Genzken, Andrew Grassie, Martin Kippenberger, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Perry Odgden, Martha Rosler, Dieter Roth, Frances Stark, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ian Wallace and Andy Warhol. With the exception of little Jens Hoffman-esque contrivances like the packing crates left around the exhibition (presumably to remind us that art moves from place to place, and is therefore vulnerable to context) and notwithstanding the exclusively white and overwhelmingly male line-up—Martha Rosler’s neat electronic office and Isa Genzken’s self-portraits in Cologne Cathedral have a wholly different, more self-possessed feel than many of the other works—this is a brave and interesting exhibition. Its inspiration derives from Frances Bacon’s studio, which is permanently installed at the Hugh Lane; it was moved after the artist’s death in 1998 from his London home and reconstructed by archaeologists. Shielded behind thick sheets of what could be bulletproof glass, it’s a hysterical, claustrophobic space full of faded, violent paint splatters, fossilised paint pots and shredded papers reminiscent of a Dieter Roth aggregation. Weirdly, Roth’s work selected for the exhibition—the floor of his studio, vertically installed and beautifully lit so that each smear and scratch looks meant—is uncharacteristically poised and elegant.
What is really impressive about The Studio is how it demonstrates the inverse of Buren’s claim about contingencies of presentation: that a work presented in the right way, and the right company, becomes both more lucid, and more complex. In the context of this show, Bruce Nauman’s Mapping the Studio (in which the artist set up an infra-red camera to record the studio and its resident rodents at night) is no longer mute and tedious, but a meditation on the isolation and boredom necessary to the creative act. Paul McCarthy’s The Painter, which on past viewing has struck me as little more than an obscene and shallow comedy, here resonates uncomfortably with the Bacon studio; a forensic remnant of painting as auto-erotic pathology.
All Hawaii Entrees/Lunar Reggae
Curated by Phillipe Parreno
and Rachael Thomas
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
A half-hour walk from the Hugh Lane Gallery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art is hosting a major contemporary group show, All Hawaii Entrees/Lunar Reggae, whose title is a “work” by Phillipe Parreno and Liam Gilliack; an anagram of the English and Irish for ‘new galleries’, the building in which it is being held. Curated by Parreno and IMMA’s Head of Exhibitions, Rachael Thomas, Lunar Reggae was inspired by Michael Faraday’s observation that, ‘there is no more open door by which you can enter into the study of natural philosophy than by considering the physical phenomena of a candle.” Apparently Parreno’s goal for the exhibition was thus to use its methods of display as well as the artworks included to explore the idea of light as an entity, “one which alters what we see and camouflages what we cannot.” To this end, the show includes works that either play with perception—Jim Lambie’s psychedelic, site specific, multi-colored floor and Doug Aitken’s kaleidoscopic wall of subtly tilting mirrors—or that speak of the ambiguity of appearances—Sarah Morris’s video interview with Robert Towne, in which the screenwriter speaks of real and fictional conspiracy theories and the prevalent sense that all is not as it seems in Hollywood auteur cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Binding the exhibition together are Gillick’s flickering signage for the individual works (with their hideously trite interpretive descriptions) and Carsten Holler’s 7.8Hz which causes a change in the frequency of the electrical system that turns the exhibition lights on and off at set intervals, plunging works into darkness or rendering the film and video projections temporarily invisible.
Lunar Reggae is a prime example of exhibition making at its most willfully perverse and pretentious. But one can’t help but admire IMMA for throwing their full institutional weight and machinery behind an experimental conceit. This is most obvious in the accompanying publication, a beautifully produced, hardbound, fully illustrated, 200-page tome in which all the texts and images have been blurred and recalibrated to the point where they are all but illegible. Towards the end of her catalogue essay about the exhibition, Thomas writes “With the introduction of virtual dimensions, of multifold visual realities, we can no longer assume a reality to which our sense of self corresponds and it is left to the artist to interrogate the nature of reality.” As I read this I’m squinting hard. I’m also wondering why the fact that appearances are deceptive needs reiterating via a medium that doubly obfuscates this message. Parreno may be rewriting the poetics of exhibition making, but he is not changing the conditions of the encounter between viewer and artwork, in anything more than purely visual terms. As long as cultural institutions continue to offer a safe place for freedom of expression, their responsibility, and that of the artists who exhibit in them, is not to celebrate the fact that we can no longer trust what we see, but to expose what the State wishes to withdraw from view.
Clare Carolin is a freelance writer and curator based in London.