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Front cover of How to Read Contemporary Art by Michael WilsonHow to Read Contemporary Art, Michael Wilson (Thames & Hudson 2013)

The title of this book isn’t the one I wanted. I don’t want to know how to read contemporary art: I want to know how to destroy it. Or most of it, anyway. Alas, its worst forms continue to flourish all around the world. How to Read Contemporary Art devotes double-pages of text-and-photos to dozens of contemporary artists. So it’s full of pretension and fatuity, from Thomas Demand’s Landing (2006), which consists of a smashed vase on a landing (pg. 217), through Gabriel Kuri’s The Recurrence of the Sublime (2003), which consists of a bowl and some avocados wrapped in newspaper (pg. 223), to Rivane Neuenschwander’s Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts) (2002), which consists of a light green napkin folded and abandoned by an “anonymous patron” in a “restaurant or bar” (pg. 279). Michael Wilson’s text is fully worthy of art like that. I didn’t have to look long to confirm that he’s a fluent speaker of International Art English:

Marshalling considerable human and material resources, Pierre Huyghe stages elaborate performances that repeatedly cross and re-cross the boundary separating fact from fiction. In terms of both production values and duration, the videos that document these events have come to resemble full-length, big-budget movies. (“Pierre Huyghe”, pg. 200)

Central to Andrea Bowers’s practice is the connection of art to politics. In videos, installations and drawings she conducts an inquiry into issues of control and empowerment that has shifted from a broad-based exploration of performance and participation into a thoroughgoing focus on the history and aesthetics of injustice and activism. In her multipart project “The Weight of Relevance”, Bowers focuses on those responsible for maintaining and displaying the AIDS Memorial Quilt. (“Andrea Bowers”, pg. 70)

The establishment of loci for intellectual debate is a key part of Hirschhorn’s practice, as is the use of commonplace materials. “I am against work of quality,” he states. “Energy, yes! Quality, no!” In sculptures that frequently take the form of temporary kiosks or pavilions, he takes a “more is more” approach that eschews specialist techniques and privileges ready accessibility over potentially intimidating displays of craft or value. (“Thomas Hirschhorn”, pg. 188)

And so he goes on, waffling and wittering and packing in the polysyllables and pretentious jargon for nearly four hundred pages. There are some small mercies, though: he covers relatively few feminist artists and artists of color, for example. So there’s not much autoproctoscopy from them. But it’s depressing that Chinese artists have been hegemonized by the cultural imperialism of conceptual art too. Ai Weiwei is a big name and a big bullshitter: “Sunflower Seeds consists of 100 million seeds modelled in porcelain and hand-painted to resemble the real thing” (pg. 22). This “uniquely flexible” sculpture has earnt the big bullshitter some big bucks:

Ai Weiwei and some Sunflower Seeds

Ai Weiwei and some Sunflower Seeds

In 2011, a 100 kg pile of the seeds sold at Sotheby’s in London for more than half a million dollars, and in 2012, after a version was displayed at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Tate purchased ten tonnes (about eight million seeds) for its permanent collection. (Ibid.)

Ai Weiwei has definitely learnt from Damien Hirst, an even bigger charlatan who has made even more money from bad art. But I have to admit that Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) is strange and beautiful rather than banal and boring. It’s a platinum skull covered with diamonds and equipped with real teeth. The idea of doing that isn’t special, but the result is: skulls and gems both have powerful effects on our psychology and something interesting happens when they’re combined. The skull cost £15m to make, which has power too. But none of that makes Hirst an artist, rather than a charlatan-entrepreneur. The photos of his shark-in-formaldehyde, deckchair-with-butterflies and spot-painting confirm this. Unlike the skull, they aren’t powerful or strange or beautiful.

For the Love of God by Damien Hirst (2007)

For the Love of God (2007)


He’s a conceptual artist, after all, and the point of conceptual art is to take power away from artists and hand it over to art-critics and art-dealers. Why should talent and skill play any role in success, after all? They certainly don’t explain the fame of Hirst or other “Young British Artists” like Tracy Emin and Rachel Whiteread. It’s another small mercy that Emin doesn’t get a double-page here, but Whiteread does. Her banal-and-boring concept is to take casts of large objects like buildings. Interrogating issues around her work, Wilson witters and waffles like this:

Responding to negative and vacated space via the use of casting techniques and industrial materials … hauntingly infused with memory and loss … consistent with both her own methodologies and the location’s specificities … Reportedly the largest object ever made in resin, Monument is also a technical milestone. … a locus of popular protest and celebration. Embodying both presence and absence … As an artist for whom the interaction of positive and negative space is so significant, it seems apt that Whiteread also stands revealed as equally sensitive to other kinds of opposition and coexistences. (“Rachel Whiteread”, pg. 374)

Smoke Knows by Pae White (2009)

Pae White, Smoke Knows (2009)

Yes. But the artist on the previous page, Pae White, takes something banal and makes it beautiful. Her Smoke Knows (2009) is a “wall-filling tapestry depicting a swirl of white smoke in front of an inky black background”. It sounds simple but it looks gorgeous. I’d like to stand in front of it and admire the way it captures the mathematical concept of chaos – smoke, like water and sand, is a very volatile and sensitive medium, never repeating or keeping the same shape. As for the other art in this book: I would like to drive a steam-roller over most of it.

But if I did do that, Cornelia Parker would have got there before me. Her Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989) consists of silver “dishes, candelabras, trombones” “flattened by a steamroller” and hung from the ceiling of a gallery (pg. 294). All the same, I wouldn’t want to destroy that or some of her other art: it’s conceptual but, like Hirst’s skull, it’s strange and powerful. Another of her pieces, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), has a pretentious title but fails to live up to it. It consists of fragments of a shed Parker “had blown up by the British army” and then hung from the ceiling of a gallery. The photo here shows the fragments dramatically lit and casting eerie shadows. I can’t see great skill or talent there, but it’s a powerful work nonetheless.

Cold Dark Matter by Cordelia Parker (1991)

Cold Dark Matter (1991)

Which makes it unusual in this book. Most of the art and all of the writing remind me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942). Lewis is describing how the Devil works to make prayer unpleasant to a Christian:

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. (Letter XII)

Most of the art here is like “staring at a dead fire in a cold room”: no interest, no excitement, no life. The Devil’s purpose in The Screwtape Letters is to draw a soul towards damnation, so I suppose you could sum How to Read Contemporary Art up as a guide to aesthetic perdition.

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