Head back down to Vauxhall tube station, skirt round the side of the MI6 building trying not to draw attention to myself, and then stroll along to Damien Hirst’s gallery in Newport Street which, despite some snarky comments about the design of the place I made in an earlier blog, nevertheless managed to win the RIBA prize for last year’s bestest new building or some such honour. The gallery looks ok to me but, frankly, I still can’t see anything particularly special about the design that deserves to be rewarded with any great accolades. To my admittedly untutored eye it just seems like the builders have gutted some old factory, blocked up the windows, stuck in a few dividing walls and layered on several gallons of white emulsion – with the end result being a couple of floors of fairly run-of-the-mill display spaces stacked on top of each other. Evidently I must be missing something and can only assume that, counter-intuitively, the ability to create spaces of such apparent simplicity, does, in fact, require some special level of superior design skill complexity that professionals recognise as unusually exceptional, incredibly wonderful and worthy of acknowledgement by way of sincere hearty handclasps, symbolical pats on the back and the handing out of gold medal type awards
Oh well, I guess maybe I’d better leave the critiquing of all this frozen music stuff to the experts and get back to safer ground, reflecting upon things of which I know a bit more about – ie the stuff that actually ends up getting put into these big empty white cuboid boxes. And so a quick nod back to the last show held here at the Newport Street Gallery which was a mini-retrospective of work by one of Hirst’s great heroes and major influences, the redoubtable Jeff Koons*. Now, were you to admit to finding the American artist’s particular brand of Neo-Conceptualism just a bit too slick and nose-bleedingly banal then you wouldn’t be entirely alone. But, whatever you might think of the actuality of the art, there’s no questioning that the stuff that Koons produced, especially at the start of his career in the mid-1980s, has gained its special place in the art history books and must now be accepted as being a part of the official Modern Art canon. And so for anyone interested in the development of the plastic arts and how they reflect and refract changing visions of societal structures and symbols, the Koons phenomenon can’t just be ignored, however tacky and tasteless one may find it. And again, whatever one thinks of the oleaginous American himself or indeed, his oiky Brit acolyte, there’s no denying that Hirst’s recent representational survey of Koons’ work was well staged and sufficiently comprehensive to allow for any interested viewers to get a proper look, and so reconsider personal prejudices and have them either confirmed or confounded. Doubtless, the very fact that thinking about the show still makes my teeth itch, would probably please both artists and, perhaps rightly, convince them that they had done their jobs well. If I’m totally honest – and this is not a position I would ever normally suggest that any kind of semi-professional hack or blogging critic should willing adopt – then I suppose under duress I might have to offer up some kind of grudging word of thanks to Hirst for taking time off from spinning paints, gutting fish and bisecting farmyard animals to organise the exhibition. After all, even if attendance risked dental damage it’s still good to get the opportunity to see firsthand work that has had an impact on the evolution of artistic practices even if one doesn’t really like it very much.
Anyway, enough of that, what now of the latest show to open at the Gallery? Well, it’s another mini-retrospective of works by another of Hirst’s friends, this time his contemporary and fellow no-longer-quite-so Young British Artist, Gavin Turk. Like both Hirst and Koons, I think it’s fair to say that Turk is also a sort of Neo-Conceptualist, happy to continue a tradition started a century ago by the great Marcel Duchamp and then revitalised by Andy Warhol half a century later. What all of these artists have in common is a shared disinclination to follow what was the traditional artistic path – common to most of Western art history from the Renaissance onwards – of using specific technical skills with paints and canvases to try to create accurate representational images that could either record a specific scene or situation, or else convincingly illustrate an imagined narrative, whether it be historical, mythological, spiritual or otherwise. Rather than bother with any of that old-fashioned kind of stuff these new artists decided that works of art did not need to be fashioned by craftsmen but instead could simply be created through a recontextualisation process, whereby everyday objects would be removed from their normal surroundings and relocated into a studio or gallery setting. Further, they decided that the purpose of art was not to decorate, illustrate or otherwise titillate the optic nerves but to be used as a sort of a mirror for a self-reflective look into the nature of questions about communication, representation and the media in general.
Well, it’s something like that. Suffice to say that there are no landscapes on show in any of the room today but rather a series of what might be considered to be sort of artworld in-jokes. And if you can spot the references and share the Turkish sense of humour then you’ll very likely quite enjoy wandering around the exhibition. Of course, not all the gags work all the time and I’ve never really thought that much of either his bulging black bin liners or shabby discarded sleeping bags, both of which are carefully recreated in bronze and beautifully precision painted. Ok, I get the idea that they’re sort of playing around with the concept of what is an appropriate subject matter for artists to engage with and how silly it is that an artist can transform a bag of trash into a piece of art just by placing it in a gallery, but that strikes me as being just a bit heavy-handed and ponderous. But if those are two of the duffers then most of the rest of his routine works a lot better.
I quite like the mocked-up cover for Hello magazine featuring the artist and his family and promising more pictures and interviews inside which, quite neatly, raises various questions about the relationship between art, artist and celebrity. And then there are the tongue-in-cheek homages to some earlier artists: the fake Pollocks, with the splashes and scribbles apparently being repeated copies of the artist’s signature; the Carl Andre floor piece made from cracked paving stones; and the Robert Morris mirror cubes that have been left outside to stain and tarnish and so negate the whole theoretical and actual beauty of the entire Minimalist ethos. But best of all is the subversive homage to the famous Warhol’s screen print of Elvis wherein the role of the king has been replaced by Turk recreating the pose of poor old Sid Vicious from the video where he himself covers Sinatra singing My Way. It’s all so beautifully, convolutedly self-referential, especially since the actual music video ends with Sid shooting randomly into his audience which itself is one of the more radical ideas of Surrealism proposed by its first Pope, Andre Breton.
Also worth a mention is the work that kick-started Turk’s career, Cave, a simple blue plaque of the type that gets stuck to the outside of a building to indicate that sometime in the past a person of note was once resident therein. Turk created one of these, honouring himself, and offered it as the solitary artwork in his end of year MA show at the Royal College of Art. Evidently, his tutors didn’t think much of this witty commentary on the authenticity of the artist voice and so failed him. It’s easy to imagine just how irritated these serious old men must have been by the apparent glibness and triviality of this display. But that was all 25 years ago and the intervening years have confirmed that it was the young Turk, rather than the old greybeards, who had correctly tuned into the spirit of the times and realised that personality politics, fame and fashion, marketing and self-promotion would be among the key features up for investigation, interpretation and debate among the next generation of artists. I can’t help thinking that he should retitle the work as The Last Laugh.
*I blogged about the Koons show in An Underground Dungeon back in May this year when someone commented that ‘Koons is the Trump of the artworld’.