To Blackfriars tube station and then across the wide windy bridge en route for Tate Modern. Have a quick rummage around in Marcus Campbell’s second hand art bookshop but there’s nothing there to tempt me today so on I go into the gallery, entering via the Turbine Hall and looking out for the latest installation that’s meant to be filling up the space. The previous commission here, Abraham Cruzvillegas’ Empty Lot – a great messy construction of scaffolding poles holding up a stack of boxes filled with earth, out of which sprouted a few scrawny weeds and some tufts of grass – was a bit of a duffer and, sadly, its replacement isn’t much better. Apparently the current work by Philippe Parreno is meant to change and evolve over the ensuing couple of months so maybe I just caught it at a particularly boring point in its metamorphosistic development but, as far as I could tell, all that was being offered up for the eager art lover’s entertainment and edification was a few ceiling lights flashing on and off and a background soundtrack that sounded like the crashing of waves against the shore of some seaside beach locale. Nothing was playing on the large video screens and the supposed shoal of floating fish that was mentioned on the TV press puffery – a bunch of helium balloon party decorations – was immobile, washed up and stranded lifeless among the metal beams holding up the gallery staircase. All in all, hardly a very exciting multi-media experience. So, what is Anywhen meant to be all about, anyway? Well, there are no information leaflets to help the viewer make sense of what is going on, or what’s meant to be going on, just a few sentences on a wall panel explaining that, ‘…the exhibition is a construction of situations or sequences in a non-linear narrative,’ – which is not exactly revelatory – and that the, ‘…sequences of events are triggered by software which is informed by micro-organisms.’ Evidently, somewhere at the back of the Hall is a container full of gloopy bio-sludge cybernetically wired up to an electronic box of tricks that’s meant to be directing operations here. In which case I think Parreno needs to have a word with his informative bugs and tell them to pull their finger out – or maybe that should be tentacle, pseudopodia or some other form of digital extension – and try to make things a bit more interesting. I reckon waving a bottle of Domestos in front of them might do the trick.
In a slightly more serious vein, I think it’s probably time for the Tate to have some kind of review and re-think about the whole idea of the Turbine Hall installations. Giving such a massive space over to an artist to make some kind of grandiose statement or visually dramatic display sounds like a great idea in theory but the problem seems to be that it’s just too big a forum for most of today’s artistic creatives to cope with. And so, instead of the space acting as a springboard for stimulating inspirational thoughts and the subsequent production of exciting, innovatory environments to amaze or intrigue the passing audience, most artists seem to become simply overwhelmed by the sheer limitless multitudinousness of the possibilities with which they might engage. The result is that they freeze like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to think what on earth they can do to fill the acres of empty space. Of course, in the end the little bunnies come up with something – whether it’s last month’s pitifully shabby garden display or the current tedious exercise in otiosity – but it’s all been pretty feeble in recent times. And over the decade or so during which the Turbine Hall has been used as the site for this series of commissions, only a couple of artists have risen to the occasion and produced anything very memorable. Anish Kapoor had a success with his mighty plastic prophylactic, Olafur Eliasson’s giant sun and mirrored ceiling proved to be hugely popular with both public and professionals and Ai Wei Wei almost joined the pantheon but got scuppered when concerns about health and safety denied the audience participation that was going to be such a crucial part of his interactive installation. Instead of letting visitors crunch their personal path through the carpet of ceramic seeds that he’d arranged to have strewn around all over the floor of the Hall – the kind of silly activity that I’m sure kids and arty adults alike would have enjoyed participating in – people were instead just allowed to look down on the display, making the whole thing utterly pointless and very boring for all concerned.
Presumably what the curators hope for is that each new commissioned artist will come up with a truly spectacular site-specific work that will greet visitors entering the Tate, grab their interest and attention and induce an appropriate sense of excitement and expectation to set them happily off on their journey round the rest of the galleries. Instead of which, in recent times at least, the public has been presented with a succession of squibs, each of which has been even damper than its predecessor. Surely a more sensible idea than just offering the space to someone and hoping that they come up with something interesting, would be to turn the commission into a competition and require that the judges, in keeping with the political zeitgeist, pick something suitably populist that looks like it’s got a bit of a wow factor.
Anyway, I’ll leave it to the Tate to follow up on that suggestion in due course. In the meantime, if the current installation is hugely unimpressive then at least it’s free, whereas full price entry to each of the other three temporary exhibitions currently on show varies between £15 and £17 per show, albeit with various discounts for age and other conditions (and maybe reductions for seeing more than one show, although I couldn’t see that option being offered on the gallery website when I had a look). I guess the pricing policy is intended to push locals towards buying annual membership at £70 and hoping that tourists won’t mind subsidising the rest of us. Anyway, of the shows on offer, I could only really recommend paying out for the Rauschenburg retrospective. I just don’t think that Wilfredo Lam, who I’m sure was a very pleasant man but only ever a decidedly second division artist, really deserves to be honoured with an exhibition that fills twelve whole rooms. His South American take on Surrealism, presenting a succession of mythical human-animal chimerae is mildly diverting but the construction of these biomorphs is so heavily indebted to the influence of his friend Picasso that they tend to look like second-rate copies of the master’s originals. I can’t help thinking of the famous quote about how good artists copy but great artists steal, and while Lam was not totally without talent, I think it’s fair to say that he very definitely wasn’t much of a thief.
Crossing over to the new Switch House section, it seems that the pudgy celebrity troubadour Elton John has been given some rooms to show off the massively expensive collection of shoes that he’s dedicated such a lot of energy to acquiring over the past couple of decades. Ok, so it’s not really his footwear on display here but his photographs, a collection of classic pictures by various big star names of the last century including Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and a bunch of other famous modernists. Of course, there are a lot of great individual works here but I don’t think there’s any special coherence to unite the collection other than all the prints look like pretty good, gilt-edged quality securities of the kind that a very rich man might consider it sensible to accumulate into some kind of tax efficient savings portfolio. But it’s not just the investment aspect that makes photographs, or indeed any other kind of classic art, such a sensible thing to collect. As everyone knows, Mrs Marcos was mercilessly mocked for hoarding her hundreds of Jimmy Choos, whereas I’m sure the curatorial team at the Tate fawned all over Mr John and told him what a wonderful eye he had and how generous he was to share his collection with the rest of the world, and all that kind of guff. Of course, if you’ve got sufficient funds and have decided to buy works already acknowledged to be classics of their kind then you don’t have to be all that perspicacious, risk-taking or far-sighted, to go to an auction house, wave a paddle at the right moment and start building up your stock of rock-solid investments. And neither do you have to be that munificent to allow a gallery like the Tate the opportunity to display some of them – far from it. When John comes to selling them on, at some point in the future, their value will have increased by having received the imprimatur of having being shown at such a prestigious venue as Tate Modern – so it’s a win-win situation for all involved. Except maybe those who have to hand over their £15 to see the display.
I admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of big photo shows anyway and tend to get bored pretty quickly when forced to join a crocodile queue to walk round peering at a succession of 10 x 8’s framed and stuck in a line on a wall, as they are here. I think that most of the images in the current display were originally shot with the intention that they would appear on the pages of a magazines or books and, frankly, that’s where they probably still look best. In short, my advice would be to forget the show and flick through the catalogues in the shop and if you like what you see then don’t bother paying the entrance charge but buy the book instead.
At which point I realise that I’ve run out of space to say anything about the Rocky Rauschenburg retrospective. Hopefully the pics of his work already inserted into this blog will suffice to retain interest until I can think of something to write about them sometime after Christmas. In the meantime, have a happy one.