Cheery Composure

Since last week’s blog offered up a sort of critical review of the previous year’s worth of artistic entertainments that were enjoyed and endured in approximately equal measures by your humble correspondent, I suppose that symmetry might suggest a not unreasonable course of action would then be to follow that up this week with an anticipatory preview of some of the forthcoming annual calendar of treats and treasures that the nation’s curatorial executives have been busy preparing for the new year edification and enlightenment of their eager cultural clientele.  And, frankly, the thought of remaining ensconced in the embracing warmth of the Berman library, hiding behind the big desk and googling my way through the forthcoming attraction web pages of assorted public galleries before tapping up precis versions of what they have on offer, is certainly a tempting proposition.  Then again, it’s hard to contemplate being able to so simply shake off the mixed mantles of a dutiful Protestant work ethic and Stakhanovite devotion to duty that characterised the forty-year career CV that preceded my current contented state of blogological semi-retirement.  And, that being the case, I feel compelled to relinquish the sedentary comforts of studio and sofa and instead lace up my brogues, muss up my muffler, don my heaviest woollen overcoat and once more stride out onto the streets in search of the cultural capital’s cultural capital.

Although as soon as I encounter the grey skies, chill winds and overall misty meteorological conditions that seems to hang so heavily on the city walkways today, I do start to consider cutting short the expedition and maybe turning back to draft out some thoughts about whether the upcoming Van Gogh blockbuster at Tate Britain will help revise my opinion of the tragic dauber and whether the eagerly awaited re-opening of a refurbished Milton Keynes art gallery will help revise my opinion of that … but then things warm up as I travel the tube to Aldgate East and I manage to regain my usual slightly more cheery composure as I walk the dozen steps from underground exit to Whitechapel Gallery entrance.

Alas, as soon as I actually push apart the doors that lead into the main exhibition space here, the mood swing continues its pendulum path edging me once again back into the gloomier side of the penumbral spectrum of my personal mental disposition.  For, instead of being presented with something to raise the spirits – a pretty suite of exuberant colourful paintings, a heavy metal selection of abstracted sculptural shapes or even a looped sequence of flickering filmic video screen inconsequentialities, what is on offer is an exact full-scale replica of a deserted public swimming pool.  And it’s quite hard to actually think of a more depressing sight.  Ok, I suppose I’ve walked into a few particularly grim pubs that have made me want to turn on my heels and depart unquenched and I once had a bedsit in Forest Gate that was certainly cold, creepy and unwelcoming but this empty pool, complete with grubby scuff marks, wind-blown detritus and distressed paint flaking from the walls, represents a new melancholic nadir in the world of sad locational sites.

Of course it’s terribly clever of the artistic duo, Elmgreen & Dragset, to assemble all the tiling, railing, walkways, junk and props that combine to recreate such a precision-made simulacra of doom, especially when it’s done on such a very large scale, but I’m really not sure that it repays the enormous logistical effort and expenditure.  Having read the Gallery guide, it seems that the structure is designed to generate generalised ruminations about the kind of Victorian philanthropy that funded local baths like this one, the civic pride that initially kept them going, the harsher Thatcherite climate that initiated their demise, and the current austerity that is killing them off for good.  Which is all very well but it does feel like a story that could have been told a good deal more economically perhaps through a couple of paintings by Edward Hopper or Frank Auerbach or, better still, Ed Ruscha (as in his small show at the National Gallery last year).  Having said that, I suppose, one could equally well gaze into this empty pool and come up with other alternative readings to the official one proposed by the Gallery.  One might, for instance, find oneself considering how grant funded public institutions like the Whitechapel have changed over the years and in order to keep going are now desperate to accept sponsorship from a hugely successful commercial gallery like Victoria Miro in order to promote a pair of their trendy hipster artists whose links with the local community, for whom the Gallery was originally created, could hardly be further removed.

Or one might even be prompted to think about how art forms have evolved in terms of scale from, say, the small oil paintings of a Van Gogh through the massive canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and on to this current hall-sized installation, with the power of the art diminishing proportionately with each logarithmic increase in size.  And indeed, it seems to me that some of the other much smaller sculptural format works produced by this Nordic pair are far neater, smarter and more effective.  The faux donation box filled not with money but a collection of bus tickets, dice, tablets, a star fish an old sneaker and so on; the baby in a carrycot dumped in front of an ATM cash machine – both placed in the stairway areas between the big display spaces – strike me as quite clever throwaway jokey ideas that give pause for reflection and bemusement.

Less successful, for me at least, is the subsequent sequence of more contrived and heavily worked sculptural assemblages that fill the upper rooms of the Whitechapel. The situations being portrayed – a schoolboy who looks longingly at a rifle; another schoolboy who crouches in a fireplace; a vulture that stares at a nest; a mixed-up crucifixion scene; and a judge’s wig that sits alone on a pedestal – are still quirky and ever so slightly disturbing but the production values are so slick and professional that the works end up looking almost like a pastiche commentary on the passionless emptiness of the international artworld milieu.  Just about every contemporary art fair I’ve ever been to – from Frieze to Miami – seems to be filled up with a not too dissimilar kind of stylishly produced, antiseptically safe, slightly edgy but definitely not too controversial, quite fun, not unpleasant, run-of-the-mill, bland inoffensive stuff that would look just great stuck in the gap between a Hirst dot painting and one of Richter’s silly smeary abstracts.

The small Gallery booklet that accompanies the exhibition provides very little biographical information about either Elmgreen (b. 1961, Denmark) or Dragset (b.1969, Norway) and certainly nothing about their personal relationship or the precise nature of their working partnership.  And, frankly, I can’t say I’m really very interested in whether they are friends or lovers, best mates or maybe can’t stand each other and only stay working together for the sake of the promotion of the brand.  Indeed, in might be seen as somewhat impertinent even to raise the matter and I wouldn’t normally bother except that it allows me to segue rather neatly into the next stop on today’s itinerary taking place just a couple of stops along the Metropolitan line over at the Barbican Centre.

For here the whole basis of the vast survey show that has been so effortfully assembled together and crammed into the Barbican Art Gallery is to examine the nature of artistic pairings or as the exhibition entitles it:  Modern Couples:  Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde.  The show has been put together in association with the Pompidou Centre and walking through the rooms here certainly made me think of the great Parisian art monster and in particular their wonderful permanent collection of Modernist artworks which is displayed in a succession of white cube spaces separated off by repeated ranks of little corridors.  These interstitial spaces tend to be filled up with photos, drawings and other ephemeral items relating to the larger canvases and sculptural works of the adjacent display areas and, consequently, provide diverting additional items of biographical detail or snippets of sociological, political or historical interest to add seasoning to the main course of great art masterpieces nearby.

The Barbican show then is a bit like a vast compilation of Pompidou corridor displays – not uninteresting but rather too much salt, pepper and ketchup not enough steak, chips and peas, if you’ll pardon the non-Veganuary meataphorical metaphor.  Indeed, it’s the kind of an exhibition that one imagines arose from a rather too bibulously enjoyable luncheon that got out of hand as curators vied with one another over the digestif and petits fours to name more and more creative couples that just had to be included…Marcel Duchamp and Maria Martins; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler; Man Ray and Lee Miller; Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington and on and on and on.  As a result of all this name-dropping inflation, around a hundred artists get a namecheck and a wall panel explaining in gossip magazine terms the nature of their personal relationship (and specifically, and perhaps cruelly, how long or short, it lasted).  All this Hello-style tittle-tattle stuff means that there’s comparatively little space left for any great displays of their artworks and little chance for any in-depth exploration or analysis of how the relationship between the various artists, muses and lovers affected the production of their individual (or sometimes collaborative) artworks.

In short, even though there are just about enough paintings, prints and sculptures to make the show worth a visit, it’s all a bit silly and irritating and could have been so much more interesting had the curators selected fewer couples but then perhaps managed to explore each of their creative lives more thoughtfully and thoroughly.

One response to “Cheery Composure

  1. I do hope the forthcoming Tate show assists in an upward revision of Vincent Van Gogh – ”tragic” yes, but mere ”dauber,” surely not!

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