Head down to London Bridge tube station and take the Tooley Street exit, which means barging past the troupe of poor, sad out-of-work actors who lurk around this part of the concourse dressed up as ghouls and ghosts in order to help get in character for the demanding role of handing out tourist flyers for the nearby London Dungeon. Having got past that particular obstruction there always seems to be great swarms of commuters and other travellers all racing in the opposite direction to me, presumably trying to get to the overground and underground trains that will take them to their important destinations in and out of the city. Finally, having fought my way through that swirling tide of migrating humanity, I get to the Bermondsey Street turn off, down which I then proceed. The volume of pedestrian traffic is very much reduced here, but since the pavements are also a lot narrower the atmospheric density of bustling busyness is unaltered and continues unabated. And, since the shops and bistros in this locale are particularly noted for the sophisticated suavity of their uniquely trend-setting fashionability, the passing population tends to be in that state of semi-permanent heightened excitability that inevitably generates a strange kind of desperately enthusiastic chatter aimed at masking the nervousness of those who wish to be considered au courant but fear that they may not be. This curious, not altogether endearing, ambience of high anxiety personal intensity continues down most of the street but has just about petered out by the time I reach my destination of the White Cube. Now, such is the expansive warehouse scale of this suite of industrial sized exhibition arenas that even when there are quite a number of other visitors noseying around – as there usually are whenever I call in – there is still ample space to get a really good uninterrupted look at all the art. Although, having said that, there’s also a strong argument for saying that for all the practical spatial gains of being able to display work within this vast utilitarianistic hangar, the accompanying atmosphere of chilly barren sterility inevitably works against any artist who hopes to create a sense of intimate connectedness between an undecided viewer and the works in front of them.
And I think this does create a very real problem for some of the items currently on display here. To be more specific, two of the three separate shows of work are by artists that might reasonably be categorised as Abstractionists, while the remaining exhibition features a Conceptualist. And while I would concede that since the latter genre is more concerned with the rational analysis of ideas or, to put it more crudely, the importance of conception above presentation, the surroundings within which it is revealed are comparatively unimportan – the same cannot be said for an art designed to impinge upon the feelings and resonate with the more instinctual side of their audience. I just sort of feel that an extra comforting state of warm familiarity arises when looking at, say, a Reynolds portrait that’s stuck on the shadowy wall of a country house surrounded by the dusty fading accoutrements that are typically associated with such displays; or that an equally benificent sense of well being charmfullness accompanies those occasions when suddenly confronted by a small Cezanne still life that’s been situated between other complementary examples of Impressionistic landscapes, if all are set against the darkly papered walls of a provincial public museum or gallery – and especially when any shift of the viewer’s peering position is accompanied by the happy synchronised creaking of the well trod parquetted floorboards. As for the preferred natural habitat for best appreciating the more exhilarating revelations of a work of contemporary non-figurational expression, well, I would offer up two situations: either the spotlessly chic private apartment, where it might provide a dramatic striking centrepiece to a room full of large plumped up sofas, exquisitely unused dining suites and other perfectly positioned Modernist furnishings; or else as the radically contrasting backdrop statement that adds colour and dynamism to the otherwise souless entrance area of some bland corporate lobby.
At which point, I guess that I’ll have to come clean and admit that the reason for providing such an excessively long meandering preamble to this week’s blogistical offering is not just to put off having to talk about the art but also to offer up a bit of an excuse as to why I’m trying to put off talking about the art. The simple reason being that I just wasn’t very impressed, stimulated or much affected with the works of either Harmony Hammond (the top illustration above) or Dora Maurer (above and below) and I think perhaps that I should have been. After all, the White Cube gallery is an establishment of such prestige, and held in such high regard, that it’s hard not to look at whatever things they’ve stuck on their walls or spread on their floors and not be intimidated into accepting that they must automatically be of great artistic value (and, of course, even greater monetary value). And so, on this particular occasion, when seeking reasons for my absence of appreciation, I can only assume that the fault doesn’t lie with the art or any lack of sensibility on my part but rather the setting in which everything is set. And I really do think it’s fair to say that in a less starkly brutalist, more homely and sympathetic, environment both Hammond‘s rough white monochromatic stripes and Maurer‘s crisper coloured geometries might have looked more appealing. As it is, I think perhaps the works are simply too subtle to overcome the limitations of their oppressive unsympathetic surrounds. Which is my whimpish way of trying to get out of having to say that while I think both artists are reasonably talented, judging by this showing, neither seems to me to be anything very exceptional.
As for the latest Conceptualist thought pieces from the final artist in this female trilogy, Mona Hatoum, well, as far as I’m concerned, these are also all a bit sadly underwhelming. And this time I can’t even really use the excuse that they’ve been poorly displayed or carelessly curated since I’ve already mentioned that I don’t think those factors have much influence on this kind of art. No, the problem for me is that I just don’t think that the ideas behind the art on display here today are sharp enough, which is a bit of a problem, since the whole raison d’etre of Conceptual Art rests on the notion of pondering about some potentially potent conceit and then finding a way of summarising its intellectual elements into some form of elegant tangible materiality. And if the basic ideas lack resonance or are not interesting or arresting enough, or else are too obscure or arcane or confused, the the works are likely to remain duds however smartly they’re packaged and presented.
The opening new work here is a large mobile version of the globe with the world’s land masses reduced to crude glass cut-outs that twist and turn on the wires that hold them suspended in space. There are no names designating different countries and no borders to separate different peoples so maybe Hatoum is trying to emulate the famous astronaut photo that emphasised the fragility and preciousness of our dear little blue planet as it spins and orbits its route across the heavens, and also the thought that most of its problems are man-made and so man-solveable . But, such is the chunkiness of the reinforced glass that’s been used, there’s little sense of an earth in danger of shattering from either the stresses and strains generated by human intervention along internal regional fault lines or the extraterrestrial threat of being bashed about by the kind of meteorite shower that eliminated our dinosaur predecessors. And while all the usual geographical names and symbols are indeed absent from Hatoum‘s transparent twisting topography, it’s still easy enough to recognise the distinctive shape of the UK. Though seeing it comfortably separated from the great vitreous chunk of Continental Europe that twirls about on an entirely different axis nearby was surely an unintended Brexit metaphor.
The other new major piece here is a sort of jumbo-sized geometric grid of loose kebab poles threaded through with rough lumps of concrete. It sort of reminded me of those odd models with balls and wires that lived in the school chemistry lab and were meant to illustrate the molecular crystalline structure of various inorganic compounds. According to the gallery leaflet, however, the references here are more to the skeleton scaffolding components of a multi-storey building. I’m afraid to say that, either way, it’s all a bit unimpressive, easily forgotten and unnecessarily, indulgently large.
As for the rest of the works in the show, there seem to be a lot of repeats or reworkings of oldish ideas. So, there are large haematitic looking globes covered with the contours that resemble piles of intestinal tubing or maybe the creviced convolutions of cerebral cortices, but are, in fact, the result of iron filings attracted to a magnetic core; the see-through globe with the continents outlined in lines of glowing neon lights; a necklace made of finger nail clippings; some lipstick traces smudged onto paper; and a dozen or so other little crossword teasers that tempt the viewer to decode them and find the meaning hidden inside (or find out whether there isn’t actually a meaning hidden inside to be found).