Some Conflicting Qualms

Get out the tube at Vauxhall station, follow the signs and successfully manage to emerge into the daylight at the right exit, just across from the bus station which, it has to be said, is definitely a rather curious, noteworthy construction.  And since, according to the electronic notice board, I’ve still got a few more minutes to wait before my bus comes along, I think this particularly bit of urban public architecture warrants the consideration of at least a couple of sentences worth of prose.  I suppose what causes me to pause and ponder here is the contrast between the hugely mundane nature of the structure – it’s basically just a run of bus shelters with a small office attached – and the almost comically contrived flashiness of its overall design.  So, what is, after all, just a sort of elongated traffic island, either side of which are bays for buses to pick up and drop their commuting cargo, has been given a bizarre, super-cool retro-futuristic design look.  The whole thing resembles a sort of aluminium-clad Winnebago motorhome on top of which is balanced a short undulating segment from a BMX bike track.  That would be odd enough but then everything terminates in an utterly unnecessary, but also kind of heroic, ski jump finale feature that, if used, would hurtle any would-be cyclist right out into oblivion, ending with an ignominious splat in the middle of the local traffic jam.  I’m not sure my description of this folly really does it full justice but hopefully I’ve given some indication of the strangeness of the overall conception and perhaps indicated that I feel ever so slightly conflicted as to what I think of it.  Part of me grumbles that, of course, form should follow function and so what is required here is a simple, straightforward, unornamented, utilitarian design with an emphasis on the austerity that is so in keeping with the straightened times in which we now live.  Then again, the little devil sitting on my other shoulder whispers in my ear that I should loosen my metaphorical corsets and not to be such a miserable old puritan grump.  What’s wrong with trying to lighten up some poor commuters’ boring daily bus rides with a bit of completely over the top, lighthearted visual silliness?


Oh well,  the debate will have to remain unresolved as here comes the 436 and I’m off on my way to Peckham and the South London Gallery, which is currently staging a show of contemporary art from Latin America entitled Under the Same Sun.  I don’t often get to the Gallery here – well, the bus ride is a bit of a hassle – but, when I do make it along, the place always seems to have just undergone some new bit of cosmetic architectural surgery – a bit of nipping and tucking that adds on a bar, café, bookshop, or now a small display case containing limited editions artworks for sale.  Suffice to say that the Gallery has, over the past decade or so, been transformed into the kind of large white box of a space with all the trendy facilities that one has come to expect of a contemporary cultural centre. It’s all very nice – hipster heaven for some, I dare say – but again I have some conflicting qualms.  Part of the problem is that the actual display space, which being, in essence, just one large open hall, is not really all that conducive to displays of the kinds of mixed media works that are so favoured by artists and curators today.  There’s no obvious way of expanding the main space and neither does it appear practical to put up dividing walls or screens, all of which means that works can end up looking a bit cramped and overlapping, which is what happens with the current display.  I suppose the problem is that when the Gallery was built in 1891, artists painted small pictures that could be hung in neat rows on the walls with maybe some seats, sculptures and aspidistra plants filling the central open space, and times and styles have changed a lot since then.  I can’t help thinking though, just how interesting, innovative and refreshing it would have been had the Gallery made the deliberate decision a while ago to revert back to the past a bit and perhaps concentrate on programming shows full of small paintings that could be happily hung on its walls along with discrete sculptures that could fill the middle space and…ok, in retrospect I agree we can drop the aspidistras.  I’m sure it would have seriously stretched the imagination of the curators to produce an interesting programme of shows of such a kind – maybe mixing the work of contemporary figurative artists with historical reviews of examples from their forebears back catalogue – but at least it would have had the potential to make the Gallery a bit more different and special rather than just trying to copy the same old stuff that all the other public galleries keep showing, but being disadvantaged by not having the proper sized gallery in which to show it.  Anyway, I don’t hold up much hope for anyone seriously considering my radically reasonable idea especially as there are already plans underway for the Gallery to expand into more space across the road at the former Peckham Fire Station.


And as for the current show?  Well, I quite liked it – it was, of course, all very a la mode with the usual sort of Post-Modern Conceptual gimmicks and games but, aside from a couple of pieces, if I hadn’t read the subtitle, I’m not sure I would have realised that the work originated from Latin America.  Frankly, the style of just about all the work here is global and ubiquitous and exactly the sort of McConceptualism that currently fills up countless galleries and art fairs across the world.


As evidence, I offer up Gabriel Sierra’s small sculpture Hang It All which consist of a small wall-mounted metal array onto which the artist has spiked a variety of items of fruit.  It actually looks rather pretty and I’m sure most people looking at it will think of the very famous Eames’ coat rack, which it so obviously references.  Replacing the neat coloured wooden balls of the design icon original with slightly lumpy edible equivalents in the form of apples, pears, a lemon and a bunch of grapes is, I suppose, neat enough – it made me smile – but surely it’s a sort of universal art pun rather than having anything particularly Latino about it.  The work is echoed in the small upstairs display space where a pair of oranges sit very comfortably in the curves of an old fashioned radiator although, having checked, I can confirm this is not art but, in fact, the lunchtime snack of one of the frugivorous invigilators.  Carlos Amorales comes up with another arty in-joke by way of creating a large Alexander Calder type mobile but using cymbals for the weights and then providing a pair of drumsticks for any passing viewer to give them a good bash.  Not quite as obviously ludic but equally deracinated is Wilfredo Prieto’s pot plant stuck in a wheelbarrow full of soil, that the Gallery guide seems to suggest is an allegorical commentary on the restrictions that the Cuban authorities place on international travel.


As for works with more direct references to Latin American culture and history, Damian Ortega’s makes his small grid sculpture by interlocking corn tortilla biscuits; Gabriel Orozco paints a large pinanona leaf; and Runo Lagomarsino shows his holiday slides of random smudges and smears from a concrete walkway in Sao Paulo that more or less resemble the distinctive shape of the South America continent.  And on a rather more directly political level, Carlos Motta has made a poster that simply lists various unwelcome political and military interventions that the US has made on the soil of its southern neighbour.  These range from offering support to Baby Doc in Haiti; to supporting death squads in El Salvador and trying to overthrow Hugo Chavez in Venzuela.


The exhibition continues across the road in the Peckham Fire Station which looks a bit rough and ready now but, as already mentioned, is due in the not too distant future to become another pretty anonymous white box annex to the main Gallery.  In the meantime it’s mainly videos here, two of which caught my eye:  Donna Conlon & Jonathan Harker’s Drinking Song, which uses a beer bottle xylophone to tap out the Star Spangled Banner, and Javier Tellez’s One Flew Over the Void which concludes with a human cannonball being shot over the border from Mexico into the US.  The daring migrant successfully lands in a safety net in this version although I’m sure if the Donald gets into power he’ll be able to close off that particular little loophole by sticking a bunch of spikes in the ground on the side of the wall that he’s going to build.


In total there are a couple of dozen artists taking part in the show whose origins seem to be fairly evenly spread across the countries of the continent. Hopefully, I’ve managed to give a reasonable representation of the kind of works on display here although whether this is a fair cross section of what Latin American artists are actually creating, I couldn’t really say.  And, in fact, the work in the show was selected not by any indigenous South American consultants nor by representatives of the South London Gallery team but by curators working for the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York who sent the works over as a sampler from items in their vast permanent collection.  Hopefully, one day the boys and girls at the SLG will be able to reciprocate the gesture by cherry picking the works of contemporary Continental European artists held at the Tate and dispatching them to one of the public galleries in New York.  Though, such is the globalisation of aesthetics in the Modern Art world and so solid the consensual nature of the curatorial cofraternity that runs things at present, I’m sure the works would be almost totally interchangeable with the ones on show here today.


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