An Empty Chequered Grid

Get the tube to Aldgate East and then take the half a dozen necessary steps to get into the Whitechapel Gallery.  Here the whole of the main ground floor space has been given over to Benedict Drew to show off the five, interlinked site-specific installations that he’s constructed and which, in combination, add up to one jumbo piece of art entitled The Trickle-Down Syndrome.  Walking round the show is, I suppose, in effect, meant to be a kind of metaphorical trip round the loosely connected thought patterns of the artist, with the various images, sounds and movements representing a neuronal web of speculations, notions and memories.  Or something along those lines.  But if that is the approximate theory then how does the actual practice work out?  Well, the show starts off with a little cartoon video loop of a pulsating pink blob that seems to be set in the middle of a sort of spiders web of lines trailing out onto the Gallery walls.  Then a series of large banners – some covered in what look like vermiform extrusions others with more randomised bits of abstraction – leads on to the main section:  a raised up platform with some sci-fi monster eyeballs, a big gong and a couple of video screen showing a woman spouting an intermittent stream of incoherent dialogue.  Further on there are a pair of big fans blowing a large pile of pink papers, the film of a man trudging through a muddy pathway and … and …well, by now you’ve probably got the gist of what’s going on and I’m not sure there’s really much point in my trying to list all the other bits and bobs that make up the rest of the piece.  Suffice to say that at this point I started to wonder what exactly was the problem, proposition or prognostication that the artist was trying to communicate to me.  And, for once, I was actually tempted to utter that most forbidden of all phrases, the nuclear question one is never ever, under normal circumstances, allowed to ask within the confines of any art establishment, for fear of committing the most terrible cultural faux pas and revealing one’s own hugely embarassing lack of expected cognisance.  But, at the risk of breaking all the rules of artistic etiquette, I confess, I did ponder the killer question.  What does it mean?

Wandering through Drew’s maze reminded me of one of those rare Saturday evenings when there are no soirees, salons or dinner parties to attend; no opening nights, previews or private views to visit; and there’s nothing on the telly.  And so, having read all ten sections of the Guardian and completed the sudoku there’s nothing left but to sharpen the pencil and turn to the cryptic crossword.  Usually one can enjoy a brief half hour’s diversion here unpicking the anagrams, decoding the word games and generally deciphering the ciphers.  But, I have to admit, there are rare occasions when sometimes the initial enthusiasm of greeting an empty chequered grid starts to wane as one realises, after reading one impenetrably gnomic clue after another, that the puzzle is the work of one of the more outrageously sadistic setters and the squares are destined to remain forever unfilled.

Such are the similar feelings of exasperation, bafflement and general quizzical disappointment that I experience when looking at these installations and having to admit to an utter failure to unravel any scrap of sense or sensibility.  And while I get the strong impression that the artist is convinced of the logic behind the assemblage of his various bits of urban flotsam and jetsam, I’m equally certain that, however long I look at the various aspects of this composite collection I’m never going to figure out what it represents, references, symbolises, expresses or, in short summary, actually means.  If, indeed, it does actually means anything at all.

In desperation I go back to re-read the introductory panel at the start of the show and learn that the work is apparently inspired by the rather unusual pairing of Busby Berkeley and Max Ernst. Frankly, I find it a bit unlikely that any of the younger members of the gallery-going public will recognise the former but, being a bit of a fan of old black and white Hollywood musicals, I’m very familiar with Busby’s characteristic directorial style and his innovatory use of synchronised choreography featuring long lines of show girls swimming in geometric shapes, clattering their coordinated tap shoes or high-kicking their long legs up in the air.  I also like to think that I’m pretty au fait with the Surrealistic works of the exceptional Mr Ernst, from the early collage juxtapositions – where strait-laced Edwardian ladies are embraced by over-active pangolins, odd couples fly through the air on mechanical contraptions and other perverse absurdities take place – to the later, darker scenes of mythical landscapes and made-up monsters.  Finally, having a wide range of polymathic interests, I think I even have a broad understanding of the Reaganomic rationale behind the Trickle-Down term used in the title.  But even fully armed with all this essential background knowledge – not to mention several decades of looking at artefacts in art galleries and museums around the world that has resulted in the accumulation of substantial collateral holdings in the memory bank of cultural capital and credit – I still can make no headway into any understanding of what the display is meant to be about.


All of which forces me to have to consider a spread of various possible conclusions.  Either my faculties have at last started out on that long inevitable declining path towards decay and obliteration and that I can no longer analyse what I’m looking at with any reasonable degree of intellectual acuity; or that perhaps the generational gap between the artist, society and myself has reached the tipping point where I’m beached on a shore of yesterday’s analogue cultural understanding and knowledge while the rest of the increasingly younger world is enjoying a the fruits of a digital, Post-Post-Modern paradigm, forever beyond my comprehension.  Or else, maybe the artist was a bit overwhelmed by his commission, couldn’t think what the hell to put in the show, and tried to wing things by gathering together as much random junk as he could find in his studio and bunging it all together in the hope of coming up with a convincing enough simulacrum of what might pass for a contemporary art exhibition.  And maybe the Whitechapel Gallery couldn’t find funding to hire the line of chorus girls that were meant to go dancing round the exhibition.

My final whinge is that the Gallery notes make mention of the fact that Drew is, ‘…interested in the feeling of submersion in social and environmental despair…’ an aspect that, needless to say, is totally unconveyed through the artwork while, unhappily, being absolutely everywhere else in the rest of the mainstream news media during the particularly desperate and depressing last week.

Moving on upstairs at the Gallery is a thematic show inspired by what might be thought to be the supremely uninspiring subject of dust.  Although, of course, it’s not just any old household dust that has prompted the curatorial curiosity to coordinate such a show but the very particular particulates that accumulated on that most celebrated icon of Modern Art, Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass.  The record of Duchamp’s disinclination to engage in his proper housekeeping duties and instead follow the lead of Quentin Crisp (who asserted that there wasn’t much point cleaning since, ‘the dust doesn’t get any worse after three years’) was famously photographed by the father of American Dada, Man Ray, and it is a copy of his shot of the dust breeding that starts the show.

Writing his review column in the Observer, the late great film critic Philip French would often provide a brief summary of the latest release and then delight in showing off his vast knowledge of cinematography by then listing a mix of titles of films which had used similar plots and protagonists, ranging from those that were faintly familiar through to far-flung foreign features that were fascinatingly obscure.  And so, in a similar spirit, on entering this display I started to try to think of other artists who might have used dust in their works.  I’m pretty sure Cornelia Parker made a work from the dust of St Paul’s Cathedral and I daresay there is chalk dust on the boards that Josef Beuys filled with his lecture scribbles.  And maybe artistic license would allow the inclusion of the powdery piles of pigment that Anish Kapoor once laid upon gallery floors.  But, after that fairly mean list, I ran out of ideas.

Having seen the Whitechapel show I think the curators seem to have had similar problems and so widened their brief to include such desiccated wonders as close ups of rocks; the desert landscape of Kuwait; dust storms in America; the cast of a man who died when Mount Vesuvius erupted and Mussolini’s abandoned limo.  So, all in all, good concept but the presentation, perhaps inevitably, just a bit too dry.

3 responses to “An Empty Chequered Grid

  1. Having actually just seen this on my way to tai chi this last week. I have to say I whole-heartedly agree with everything you say. The obfuscation of meaning and purpose delights the middle class art world. THEY know what it all means of course, because they are clever, but WE don’t know. This is because we are profoundly stupid. Even if we climb up the mountain of knowledge and get a PhD, as I have, we are left with our ugly sense of our innate stupidity.

  2. I rather liked this show for all the reasons you disliked it. It fizzed with incomprehension leaving the viewer slightly disoriented. Drew has been making work along these lines for sometime, where sci-fi slickness clashes with the clunky and the hand made. Social disquiet and paranoiac overload are not described, but rather the viewer is immersed or navigates through this theatre to experience that very frustration that you both resent.
    Upstairs, I was relieved Andrew that it was not simply a succession of artists who used dust, but rather a poetic contemplation on the different ideas of dust in a variety of works and social/political scenarios. All round a thoroughly rewarding show…

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