Over to Lancaster Gate tube station and then cross the road to get into Kensington Gardens which is gradually filling up with joggers, dog walkers, wandering tourists and happy squabbling families, all out enjoying the sticky summer heat. Apparently it’s even hotter eighteen hundred miles away at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium where the youthful heroes of the English football team are lolling about in their dressing room reading Proust, sipping mint juleps and preparing to give some Panamanian amateurs a jolly good pasting. Patriotically speaking, I’m sure I should be at home wearing my official Harry Kane No 9 replica soccer shirt, sculling cans of Red Stripe and cheering on our brave lads but I don’t think they’ll need my support today so, instead, I decide to stick with my original plan and stroll over to the Sackler section of the Serpentine Galleries to take a look at the abstract paintings of Tomma Abts.
Now, I suppose I have a vague memory of the artist winning the Turner Prize quite a few years ago and wondering what it was that the judges saw in her paintings that made them so special to the sophisticated sensibilities of their professional eyes but had such little effect on my own more weary plebian orbs. And while I seem to recall hearing her name mentioned with reasonable regularity ever since then – and always accompanied by a very favourable critical spin – I can’t actually recall seeing many examples of her works in any group shows and certainly no substantial retrospective presentation anywhere. So, not unnaturally, I’m just a little bit curious to see how she’s developed her painterly stylistics and whether I’ll be forced to reconsider my initial opinion, which was not so much hugely negative as just, well, all a bit unimpressed and puzzled as to why her particular daubings were considered to be so special and such prize-worthy material.
To cut a not very long story even shorter still – since I successfully manage to make a couple of circuits of the Gallery and get out the door in less time than it takes Stones to put one between the Panamanian posts – I remain entirely baffled as to what it is that Abts apparently has and that hundreds of other mediocre abstractionists haven’t. And I’ve still got no more idea as to why she has acquired celebrity status than when I first saw her pictures all those years ago in the Tate Turner show that gave her career such a mighty kickstart. Curiously, the introductory text on the Gallery walls here makes no mention of her Turner Prize (though a quick google search shows it to have been awarded in 2006) but it does confirm that this is indeed her first major institutional show in this country and, since it’s travelling on to the Art Institute of Chicago, that she clearly remains very highly regarded on the international art scene.
As for the paintings, well, they just seem so very unexceptional and ordinary to me. They’re all smallish abstracts – slightly too structured to be mere Doodlerism; patterned but with insufficient geometric rigor to fall into the NeoGeo category; too varied and interesting to be examples of mere Zombie Formalism; and not quite freeform, energetic or large enough to be some late flowering version of Abstract Expressionism. Several seem to riff on swirling ribbon shapes while others are a bit more angular but overall there are no great colour combinations or anything particularly innovative or inspirational or anything else that I can discern that make them stand out as being special in any way, or define any particularly interesting or quirky personal aesthetic. All of which sort of makes me half wonder whether it’s the very fact that the artist has obviously expended so much time and thought into creating works of such apparently effortless banality that is, perhaps, by dint of some mightily clever casuistical thinking and perverse philosophical reasoning, seen by those who have achieved greater karmic insights than myself, as embodying some sort of exquisite defining quality of deep transcendental marvelousness – and that it’s their very unexceptionality that’s deemed to be so very exceptional. Or maybe that’s all nuts and with this kind of abstract art it really is all just a case of different strokes for different folks and that those who are naturally drawn to liking them would have as difficult a time in rationalising, and explaining why they do, as I have in trying to define why I find them all quite so staggeringly uninteresting.
So, for me a bit of a boring start to the day but then here in Kensington Gardens art is a game of two halves and, thankfully, across the bridge at the other, older original Serpentine Gallery is a display that’s a whole lot more interesting. Although, having said that, I’ve a feeling that I may now have a bit of a struggle to explain exactly why that should be the case, since the show consists more or less entirely of an extraordinarily in-depth examination of the artist Christo’s near obsessional interest with what, in other circumstances, might be considered rather mundane, not to say boring, items of contemporary cultural iconography: oil drums. Now, I think it’s fair to say, that while most people will be familiar with the particular shape, size and purpose of these hefty metallic containers, few will have spent much time considering the potential sculptural or other aesthetic uses to which they might be put, nor yet thought about the socio-economic and politico-artistical ramifications of their great symbolistic potentiality. And, further, I don’t think I can bring to mind a single other example of any artist from the entire classical or modern canon who has made any reference at all, either sculptural or painterly, to said containers. All of which leaves Christo a whole lot of virgin territory to explore and fill, and which is something he proceeds to do with considerable dedication, wit and energy.
The result is that the four airy rooms of the Serpentine Gallery are filled with stacks of actual oil drums, photographs of them, photographs of stacks of them, models of stacks of them, architectural plans of stacks of them, indeed, stacks and stacks of them – and they all look surprisingly pretty or intriguing or fascinating or…well, I did say I thought I might have a problem making a convincing case for why they warrant their place in an art gallery. But then all the items I’ve listed above are, in fact, really just the experimental research notes and associated background ephemera and bi-products produced in preparation of the artist’s actual main presentation, and that lies outside the Gallery walls. Yes, the real Christo spectacular masterwork on show today is currently floating on the eponymous lake that separates the old and new Serpentine Galleries. And it’s quite a sight. After all, it’s not every day that one gets to see 7,506 freshly painted oil drums tethered together in layers to form what I think geometrists would call a prismatic isosceles trapezoid or, to give it the official designation, a London Mastaba.
Does this monumental monster have a purpose or meaning beyond that of giving the adventurous matelots manques who tread the wheels of those little blue paddle-boats something to steer towards, and landlubbers who, like me, prefer the comforts of terra firma, something at which to aim our cameras? I’m not sure that it does but then sometimes therein lies the beauty of art, in that it allows the artist to go ahead and make something that has absolutely no utilitarian purpose other than to confirm the imagination and ingenuity of the creative act. And what could be more meaningfully meaningless than doing these things, not because they are easy but, to paraphrase President Kennedy, because they are hard.
Anyway, after due consideration of the point or pointlessness of NASA’s lunar mission and Christo’s lunatic mission there’s one final reason for orbiting the Serpentine Galleries at this time of year and that’s to take a look at the latest Summer Pavilion, the glorified gazebo that’s erected each year to provides shade and shelter for the general gallery-going public and analytical grist for the intellectuals who mill in the mileu of theoretical constructional and deconstructional discourse. And here I have to confess that I’m not all that well acquainted with contemporary architectural practice and certainly have never heard of the Mexican praticioner Frida Escobedo who created the current work. It’s definitely not as flashy and complicated as some of the previous structures that have occupied the site here though I’m not sure whether this is due to the rationing practicalities of funding constraints, a conscious wish to echo the austerity ambience of our contemporary society, or a desire for simplicity and integrity with a virtuous touch of material recycling. In any case, the building seems to be made almost entirely of rounded roof tiles threaded round metallic piping and then top-and-tailed with a polished steel roof and a shallow reflecting water pool. Internal furnishing is basic consisting of a stall offering Cristo merchandise, a small bar selling coffees and pastries and a few plastic chairs for the patrons. I think I’d be tempted to install a couple of giant-sized plasma TV screens, a larger lager bar, some terraced seating and an MC to lead the communal chanting…Ing-er-land…Ing-er-land…Ing-er-land.