Head down to Waterloo station and then walk round to the Southbank complex, through the Festival Hall and past the fountains on to the gray, grim brutalist structure that is the Hayward Gallery.  Currently there’s nothing to see in the main display space here as it’s closed for a rehang but the small subsidiary annex area on the ground floor (sited where the shop used to be; before that moved to where the café used to be; before that moved to where the original small subsidiary annex area on the first floor used to be) is open for business.  The current show, entitled Drag, is a detailed exploration of the entertaining cross-dressing phenomenon popularised in general though the performances of a multiplicity of pantomime dames and principal boys and, more specifically, through the saucy innuendoes of the likes of Danny La Rue, Les Dawson, both of The Two Ronnies and, in recent times, through the more caustic and clever double entendres of Dame Edna and her twin sons Lily Savage and Eddie Izzard.

Oh no it’s not.  No, you’re quite right, I was being facetious and I’m in an art establishment not some beery working men’s club or tinselly TV studio which means that while Drag does indeed concern itself with what I suppose might reasonably be described as sartorial transgressiveness, it does so in a comparatively po-faced manner.  Or maybe that should be Po-Mo-faced, since the explosion of interest in the gender agenda of identity politics and all the associated sociologically stratified subsets of queer and curious sexual signifiers seem to have been coincidentally contemporaneous with the emergence of that uncertain art historical age through which we are all still currently transversing.

At any rate, there are not so many obvious broad belly laughs to be had in this fairly small, fairly random selection of works by artists who use themselves, as both the medium through which to express themselves, as well as the subject matter of that which they are evidently set on investigating, or upon which they have chosen to comment or critique.  I suppose that most of the work could be classed as self-portraiture, albeit with the caveat that the selves being portrayed are, in and of themselves, fabricated constructions of various alternate alter-egos.  So, for example, among the more straightforward presentations here are those of Hunter Reynolds in the guise of the pearly pouting Patina du Prey (see above) and Samuel Fosso subsumed under an impressive afro wig by way of homagic imitation of his hero – or should that be her heroine – Angela Davis.  Similar photo-portraits show a somewhat coquettish Robert Mapplethorpe and a rather more tough looking Valie Export (see also above).  At which point I started to get a bit confused about the titular terminology here since the sequence of shots of the famous performance artist who named herself after a cigarette packet may be wearing the trousers but neither her choice of wig nor eye liner suggest that she’s trying very hard to present herself as a boy.  Similarly, neither the set of shots of Jo Spence mimicking her dear old mother Gladys, nor Cindy Sherman (below) dressed up as a pair of overcooked redheads, strike me as fulfilling the gender reversal criteria that I had always sort of assumed to be a defining characteristic of the art of draggery.

Then again, there seems to be such an inherently leaky sense of fluidity on this whole subject area that the sureties that seemed so very obviously viscous when I was growing up and learning to shave have all become hopelessly outdated.  As a result, it’s perhaps not so surprising that oldies like me get stuck in a murky muddy mire of confusion, nervously treading on egg shells for fear of making any critical commentary that might be misconstrued, open to misinterpretation or unwittingly cause offence.  Indeed, in this arena, the only thing I feel entirely comfortable mixing up are my metaphors.  And so, when it comes to watching a video clip of a piece of Performance Art in which a glamorous Rose English (below) threatens to thrash a man plucked from her audience with her ludicrously elongated false eyelashes; or when Genesis P Orridge (main photo above) appears like a horror character from Royston Vasey and drones witlessly on; or when Ana Mendieta recycles a friend’s shaven beard to adorn her own face; I have difficulty suppressing the same nervous laugh that I used to feel rising up when, as an adolescent, I watched Widow Twanky adjusting his fake bosom or Dick Whittington slapping her thigh when someone made a grab for her pussy cat.

Oh well, enough of all this topsy turvy world of dressing up.  In the immortal words of the late great Kenneth Williams, it’s time to ‘stop messing about’ and move on which, for today’s tour, means sauntering further along the riverside until reaching the great megalithic monster that constitutes Tate Modern.  But this time, before calling into any of the temporary exhibitions currently running here I decide for a change to have a quick look into one of the multi-room gallery spreads that contain items culled from the vaults of the permanent collection.  Now, when Tate Modern first opened back at the turn of the millennium most critics, myself included, were appalled by what seemed to be the horribly perverse curatorial decision to group together works of art not in the traditional chronological progression of sequential movements (interwoven with spots for a few particularly special individuals) but instead mixed up, with everything rehung within a bunch of very loosely connected groups of thematic categories.  Frankly, this still strikes me as a really bad idea but since its instigator Nicholas Serota left the Tate a couple of years ago I wondered whether maybe his successor, Maria Balshaw, had perhaps started to review and revise this daft pattern of presentation and perhaps restore some sense of logicality and order.

Alas, no.  And taking a walk through the suite of rooms grouped under the meaningless title of Artist and Society seems to me to be a taking a journey into utter incoherence.  So that the first half dozen rooms go from the pairing of a concrete sculpture by Marwan Rechmaoui (a Lebanese artist unfamiliar to me) with some photographs of tower blocks  by Rachel Whiteread; to a selection of Brazilian Abstract art from the 1950s; to some paintings about Civil Wars in Spain, Greece and Mozambique; to a selection of photo-portraits of industrial workers; to archival images of slaves collated by Carrie Mae Weems (another name new to me); to a general spread of sculptures, video and ephemera relating to Joseph Beuys (see above).  And here I give up and retrace my way out of this very peculiar muddle of disconnected streams and strands which I can only assume must be specifically directed towards a generation who have grown up with channel chasing and the kind of visual instagramming grammar that’s based on continuously swiping from one sight bite to the next and swimming through a surfeit of randomised gobbets of imagery that are all equally meaninglessly meaningful and so…

Oh well, as I may have already indicated, this kind of presentational layout is just not for me and I only hope the kids find it illuminating.  But what of the temporary exhibition, Shape of Light, that takes a look at the work of photographers who have rejected the medium’s magical ability to effortlessly reproduce figurative reality in order to delve into its experimental world of imaginary abstractionism?

I suppose the first thing to say about the show is that its dozen rooms provide a mightily thorough and comprehensive survey of the topic.  Indeed, there are so very many examples of each and every identified category of photo-abstractionism that the exhibition would really require several visits to do it justice.  Which is the polite way of saying that it’s so full of similar stuff that after the first few rooms it’s hard to keep up the concentration, and that by the halfway mark it starts to become so exhausting that exiting comes as something of a welcome relief.  Some severe editorial pruning would have dramatically improved the show.

The other great curatorial mistake was to have inserted an additional complementary non-photographic artwork into each room which is presumably designed to resonate at some level with all the other series of black and white prints.  Unfortunately, the idea repeatedly backfires as the paintings tend to keep outshining the photos, not least because they provide colourful relief from what is an overwhelmingly monochrome display.  In fact, the Kandinsky, Arp (both above), Miro, Pollock and Bridget Riley (below) have never looked better.

As for all the photos of quirky light effects; of mirror-distorting nudes (Paul Strand above); of familiar objects taken from odd angles; of unusual close-ups of distressed brickwork, piles of scaffolding, ripples of sand, fronds of ferns etc etc etc; there are definitely some great shots but this really is an occasion where less could have meant an awful lot more…

…and more…

…and more…

…and more.

One response to “Po-Mo-Faced

  1. I’d never have recognised Genesis! He lived across the road from me for years!

    When I finally managed a trip to Tate Modern I rather enjoyed the experience – I suppose I tend towards immersing myself in the works. I’ve never been a fan of Joseph Beuys but this sculpture (pictured) I really loved! Surprised myself! (The place was a bit overwhelming though)

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