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Art And Sex

In which art gets commercial and sells out


We jaunted off to London the other day, for the “Pop Life” exhibition at Tate Modern. I would link to details; but, well, it closed on Sunday, so you can’t go and see it now. The subtitle was “Art In A Material World” and the concept was to review artists who have embraced commerciality over the past 40 years or so, starting with Warhol and taking things on from there. It followed two strands that Warhol pioneered: on the one hand, the commercialisation of art; on the other, the objectification of the artist. From there it moves on through, on the one hand, Keith Haring, Emin & Lucas, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami; on the other, Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Andrea Fraser.

Put like that, these sound like rather disparate threads; but they’re two sides of the celebrity artist. After all, when an artist’s name becomes bigger than their work, then their life is their biggest work of all. In the show, though, they did seem rather disparate, moving on from artist to artist between rooms with no firm connections between them. It took a few day’s reflection for me to tease together the themes. Arguably, of course, this is a Good Thing: an art show that doesn’t tell you what you’re supposed to be seeing but lets you work the themes out for yourself. You might, after all, always spot something the curators didn’t.

We were expecting the Big Famous Art Names like Warhol and Hirst, as advertised, and we were expecting their most reproduced and commercialised images. What we weren’t expecting was for the show to be so, well, pornographic. Particularly, the Jeff Koons room: essentially, floor-to-ceiling pornography in an almost-empty, behind-closed-doors space. Most of the visitors seemed to not even notice it was there: in a busy exhibition, it was the one room we had to ourselves. From Jeff Koons’ porn stills repackaged as art, the show moved on to Throbbing Gristle member Cosey Fanni Tutti, and the scandal that her pornography-as-art shows caused in the 1970s. That artwork was, as far as I could tell, far, far tamer than Koons’ hardcore sex: it shows just how much society has changed in 35 years or so. And neither Koons nor C-F-T were disturbing, in the way that Andrea Turner’s prostitution-as-video-art piece was disturbing: a bare room housing a barely-styled video, showing Turner having sex with the art collector she had sold the piece to. Shot by a single fixed camera, it was cold, clinical, unemotional, the business relationship removing any passion.

That work of art was, you could argue, a culmination. As far as an artist can go in their own self-objectification.* It was followed by a room devoted to Takashi Murakami, at the extreme end of art commercialisation, two separated strands starting out from Warhol. Interesting to see how far they had diverged; and was Warhol really a clear starting point, or just a place where two trends intersected? For some artists, art can be a business; for others, it can be life. It can be martyrdom. It left me thinking, secondly, that maybe money and devotion don’t have to be that far apart.

The first thing it leaves me thinking of, though, is the genitals of Mr and Mrs Koons, blown up to wall size whilst hard at work. And the thought: “I’m glad I didn’t invite The Mother.”

* Going back to Jeff Koons, the show’s notes deliberately stressed that Koons had been objectifying his own body, and not just his wife’s; not having the porn-star physique early in his career, he had to buff his muscles up a bit.

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Stencilled Out

In which we join the queue


It is, according to Venue magazine, possibly “the biggest cultural event of the decade”. With it only having a few weeks left to run, we finally made it along to the ever-busy Banksy retrospective at Bristol Museum.

I said “ever-busy”: half an hour before opening time, the queue already snaked back and forth along University Road. It took us, in total, about 100 minutes of standing and queuing before we reached the doors of the museum, including the half an hour before the doors opened. A man and a TV camera walked up and down the line, asking people if they thought that Banksy’s mysterious non-identity was important. I wondered if it might be the man himself asking; more likely to have been an interchangable local-news presenter, though. He didn’t really resemble the photos of Banksy that have already been published in the press.

Coincidentally, the other day, Bristol City Council accidentally admitted that the mystery around Banksy’s identity is key to his financial success:

“[D]isclosure [of the name of Banksy’s limited company] may lead to the identity of the artist being at risk, which is crucial to his commercial interests”

Because – we assume – if you know that he’s a nice middle-class boy who went to Bristol Cathedral School, it does take something away from his “urban guerilla” image. But I’m not convinced that this matters too much. The important aspect of his “mysterious anonymity” is that it lets the viewer identify with him, whilst enjoying the glamour of the folklorique “cunning outlaw” figure. His work, too, is empty enough that you can subsititute your own feelings whenever you like.

You certainly get value for money at the Bristol show. Yes, I know it’s free; but I’ve been to free shows before and come away feeling short-changed. At Bristol, you first enter a room packed with work, before going on to two more Bansky-filled rooms. After that, there’s a whole museum to explore, with at least a couple of Bansky works or alterations in every room. It turns the building into a sort of game, a trick puzzle, which doesn’t really do the collections justice.* The items on show seemed to have been chosen to appeal to teenage boys, too: a dildo in the geology section, a bong amongst the porcelain. Hanging Banksy’s paintings – coyly attributed to “Local Artist” – alongside the museum’s permanent collection also doesn’t do his painting skills any favours: you notice the crudeness of his brushwork much more when you have better work to compare it to.**

It’s ironic that it was the Daily Mail who first printed Banksy’s alleged real name, because, from his work, he strikes me as the sort of person who claims to be radical and shocking, whilst at heart being inherently conservative, supporting rather than challenging existing prejudice. Take, for example, a classical landscape painting with burnt-out car added in the foreground.*** Its title? Landscape near Hartcliffe. A title to make the locals snigger – at any rate, the well-off locals who can look at the painting, laugh to themselves, and feel pleased that they are rich enough to live in a nice part of the city. Similarly, his paintings and statues of riot police behaving unexpectedly do their best to reinforce the stereotype of police being brutal, inhuman and mechanistic. Treating them with humanity and respect would, to be honest, be a far more radical and challenging standpoint.**** Most of the “great ideas” in his works aren’t that shocking or subversive at all; the sort of ideas that a GCSE art student might consider shocking and subversive, possibly. A painting of the House Of Commons Chamber, the chamber and press gallery both full of chimps, for example, is hardly a very deep and complex idea.*****

There is, I have to admit, one very very good thing about the whole exhibition. Two, really. It got people to look at some art, and it got people into the building. Most of the locals who were there, I’m sure, would never normally dream of going into their city’s museum, despite the quality of its collections. Making them aware it’s there has to be a good thing; making everyone want to travel round every room of the place is definitely a good thing, because it’s far too easy, with any museum, just to visit the one or two rooms you want to and ignore the rest. It’s a shame that this led to people treating the place like an Easter egg hunt, though; and a shame that the art they came to see wasn’t better art when they got there.

* I saw some people who were slightly confused by the rare Pokemon cards in the Oriental Dragons display, thinking they must have been a Banksy addition. No, they’re a proper museum exhibit

** Of course, his paintings are still rather better than I could manage myself

*** I suspect – with no evidence other than a good close look – that the majority of the scene is a printed reproduction, with just the car overpainted.

**** It’s also easy to nitpick at the many small, obvious mistakes. For example, that famous photograph of I K Brunel, exhausted and close to death, in front of the launching chains of his last great steamship, with a Banksy-added sign for “rail replacement bus services”. For one thing, if you want to make a comment about the railways, why not alter a more railway-related picture? For another, Brunel’s own railway locomotives were notoriously weak and unreliable, so much so that they were unable to maintain any sort of train service. I’m sure Banksy didn’t actually know that when making his picture.

***** I found it hard to decide how much of that painting’s shallowness was accidental. Was it deliberate that both the politicians and the journalists were turned into chimps, or was that just a piece of lazy and unresearched painting?

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And more on art

In which we look at some non-inflatables


Something else that got done in London the other weekend: we popped along to the Serpentine Gallery, to see the Jeff Koons show that’s on there at the moment. His first major show in Britain, apparently; his first major show in a 20-odd year career.

The Serpentine can seem quite a small gallery, at time, and we both soon realised that it wasn’t going to take us very long to get around the Koons exhibition. Before long, it felt like we’d seen all he had to say; before long, we were back at the front door.* The sculptures in the exhibition consisted of pristine replicas of inflatable toys, balanced precariously, or suspended from chains. According to the captions, all were made from cast aluminium, carefully finished to look exactly like the real thing. We had a hard time, in many cases, believing that they weren’t the real thing. Some were strangely interlaced with garden chairs or decorative ironwork; in those cases it was obvious it would be very hard to get real inflatables to behave like that. It was hard to think, though, that the other, uncorrupted inflatables shouldn’t be gently swaying in the breeze. We wanted to do some forbidden poking and prodding, to see if the sculptures genuinely were made of heavy aluminium.

I thought little again about it until the other day, when, in a quiet moment, I read Waldemar Januszczak‘s Sunday Times review of the show. In which he said:

Poking one of the show’s infla­table lobsters with my finger — which you, of course, are not allowed to do, and I was not supposed to, either — I found it solid, weighty and metallic, its convincing sense of weightlessness achieved with obsessive trompe l’oeil paintwork.

Hurrah! It wasn’t just us who wanted to prod the things: a respectable art critic wanted to do the same! Moreover, being a famous and well-respected art critic, he got away with it without being chucked out. I suspect that we wouldn’t quite have got away with it.

Januszczak, incidentally, found that the show put dark S&M thoughts in his head. It wasn’t something that immediately came to mind when we were there; but, the more I look back, the creepier the show felt. The juxtaposition of plastic, heavy chains, images of cartoons and trains spliced behind and in front of chopped-up pictures of bare skin, all has a disturbing weight behind it. The Koons show we saw was superficial on the surface, but there is always a risk of it coming back to haunt.

* after which we went on to spend rather longer in the gallery bookshop.

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Repetition

In which art is repeated, repetitively


In amongst the brief list of things we did last weekend, I realised there’s something of a gap, one thing I missed out on listing. It was, though, one of the most distinctive things of the weekend. An exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Fabiola, by Francis Alÿs.

Fabiola is, in essence, a fairly simple idea. Two rooms filled with closely-packed paintings, green walls with not much room for the green to show through. Each piece of art is made by hand, and each shows the same image: a woman in profile, usually facing left, veiled, usually in red. Most are paintings, some are works of cross-stitch or embroiders; one is a collage of seeds and beans.

It’s a simple idea, a collection that Alÿs has gathered over the past couple of decades and is still adding to. But, there’s something ever so unsettling about the whole thing. The same image, repeated over and over and over but never the same. The same image, tiling every wall. The same image, with so much effort put into its repetition. As I said, it’s unsettling. Like something from an M. R. James story, or possibly from a more-creepy Doctor Who episode. Of all the things we did last weekend, Fabiola is the one most likely to haunt my dreams many years from now.

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Art

In which we have an arty weekend, and get inspired


A bit of an arty weekend for us – well, an arty Sunday at least.

First off, the Bristol Artist’s Book Event – or, BABE – at the Arnolfini. The whole gallery was turned into a market for the weekend, so that people working in the field of “artists’ books” could sell their wares. Even though we couldn’t afford to buy very much, it was interesting just to treat the event as an art exhibit in itself. I’m not sure I want to become an artist’s book collector, in any case; for one thing, I wouldn’t have a clue how to file half of the things on display. They are wonderful objects to appreciate in their own right, though; hand-made, hand-bound, artisan objects. They are something I could make myself, if I had a mind to it – well, possibly not the hand-bound books, but you know what I mean. Anything can be art, after all, if made with an artistic event or viewed with an artistic sensibility. My eye was drawn to a folded concertina of a book,* a book of photographs produced by walking through a city and taking photos looking upwards at predetermined intervals. Too few people look up as they walk the world; I had trouble recognising all of the locations even though it was an area I knew well. It unfolded like a little Box Of Delights, drawing the reader in, yet fiddly to use with clumsy mind and fingers.

In the Arnolfini, we were hailed by a sandwich-board chap, laden with all sorts of things,** and a big sign saying “DRINK MORE GIN!” He gave us fliers for a corresponding exhibition at the Central Library, to go alongside BABE. We wandered across to College Green to find it, which was easier said than done. The exhibition, of artists’ books from the city library’s art collection, was squirrelled away in a conference room, in a part of the Reference Library normally well out of the public eye. When found, though, it was excellent, partly because the city library has a very good collection, and partly because of the access visitors got. We were free, under the invigilator’s beady eye, to pick the things up, read them, investigate them; quite an awkward job given the nature of some artists’ books, needing to be unpackaged and unfolded and probed gently but persistantly. The collection was biased mainly towards the last 20 years, but there were some earlier things; a pamphlet with Eric Gill illustrations, for example.*** Some were up-to-the-minute: things we’d seen on sale at the Arnolfini a few minutes before.

Finally, wandering into the Old City, we saw a placard for a temporary exhibition at the Centrespace Gallery, on Leonard Lane, tricky to find if you’ve never been before, as Leonard Lane is barely more than a doorway in a wall.**** It was “Dark Stars and Bleeding Hearts”, an art show by a local artist we’d not heard of before, deadgirl,***** also known as Keri Gardom. You can see examples of her art on her website: it’s brightly-coloured acrylic illustration between black outlines. The most common tag on her website gallery seems to be “morbid”; and she really should consider selling prints of her work, as well as originals. They’d sell in their thousands to “alternative” teenagers who can’t afford to spend £250 on a painting. What caught my eye, though – apart from the free sweets for visitors – was her palette. Not the selection of colours in her work, but her physical palette, sitting next to her easel in the middle of the room. It was piled up thickly with layers and layers of used paint, two or three inches deep. I wanted to take a picture; but she was busy talking to somebody else, I didn’t want to interrupt, and taking a picture of her palette without asking would be far too intrusive – like posting a photo of someone else’s desk.

In general, we felt inspired. Inspired to do things, ourselves, to get creative, to finish off our current artcraft projects. We almost went back to the Arnolfini, where one of the stalls at BABE was selling used printing blocks and sets of type. Not that we have a press, or forms, or anything else that printers need, but vintage typography can be beautiful, and the type itself even more so. Expect the Symbolic Forest Press to make an appearance one of these years, even if we don’t quite manage hand-printed or hand-bound hardbacks straight away. The world is creative, and we can be creative too.

* Unfortunately, me being me, I didn’t get the artist’s name

** although the only things that I can remember dangling off him were stripy paper bags

*** Unfortunately, me being me, I didn’t get the writer’s name.

**** You can tell it’s a street, though, because it has double-yellow lines on both sides, despite being narrow enough that you’d have trouble stretching your arms out to full width.

***** warning: dangerously over-flashed website

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London Weekend Blogging: Big Box, Little Box

In which we visit the Tate


Deciding to do something cultural whilst in the Big City, I visited Tate Modern to see Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment, her Turbine Hall installation made up of thousands of plastic casts of cardboard boxes.

As I’d visited the work warehouse earlier in the day, my first reaction was: “this isn’t a very neat warehouse”. My second reaction was “ooh, I could just do with a cup of tea”, because the stacks and stacks of white boxes make me think of a giant pile of sugar lumps.* One leak in the roof, and the whole thing would just dissolve.

It was good to see, though, that kids love Embankment. They were all over it, playing hide and seek, darting in and out between piles of boxes. It’s good to have art that you can get inside and move around in, and use for your own purposes like that. The kids might not be thinking about the plight of London’s homeless, but Art** isn’t just for the artist’s purposes. It’s what you make of it that counts.

* In fact, I’m tempted to make a model replica of Embankment entirely out of sugar cubes and starch paste.

** With a capital A, of course.

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