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, and we went on to spend rather longer in the gallery bookshop than we had looking round the show.
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.
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 managed to do it without being chucked out. I suspect that we wouldn’t quite have got away with it quite so easily.
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.
Over the years I’ve had all sorts of plans for art projects which have never quite got off the ground. So I’ve never had to answer the question: how would I feel if I did something Artistic, which became famous all over the place, but nobody knew it was me who did it.
The local news here was full of something similar, recently. All around Yorkshire, in Goathland, Kilburn, Arthington and Braithwell, mysterious stone heads have been appearing; and some then disappearing again. Intriguing, you could say. I’m strangely attached to the idea of mysterious heads – which are reminiscent of some of the stranger stone crosses on the Yorkshire Moors – popping up in the night. Rather like crop circles, in a way.
Unfortunately, though, the mystery of the stone heads hasn’t lasted very long. Crop circles were a puzzler for a few years, back in the 1980s. The stone heads have been a mystery for a few weeks; but they’ve only stayed a mystery for a few hours now the story has hit the national news. They are apparently made by a chap called Billy Johnson. Presumably, he’s done it all for the publicity;* as he left some easily googleable clues attached to each head, it’s fairly obvious that he wanted to be found. Artists have to make money somehow, after all. Personally, I’d rather it had stayed a mystery, though.
Mysteries are good for the imagination. An anonymous sculpture, appearing out of nowhere, is something to tantalise the mind and get you wondering about all those things sitting just around the edges of the known world. A self-publicising sculptor called Billy Johnson – whether he’s real or not – is dull and mundane by comparison.
* and I’ve just helped, haven’t I. Oh, well. Billy, if you’re a self-googler and you’re reading this, I’ll tell you where my own street corner is; you can leave one there and I’ll make sure you get some more publicity for your website.
Update, August 29th 2020: This post originally linked to the website about Billy Johnson’s stone heads, which was easily findable if you did an internet search on the words attached to each head. It has since disappeared completely from the internet and the domain name bought by an entirely different woodcarver. However, the “friend of Billy’s” who set the site up is part of the “digital fiction studio” Dreaming Methods who seem to have used the publicity from the story to distribute more of Billy Johnson’s stone heads rather more widely than he could do on his own. If you want to see Billy Johnson’s work, you can find a lot of it scattered around his local area, near Barnsley.
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.