Tate Modern first, for the installation in the large Turbine Hall. A space within a space: Shibboleth is a long, snaking crack in the concrete floor: the artist, Doris Salcedo, creating an absence rather than a presence. It is an interesting piece (though not half as interesting as the accompanying leaflet describes – “…her work strikes to the very foundations of the museum”: no, I think not – perhaps just a few inches down).
It is fun – the part of the installation is watching other people’s reactions (as surely as they were watching mine). The crack – variously several inches across to only a hair’s breadth – goes the length of the Turbine Hall; it splits and twists, and at times real, apparently accidental, cracks go off at right angles.
I had read in the paper how the artist was disappointed that so much of the media reaction had been to ask how she had done it, rather than focusing on the intrinsic nature of the work itself. She was being naïve: the one thing one really wants to know is how was this done. (It is probably easy to guess; indeed, I’ll bet that if I googled that question, I’d find the answer – though I feel the question is maybe more interesting than the answer! My money is that they lifted various concrete blocks from the floor, reworked them – rather beautifully, and, with a careful symmetry across the crack and a wonderful, careless asymmetry the length of the crack, made the space between, and then relaid the floor.) It was carefully designed; despite being a hole in the ground, there was a lot of surface detail, the side of the crack being carefully and lovingly honed, held together with chicken wire.
There was a particularly childlike joy in walking along the crack, one foot on each side; at its widest, this wasn’t easy. There were several toddlers hurting across the floor towards he space, gleefully ignoring the signs all over the Turbine Hall imploring us to watch our step. It was almost as if the floor had been torn apart in an earthquake whilst the rest of the building was unharmed; I kept waiting for an arm to appear from the space, or Buffy and Willow to come running down the incline.
But ultimately I do not believe it was a great piece of art: as with a lot of conceptual, the idea is fascinating and entertaining and enjoyable, but once past that – well, if I need to read the leaflet to understand what it is meant to be about, I don’t feel the art can have been very good at communicating to me; and so it must have failed.
* * *
The next day, I went to the other Tate in London – Tate Britain, where there is a retrospective of the Turner Prize, with work going back to 1984. I have been to many of the Turner Prize shows, so must have seen much of the work on display here before, although there was a lot I have no recollection of seeing before.
There is an awful lot to see: twenty one years of work by six or so artists a year. (The 2007 Turner Prize nominees are on show in Tate Liverpool; and one year, 1990, the prize was suspended – the takeaway blurb, summarising the winners and the press reaction to each prize (courtesy of The Guardian), doesn’t actually explain why this was). I found it an interesting experience, but mainly because it confirmed in me that I know what I like; or more precisely, I know what I don’t like.
Seeing a lot of the work was like seeing old friends again: that sudden recognition of the familiar. This happened right through the door, when I saw painting by Howard Hodgkin, and I just smiled; and then I glimpsed a beautiful work by Anish Kapoor – three hollow hemispheres of deep blue pigment: standing by them, I felt my hand would disappear if I stretched into the space inside one of the hemispheres. This is deeply beautiful and moving work – it pulls very strongly.
I had had to pass Damien Hirst’s “Mother and Child Divided”, not so much a work of art as a work of abattoir. It is a very clever idea – cutting a cow and a calf in half (hence the title), but the actuality is distinctly distasteful. I didn’t like it in 1995, and I don’t like it now.
I did, and do, like Rachel Whiteread, who won in 1993. She creates solid objects out of space, and was illustrated by her 1994 work “House”. (I have just spent two hours searching through old negatives for some pictures of House; rather strange, sifting through thirty years of negatives. I couldn’t find them, which is incredibly irritating; I know I took several, the first pictures I took on a large format camera. Instead, here is a link to a picture of House on Flickr, taken by Dressed In Yellow.) I really like Whiteread’s work – she uses objects as moulds – in House, it was a house about to be demolished. The sculpture left when the object is taken away – the house was taken down around the solid space – and they have an eery quality: you know what your seeing, but it is a positive image of the space. Very strange, and I think rather beautiful.
There was a lot of video work, and I was reminded how much I dislike video art. Usually I just don’t get it. There were pieces by Gillian Wearing, Douglas Gordon and others. The Wearing piece was frankly wearing: a video of police officers standing or sitting in rows; for an hour. I looked at it for perhaps two minutes, perhaps a little more; I certainly wasn’t going to sit there for an hour. Nothing happened. I didn’t think I was looking at great art. I did wonder why the police were sitting there. Should they have been doing something a little bit more productive? Or perhaps they weren’t policemen and women at all. But ultimately, I felt like saying “so what?”
There was an exception – the second exception to my dislike of video art in the week (after k r buxey at the Seduced exhibition, the only thing I found worth looking at there). Steve McQueen’s (no, not that one) short film Deadpan I thought was simply brilliant; I sat and watched it three or four times (unlike Wearing piece, this was only four minutes long). It was wonderful – a take on a scene from a Buster Keaton movie where a house falls down around the actor. In Deadpan, McQueen recreates the scene, shooting it from several different angles; each time I saw it, I was impressed by the tension (when will the house fall? what will I see?): each angle different, sometimes focusing tightly on McQueen’s eyes (he flinches briefly as the wall passes him), or his feet, or the window through which his body passes (whilst motionless). It was captivating. I think the guy is a genius.
One of the pieces I remembered before and thought “why?!” was Martin Creed’s conceptual piece. I can’t remember what it was called. Basically, the gallery lights had been wired to a random timer: the lights go on, the lights go off. (I couldn’t help remembering an episode of the Simpsons, when Homer opens and closes the fridge door, trying to catch the fridge in the dark.) An entertaining idea, but where is the art? I wandered into the gallery and thought they had a faulty power supply – it was only when I realised there was nothing in the gallery that I remembered Creed’s piece. It left me in the dark.
There was an Anthony Gormley piece, Testing A World View – five casts of his body positioned around the room. I had hoped they would have Field, one of the works for which he won the Turner – a powerful, rather scary installation of thousands of little clay statues filling out a room, staring up at you. They did have a picture of Field, but that was all; the piece they did have left me rather cold, surprising since I would have said that Gormley was one of my favourite artists. (Seeing The Angel of the North up close was wonderful; I must post about that.)
In the lobby, they had a Richard Long piece, painted straight onto the floor; they must have either got Long in to repaint it, or used someone else to do so (in which case, who’s the artist? Is it a copy of an original?). I started to trace Long’s steps – to walk the length of the unbroken line – but I got hungry and stopped after a few steps, off to seek some food.
I found this a really interesting show; my views hadn’t changed much (the McQueen was the only work I hadn’t seen or only artist I didn’t know that I liked), and those artists I hadn’t liked I still didn’t like – a lot of the more conceptual stuff – the clever-clever Hirst, the obsessive Gilbert & George (which is which? who cares?). But it was worth it to see the work by artists I love amongst the stuff I would happily pass by – and perhaps seeing works I know and love amongst the other stuff made them even more welcome.