The weekend finished off with a visit to Sadler’s Well to see Sutra, a display of marshal arts by Shaolin monks, designed by Antony Gormley and set to music by Szymon Brzóska. The set was magical – simple boxes which allowed the monks to appear and disappear across the stage, the monks building new structures for them to perform on. The music was excellent – percussive and minimal. This was a really enjoyable performance – part dance, part installation, part acrobatics. Great stuff.
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.
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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.
I went to the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. This was just wonderful. Exciting, inventive; just superb. We approached the exhibition from Embankment, cross the river again. Suddenly, I became aware of the figures on the skyline: stationary, hanging there. Once we’d seen one, we started to look for others, scanning the buildings. We could see several – some close, other barely visible. As we crossed Hungerford Bridge, more came into view, perched high on the edges over the city. I was expecting this – the statues had been in the press for ages (one lovely story – and I hope it is true – was that Gormley wanted to place one of his figures on the roof of the Ministry of Defence; they understandably turned down his request. In the run up to the opening of the exhibition – when the papers were full of pictures of the statues scattered across the roofs of London, the Minister for Defence suddenly wanted to know why there wasn’t one on his roof, too. His underlings apparently tried to get the Hayward to erect one on the MoD, but by then it was too late – all the sculptures were accounted for.)
This was Event Horizon, and it was a stunning piece of art. The figures, modeled on Gormley himself (he seems to be his own favourite model), were eerily beautiful. There was something sinister about them – as if they were part of a Dr Who plot – gazing endlessly over London. Looking at them – looking for them – made one look at the city differently: they not only changed how you looked at the art, but how you looked at everything.
Much of the exhibition was like that. Entering the Hayward, there is a towering sculpture like a fallen satellite. And lo, it is called Space Station. An extension of Gormley, created by scanning his body into a computer and cutting large boxes from sheets of steel, this is massive, barely fitting into the space available, towering over the visitors looking at it.
(I wanted to take pictures of it, and asked the servitor if it was ok. He said no. So I didn’t. [Edit] The Hayward’s website has only Flash animations. Howeer, there are a lot of pictures on Flickr, and I have provided some links to some of those!)
Space Station is lit by a diffuse, stark white light: itself a work of art. Blind Light is a cloud chamber, a large room created inside the gallery, full of light. The water droplets catch the light, creating a solid white fog. From a distance it appears luminescent. Up closer, it is full of ghostly figures looming out of the fog as they approach the glass edges, they quickly disappearing.
Inside the cloud chamber, it is quite disorienting; it is very disturbing. The fog is thick and bright, and uniform; you cannot see below your waist, and if you hold you hand out in front of you – and the need to do so is great, to avoid hitting other people – your arm disappears into the mist. You can hear a lot, but there is so much light that you can see nothing. You cannot see the floor to place your steps; you cannot see the ceiling.
The experience is the artwork: re-examining the way we look at things: our bodies, how we are present in the environment; the way people appear and disappear.
After a while, walking about, lost, it is quite frightening. There are no anchors, nothing to orientate oneself. The wall suddenly looms up; people appear – right in your face – and disappear as quickly. I found it hard to breath (which is strange; I thought water vapour was meant to loosen the airways), and it would have been easy to panic. The only way to find the door out is to head forward, and hit the glass wall; and then slowly follow it around, a hand keeping to the glass to stop one getting lost again.
Walking down to the next gallery, we passed hanging figures – Gormley again – swinging by the stairs. Called Critical Mass – Gormley likes using scientific terms as names for his works of art (the first piece of his I remember seeing consisted of a large room at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the floor full of tiny little clay figurines, scarily staring up at you: a mockery of the emperor’s terracotta army, perhaps. It was called Field); there were figures lying in corners of the gallery, as if they had been left there. Others had been cut up and dissected.
Allotment consisted of 300 boxes, abstractions of people in Sweden: each box being the smallest volume that could contain the subject. Gormley called them “rooms”. This gallery was like a maze: one had to weave a path between the figures. It felt like a graveyard, the “rooms” standing a three dimensional stones.
Upstairs – past the hanging figures again, swinging gently in the breeze – was a room full of sculptures made from a grid of wire. Apparently based on fractals extruded from forms of Gormley’s body (see – fractals: he does like his popular science), these were large, abstract pieces each containing a body at their centre. They hung from the ceiling, and gradually rotated as people walked by, disturbing them. (The pieces throughout the exhibition seemed very tactile; but of course we weren’t allowed to touch, which was a pity; and which a lot of visitors ignored. It was very hard to resist.) The bodies within the frames were contorted and misplaced – as if caught falling through the air (several pieces in the exhibition reminded me of photographs of people falling from the World Trade Center; this may well have been me rather than Gormley – but falling bodies did seem to be a theme); some of them were curled in foetal position, as if the wire around them was the womb.
The outdoor terraces of the Hayward were open as part of Event Horizon. Some of the statues could be seen comparatively close, others barely visible on the horizon. It was even more impressive high up, on a similar level to the statues. There are three terraces, allowing one to look at the art – and the skyline – from three different perspectives. A handful of the statues – three or four of the thirty-odd – were placed on ground level, were they blended with the pedestrians walking past them.
There were a couple of pieces we didn’t get to see: they were more internal rooms, and there were long queues to get in. But you could also look in from outside, through tubes piercing the walls. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope – interrupted by people walking past and cutting off the light.
The whole exhibition was magical, but there were dark overtones, too. It was quite special.
I have just watched a fascinating film on BBC4 – Art from the Arctic.
A boatload of almost wholly British artists (there was a token French photographer) were taken to Spitzbergen, where they looked at the glaciers in wonder, and created pieces of artwork; and talked.
The scenery was beautiful – it was an excellently photographed film – and whilst the scenery was beautiful before the artists were there, the fact that they were there brought the scenery to the screen.
But it was how the artists reacted and interacted with the landscape – the water, the ice, the light – that was the core of the film. The focus of their attention was on climate change and the impact of man on the environment. (The irony of their own, damaging presence on the snow and ice of the Arctic was not lost on them; the writer Ian McEwen was most eloquent on the subject, suggesting that they were an allegory for the destruction caused by the rest of humanity.)
Anthony Gormley (together with another artist, whose name I forget) created coffin-sized shapes in the ice: one a block cut from the ice, another built from walls of ice, and the third a hole cut in the ice; they were beautiful shapes, translucent and ethereal.
Gormley later had himself cast in ice. (My wife and I had been wondering what he would do: Gormley commonly uses his body as his own model, but we couldn’t believe that he would lie on the ice so that his shape would be retained. We lacked his imagination: he etched his body shape in the ice using water, then he lined the cavity and let the water freeze. The next day, there was an ice-sculpture of his form. My wife had gone to bed by this point; I had to wake her up to tell her how he had done it; she laughed.) Gormley photographed his ice-image in a variety of weather and light; it was rather magical.
Rachel Whiteread felt at a loss – “I don’t think quickly enough” to work in ice, she said; but she walked, and kept the images of her experience to build the installation she created last year in Tate Modern, vast pyramids made from white blocks, ordered and disordered, resembling the mountains and the glaciers and the ice she saw. She said that the dependence on the boat and her fellow travellers made the experience claustrophobic, despite the vast spaces: because of the risks, she could never be alone (not least, the danger of polar bears).
Siobhan Davies, a choreographer, was also uncertain how to create work from the environment: she felt that dance was almost absurd in the subzero temperatures, when the cold made any movement difficult. The film showed a line of people – the artists – moving slowly across the snow.
There were some beautiful ice-sculptures, both found and created: someone made a series of lenses of ice: they had wanted to use the ice to burn something, a metaphor for global warming. It didn’t work, but they photographed the ice in different lights, at night with a flash (though they hadn’t developed the film, so couldn’t say what it looked like; the nascent art sitting on the film), in the sun, in fog.
Another artist was obsessed by the naming of the landscape, and he searched for newly exposed islands, previously hidden by the retreating glaciers, which he could name. He climbed, somewhat dangerously, and surveyed his new found land; I don’t know what he called the island, though.
Max Eastly (I think) worked with sound, using the wind to create the soundtrack, which was haunting.
All in all, it was a remarkable programme. There must be a website with their images somewhere; if I find it, I’ll post it here. Sorry – I can’t find any images anywhere!
[Edit] I found the website of the Cape Farewell Foundation, who organised the trip: http://www.capefarewell.com/