Friday, 6 November 2009

Madonna, Gok Wan and the Big Black Box

Walking along the South Bank towards Tate Modern I am distracted by a small crowd gathered by a tall black railing lying on the side opposite from the Thames. Intrigued I stroll diagonally across the grass in the direction of the assembly. A number less than twenty congregate by a gap in the shrubbery which hides the railing. This gap overlooks a private single-lane road. In the lane a black car and a silver-grey people carrier with blacked out windows idle. A ramp leads from the lane to a door standing on a small concrete terrace beneath a large anonymous brown and grey building, possibly the back of a hotel. There are murmurings among the crowd that a celebrity is about to leave the building for the blacked out vehicle. A sequence of figures – a driver, a security guard, a media type – appear one after the other on the terrace or in the lane to smoke a cigarette and/or talk into their iphone or Blackberry. There is a palpable sense of tension, a feeling that something is about to happen, but no one knows who it is we are waiting for, only that it is someone famous. Even the two paparazzi that are present poking their intrusive lenses through the black railings aren’t telling, or they don’t know. In the ten minutes that I join this communal experience I hear it could be Madonna, or Gok Wan, or more believably the lead in the current show on at the National Theatre just next door. No one knows, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t alter the sense of an event about to happen and the shared desire to be a part of it.

Half an hour later I am in the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall participating in the latest work in the Unilever series. In the growing tradition of Turbine Hall works it is of spectacular scale and is ‘interactive’. Miraslaw Balka’s How It Is (ostensibly inspired by a Samuel Beckett novel of the same name, but I can’t help thinking of Michael Jackson’s incomplete and unknowingly presciently titled comeback This Is It) is a steel container seventy feet long by thirty feet wide and a similar height raised several feet off the ground with it’s far end open and approachable by a wide ramp. It sits quite at home in its industrial setting. Inside it is black. According to the blurb provided by the Tate it is designed to be both a personal and a group experience. A participant finds their own strategy for negotiating the darkness – do you strike out bravely into the middle arms outstretched, or do you make your way to the side and follow a wall – yet by stumbling into other explorers along the way you recognise one another as fellow travellers. Walking in makes me think of a mass voluntary alien abduction or a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is, I suppose, meant to make us think of the unknown, or of death, an experience of absence, of the void, the nothingness of the universe, and yet, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite deliver. It doesn’t quite go far enough. Whether for dreaded Health and Safety reasons or merely flawed design you never quite leave the daylight zone. At the precise moment you reach the barrier of vision you hit the back wall. You cannot cross the threshold into absolute darkness. In this sense it is an Aporia, an impassable barrier where the unknown remains forever unknown. And because of this How It Is remains frustratingly disappointing.

There are reasons why I have presented these two seemingly disparate events, which occurred within minutes of each other, together, but I will not insult the intelligence of you, dear reader, by going to the trouble of explaining them in detail, save to say that I believe they both show fundamental human attributes in action, curiosity coupled with a desire to be part of something seemingly greater than ourselves, and that ultimately waiting for a non-existent famous person creates more tension and excitement than a big black box lined with felt. If you want to know darkness, go and sit in a cave.

Friday, 9 October 2009

On Appearance and Authenticity

Between Rene Magritte’s 1926 drawing ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ and Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 sculpture ‘An Oak Tree’ is made apparent the final evolution and subsequent conundrum of contemporary art. In Magritte’s drawing the viewer sees a carefully rendered visual representation of a pipe floating on the page above the drawn words of the title (which translates as ‘This is not a pipe’) in a style reminiscent of a botanical text book. In Craig-Martin’s sculpture the viewer sees a glass of water on a plain glass shelf placed above head height while below left on the wall a text by the artist pre-empts questions and their answers arising from the work.

The former informs the viewer that not only is the drawing of the pipe not a pipe but neither are the words “this is not a pipe” (to what does the word (or even the drawn representation of the word) “this” refer? Is it the drawing of the pipe? Is it the words? Or is it the word ‘this’ itself?), and in a very simple singular gesture Matisse undermines the language systems (visual and verbal) on which human beings rely to navigate their world. [1] We can only know a thing if it is named. But the name is not the thing. [2] This may appear obvious but surely it proves that we can truly know nothing. This statement has been a fundamental question of philosophy since Plato considered the flickering shadows on his cave wall.

With ‘An Oak Tree’ Craig-Martin completes the work begun by Duchamp in 1917 with ‘Fountain’ by claiming that not only can anything be art if the artist declares it to be, but that the artist can declare it to be anything he wishes it to be. The glass of water on a glass shelf is not a glass of water on a glass shelf. It is an oak tree, in as much as the words “an oak tree” cannot be an oak tree. Craig-Martin states, in a gesture as equally simple and devastating as Matisse’s, that art is a more powerful tool for navigating the world than is the word, and also that art, and subsequently life, can, and does, lie.

[1] For a full (if highly idiosyncratic) exploration of the philosophical implications of Matisse’s work see Michel Foucault, This Is Not A Pipe, translated by James Harkness, University of California 1983
[2] See Jacques Derrida’s meditation on Death as an unpassable and therefore unknowable barrier ‘Aporias’, translated by Thomas Dutoit, Stanford University Press 1993

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Fake or Real?

In October’s issue of The Art Newspaper there is a story, subsequently reported in a number of other media outlets, of a painting which until recently had been considered a valuable forgery. The painting, ‘The Procuress’, a brothel scene, owned since 1960 by the Courtauld Institute in London, was thought to be a twentieth century ‘fake’ in the style of the Dutch Golden Age by notorious counterfeiter Hans van Meegeren, known for his exceptional Vermeer copies. Scientific studies performed over the last year by Courtauld specialists and The Art Newspaper have discovered ‘The Procuress’ is more likely to be an ‘original’ by a fairly average painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Dirck van Barburen. What was once valuable because it was a brilliant fake becomes less valuable because it is a mediocre original.

What does this story tell us about the current criterion used to value a work of art? Physically it is the same painting, but with its new context it becomes an entirely different work. Roland Barthes discussed the ‘Death of the Author’ in his seminal essay of that title. Michel Foucault responded with his question ‘What is an Author?’ Both were interrogating the relationship between a work and its creator. Can one be separated from the other? Can we understand a work fully without knowing its back-story? Or do we need an intimate knowledge of the author of a work and the cultural context of its creation to be able to judge its artistic (and indeed fiscal) value? Barthes said the work doesn’t have a single author. It cannot be separated from its context and time, as it can only exist as an amalgam of the ideas, words and thoughts which preceded it. Foucault added to this saying if we wanted to understand the meaning of a writers’ work we should place as much weight on his shopping lists as we do on his masterpiece.

Surely this is the same painting? It is the same pigment on the same canvas depicting the same scene; the same quality of brush stroke; the same insight into light and colour, shape and form? The same talent, or lack thereof? Apparently not. Apparently we now have two paintings: the potentially true and the potentially false, each living their own life depending on which context, which author, you the viewer, believe in. And it is the potentially false version of events which the art world values highest.

Albert Camus said, in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, his study of the absurd, that the act of creation is ‘the absurd joy par excellence’. Nietzsche is quoted in the same work as saying ‘we have art in order not to die of the truth.’ Can we not value art without knowing the truth of it? Or is all art a lie?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The First Post

(The following essay was written some time last year. It was this essay which led me to thinking about this project – a series of short essays, each one exploring a single idea in around 500 words, which, over time may build to create a coherent critique of contemporary art and culture. It was thought that through the writing of these essays themes would emerge clarifying my thoughts in this area.)

The photograph used to illustrate the story headlined ‘Pakistan to ‘Weed Out’ Taliban Sympathisers’, in last Saturday’s Guardian, struck me for its highly charged dose of drama. I use the word in its literal, theatrical sense. The image, provided by an unnamed photographer at Reuters, shows the immediate aftermath of the bombing of India’s Kabul embassy on July 7th. Everything about this image looks staged. The background - rubble and ruin of a building, teetering telegraph pole, smoke, dust and blanched trees – looks flat, the diffuse light and limited pale desert colours hint toward a painterly backdrop. The six figures spaced across the wreckage strewn pavement are the actors, carefully placed on a stage to emphasise the power and emotional charge of the incident we are witnessing the instant repercussions of.

Regardless of the historical and political weight of the ‘issues’ behind the bombing, what we are watching are the very human reactions to a singular moment in time. These people are not responding as Pakistanis, or Muslims, or Taliban, in some grand, sweeping ‘war on terror’ narrative, they are responding simply as human beings concerned for themselves and for their fellows. The young woman in the foreground right, crying, her only thought is to care for the baby she cradles, her entire focus is on removing the baby, and herself, from danger. The older man in grey, with white beard, behind her, a trickle of bright red running down his forehead, his focus is on the woman. He tries to catch her up, holding out a white shirt, as if wanting to wrap it gently around the woman’s shoulders, to offer support to her and the child, a desire to protect them both from further harm. The other three figures are men, scattered evenly across the scene. They are dazed, each attempting to raise them selves from the ground. Foreground left, a man in green holds his head to stem the flow of blood running freely between his fingers. Centre back, a man in white. He has the most blood on him, highlighted by the whiteness of his clothes. Lastly, on the right at the back, a third man sits in shock. These three, all looking in different directions, are isolated, each submerged in his own disbelief. They are disconnected from each other and the small scale human drama unfurling between the older man, the young woman, and the baby. The brightness of the blood, and the striking green and blue of the woman’s clothes provide the only richness in an otherwise bland pallet. The final details amidst the rubble on the stage are a bicycle lying on the ground (which, if any, of our characters was riding it?), and, on the opposite side, a car fender, hinting possibly at the source of the violence.

The photograph resembles an Old Master painting, where each character and object in a strictly orchestrated scene carries symbolic significance. I am sure this is what every news photographer is looking for, they are, after all, artists, and this is what the anonymous photographer here has achieved. The news photographer at best, like the artist and the dramatist, is themselves a lens, through which reality can be focussed to show the universality of humanity within the tangle, confusion, and drama of everyday news events.

The Shock of the Real

In Gus Van Sant’s film Drugstore Cowboy we witness Matt Dillon as a troubled young junky, holding up pharmacies to feed his habit. I am a fan of Van Sant, particularly his later, more minimal work, but there is something wonderful that happens in Drugstore Cowboy that doesn’t occur in his more unconventional films.

Toward the end, we meet the character who aids Dillon’s to turn against the lifestyle he has been following, and helps to give him the strength he needs to straighten out, before he is ultimately killed at the hands of a previous minor character. It is this final incident that gives the narrative its moral message and completes the tragedy of this young man’s life, but, strangely, we no longer care for the ‘characters’ in this ‘story’. Our belief in the narrative has been shattered by the arrival of the ‘Priest’, played by William S. Burroughs.

As soon as Burroughs, a real life junky and notorious author, appears on the screen, the illusion of the movie is irreparably fractured. The power of this iconoclast’s presence immediately removes the suspension of disbelief essential to our enjoyment of such artificial narratives. We can only enjoy films because for the short duration of our immersion in them we allow ourselves to believe in them. How else could we watch some of the more outlandish fantasies on offer without constantly saying ‘but that’s impossible’? William Burroughs is such a(n) (in)famous cult figure (the world’s most famous queer junky) that it becomes impossible to see anyone else in the film as other than what they are, actors playing roles. The whole carefully constructed artifice built in the previous hour or so tumbles violently to reveal cameras, actors, stage sets: the naked truth. Matt Dillon, when he puts his arm around Burroughs’ shoulder, is nothing more than a star struck actor aware he is in the presence of a man with a talent greater than his, and his hope that by association with Burroughs his status has been raised is clearly visible.

Hollywood spends millions on convincing us of unconvincing stories. How could we believe the handsome, privileged Dillon, could possibly persuade us he is a poor, desperate drug addict? Members of the Hollywood set are ordinary people, and many do have their troubles, their addictions and perversions, yet we still want to believe they are superior to us. Like the ancient Greeks and their pantheon of gods we place them on a pedestal and, again like the ancient Greeks, we are aware of our gods inadequacies and we love nothing more than to watch them fail and fall. Witness the cult of celebrity that surrounds Hollywood and the huge media industry which follows the ‘stars’ in every aspect of their degenerate and salacious lives.

Gus Van Sant cuts through all this (not necessarily intentionally) simply by placing William Burroughs, a real life iconic junky, in front of a camera in a Hollywood film about junkies. This single act of nihilistic anarchism destroys in a moment the whole edifice of falsity that cinema rests on, ripping to shreds the rules composed over a century of filmmaking. The history of modernity in the twentieth century, of which cinema played a significant role, told us that it is from moments of negation such as this that new art forms can emerge, fresh ideas from the debris of the old. In Drugstore Cowboy Gus Van Sant takes a step away from familiar and classical linear cinema, towards the elliptical, minimal, more avant garde and esoteric style of his later works.