Gin Biz

Claire Bishop around London


Left: Virginia Damtsa and Nicholas Logsdail. Right: Gelatin member Ali Janka.

It’s that time of year again. Several thousand specimens of international art trash and flash have descended on London for the Frieze Art Fair. The first site of infestation was the Turner Prize exhibition opening at Tate Britain Monday night. What work was visible through the swarm of bodies revealed what seemed to be a surprisingly evenly matched line-up. Simon Starling, the local favorite, chose to obstruct the first room with his vast ShedBoatShed (Mobile Architecture No. 2), 2005, a shed that became a boat and then, you’ve guessed it, was reassembled to become a shed again. After maneuvering around this wooden hulk, you encountered his sequence of uber-conceptual and elegantly understated photography and text-based recursive systems. (Starling is famous for having ninety-word titles that take two paragraphs to explain, so I’m not even going to try.) Next up was Darren Almond with a four-screen video installation featuring Super-8 footage of his granny looking wistful alongside loops of a ballroom and the annual seaside lightshow catchily known as the Blackpool Illuminations. What with the plinky music, this was a somewhat sentimental entry, but a welcome reprieve from his ongoing Auschwitz fixation. The gloomy paintings of Gillian Carnegie—this year’s token painter—looked surprisingly OK, although this may have been due to the homily I received from Enrico David on her dynamically scatological use of impasto. A small painting of a luscious female derrière seemed to prove David’s argument, but Rosalind Nashashibi was having none of it. (“That bum is nothing to do with poo.”) The final room contained a trash-Pop playroom by Jim Lambie. In 2003 the Neo-Op Scot had filled Tate Britain’s Duveen Gallery with a massive multi-colored floor piece that, if crossed too hastily while drunk, could induce epilepsy. This year’s installation was tame by comparison—silvery-black tape in cross-hatchings on the floor, topped by kitsch sculptures of giant birds, one of which was carrying a mirrored handbag. Fine if you like LSD visuals or need a totem against avian flu, but conceptually on the weak side. I headed for the bar (tooth-rotting sloe gin Bellinis) and eventually left with a crowd of artists and a handful of miniature bottles of gin courtesy of Gordon’s, the show’s sponsor. Their generosity immediately backfired as everyone went straight to the local pub and ordered crisps and tonic.

Thirteen hours later and I was back at Tate Britain, this time in the role of external witness to the Tate’s acquisition of Tino Sehgal’s This Is propaganda, 2002. For those of you living under a rock, Sehgal’s totally ephemeral work cannot be photographed or videoed, and thus cannot be “sold” in the conventional sense. Like all of his immaterial “situations,” it has to be transmitted verbally in the presence of a notary. The bemused lawyer, myself, seven members of the museum’s staff, Sehgal, and his two deadpan dealers sat around a table for ninety minutes while the “oral contract” was hashed out. Witnessing the precocious Sehgal negotiate the intricacies of legal jargon while the museum fretted over invisible sub-clauses was almost an artwork in itself. (Is it possible to show the work simultaneously in all four Tates and have it on loan?) When the moment finally came, Tino’s performative enunciation of the transfer of conceptual goods and their price was strangely thrilling—not unlike wedding vows—until I recalled his injunction the previous evening (“You have to be active! This is not passive spectacle!”). The gravity of historical burden kicked in: I have to memorize the six conditions attached to the Tate’s purchase in case I ever see them contravened. The longevity of this information surely stands in direct relation to my consumption of gin miniatures at Tate openings (institutional critique, c’est moi).

Performance loomed large again that evening. After swinging by Dietmar Lutz’s show at Emily Tsingou’s new gallery in King’s Cross, I figured it was time to pay a visit to the Gelitin boys at Gagosian. After signing a disclaimer at the entrance, I climbed up a step-ladder, sidled along a thin wooden corridor, and descended to a mirrored changing-room-cum-chill-out lounge where I exchanged my trousers and trainers for a white towel. From here it was a case of splashing through a cold and revoltingly flooded floor (carpets and cardboard bobbed underfoot), past a barrage of stained mattresses, to emerge into an abject water-garden for gay tramps: A ceiling-high mountain of crappy old furniture supported a splashy waterfall, while a large pink figure of an arch-backed male with a vast erection spouted yet more water onto a pathetic collection of plants. “Here,” announced our guide Cerith Wyn Evans, full of blissful appreciation, “they have challenged themselves to make the ugliest sculpture in the world. I think they are very close. Up there is the bathroom, a wonderful piece of engineering with see-through pipes.” Does it take solid performances? One of the gentle Gelitins intercepted before Cerith could answer. Half-naked, his cock nudging through a green plastic Hawaiian skirt, he encouraged us to experience the sauna, a knobbly green homemade pod fuelled by boiling water. As I inserted half of my body into this fearful sweaty capsule I felt an instant surge of claustrophobic nausea. The idea that you could get seven people in the pod was fascinating and slightly erotic, but on balance mostly repellent. Another Gelitin happily removed his underwear (miniscule, with a knitted appendage) and leapt inside. He emerged five minutes later, beatifically gleaming with sweat. Meanwhile Cerith had changed into his performance gear (Wellies and a resplendent pair of Y-fronts emblazoned with the tackle of Michelangelo’s David) and handed us a plastic cup of Ice White, a chemical impersonation of cider whose rancid bouquet made the installation’s heady dank stink of old furniture seem marginally more appealing.

Fearing the onset of pneumonia, I quit the puddly Gogo ahead of Cerith’s performance (an experimental Fluxus-style number involving a cello) and headed to the Lisson party for Rodney Graham and Lawrence Weiner. This was a bit of a staid downer after Gelitin’s multi-sensorial wonderland. Weiner was austere business as usual, but Graham pulled off a mariachi band to accompany his wonderful 35mm film of a spinning chandelier. Upstairs was a bar, surrounded by pub-style mirrored portraits of Rodney with a pint glass. But having supped on the toxic miracle of Ice White earlier, the evening had already peaked. L’Autriche douze points, Allemagne dix, Canada huit.