Guessing Game


Left: ICA director of exhibitions Jens Hoffmann and Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan. Right: “Surprise, Surprise” cocurator Rob Bowman. (All photos: Sarah Thornton)

It’s important to be astonished, it really is. As I walked into the ICA’s summer show in London last Tuesday, I was relieved to find that not every arts institution wants to lead its audience around by the hand as if it were an infirm patient in a mental hospital. Forty-five big-name artists had contributed atypical works for the show . . . and there were no wall texts. “Is that a Chris Ofili? I think it is, but there’s no dung. The painting next to it . . . an Ofili too? Wait a minute. I’ll look in the catalogue. No . . . a Peter Doig.”

A sweltering crowd, clinging to their “Surprise, Surprise” brochures, had their mettle tested—doggedly searching for clues as to who had provided what for exhibition director Jens Hoffmann’s curious and captionless show. The word “Nixon” was etched into a mammoth polystyrene brick on which a papier-m‚chť penguin was perched. “It’s an early Jake Chapman!” shouted a keen art student. Half right. It was a Chapman, but it wasn’t early. The brochure said it was made in 1970, but when I bumped into Chapman outside, he confessed that he’d made it last week. “If I’d been four years old when I finished it, why isn’t the tape holding the sculpture together yellow by now? Come to think of it, at that age, would I have even known who Nixon was?” Ah, the Chapmans do love to make a mockery.

Left: ICA artistic director Ekow Eshun. Right: Artists Stefan Bruggemann and Daniel Sinsel.

The art-historical antics seemed to be working for Hoffmann, curator Rob Bowman, and the ICA team. Apparently Joachim Pisarro, MoMA curator and great-grandson of Jacob Pisarro, wants to bring “Surprise, Surprise” to New York. Even artistic director Ekow Eshun was taken aback. “I can’t believe so many people have turned up in August. The art world is supposed to be on holiday.” Artists Wolfgang Tillmans and Daniel Sinsel and dealers Nicholas Logsdail and Jake Miller certainly weren’t on vacation. Picking his way through the crush, Sinsel, a painter, talked about being pipped to the post for this year’s Beck’s Futures prize by Matt Stokes. “I’m glad Matt won. I imagine he needs the money more than me. Making videos is a very expensive business.”

Martin Creed was in Los Angeles (where he’s showing his new “shit film”—a series of people, erm, defecating for the camera) on Tuesday, but when I saw his name in the catalogue and couldn’t find his work, I phoned him from the lower gallery for help. “I gave them a black painting,” he said. “It’s essentially a pile of brush marks. You can't escape from yourself, so you may as well try to do something different.”

Left: Jake Miller, owner of The Approach. Right: Nicholas Logsdail, owner of Lisson Gallery.

In a corner of the upper gallery, I discovered an exquisitely dressed mannequin that looked a bit like a headless Charles Ray, next to a '70s-era cosmetics ad that could have been appropriated by anyone. Turned out it was Paul McCarthy. It seems that the artist caused the ICA some consternation by submitting this piece perilously late. Thirty years ago, he asked Max Factor if he could “steal” one of their advertisements for his 1976 magazine Criss Cross Double Cross. Last week, McCarthy (and his gallery Hauser & Wirth) persuaded the head of Gucci to donate the mannequin for “Surprise, Surprise.” Hauser & Wirth’s Aileen Corkery said, “When Paul wants something to happen, it happens. He hates anything that is static. He wants to fuck it up.”

The show largely delivered on its promise to “explore the one-off, the unknown and the unfamiliar,” but my biggest revelation of the night came from Hoffmann himself. “It’s time to leave,” the pink-pinstripe-tie-wearing curator admitted. “I am going to San Francisco to be the director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.” Apparently, this news had been circulating in the US, but few in the UK seemed to know. “I’m happy about my time at the ICA and about this show,” he said. “If I’m surprised about anything, it’s that I expected tonight to be an antispectacular event, more of a Situationist gesture. It worked out well in the end, though—it turned into a madhouse.”

Laura K. Jones

Left: Kenny Schachter, owner of Rove, with wife, artist and designer Ilona Rich. Right: Anthony Reynolds Gallery director Costanza Mazzonis.