Ruf Trade

Martin Herbert on the Tate Triennial


Left: Fireworks by Cerith Wyn Evans and Ian Hamilton Finlay. Right: Tate Triennial artist Daria Martin. (All photos: Rolf Marriott)

Midway through last Tuesday’s opening of the third Tate Triennial, a substantial percentage of the assembled guests set aside their cocktails and their chicken tikka–filled mini-ciabattas, and trooped out to the Tate Britain’s front lawn to watch one of Cerith Wyn Evans’s characteristic firework texts go up in smoke. As the gunpowder parcels ignited on a pair of metal armatures, fleetingly spelling out in white a two-verse poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay—in which permutations of the phrases “How blue / How sad / How small / How white / How far” are repeated, each ending once with an exclamation mark, then with a question mark (though I believe Wyn Evans reversed the original order)—someone muttered ironically, “Ah, mortality, transience, melancholy.” Actually, it did tug at the heartstrings a little. But the spectator had a point. We had a good idea of what was coming, and we got it.

The same could be said of curator Beatrix Ruf’s choices for the show as a whole, which is presented as a snapshot of contemporary British art practice and had a faintly enervated feel similar to the last one—Ruf’s superficial distinction being to leach out the previous show’s colorful palette and spread out the thirty-six artists’ works. Virtually none of the attendants I polled had a word, good or bad, to say about the show; few, though, thought it quite deserved the thorough pasting Guardian art critic Adrian Searle had given it—and Ruf’s “abysmal rhetoric”—in the morning’s pages. (Tate director Nick Serota was wearing a face like thunder when I glimpsed him, but possibly he’d just eaten one of the caterers’ egg-filled mini-bagels.) Barbican curator Mark Sladen was cautiously affirmative about Ruf’s work, but quickly changed the subject to his recent peregrinations around Scandinavia. My companion summed up, wailing: “Who’s it for?” Well, not anyone who’s seen the main London gallery shows during the last year, of which this was mostly an effective filleting. Assessing the crowd during my return visit a few days later suggested a different audience: students and adventurous pensioners.

Left: Triennial artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz with Tate curator Catherine Wood. Right: Triennial artist Lali Chetwynd.

The show’s thematic hinge is, broadly, neo-postmodernist: “repetition, reprocessing, and the appropriation of images and facts, on a spectrum between tribute and pastiche,” says the Tate—which leaves the door open for virtually everyone and allows the pointed placement of current elder statespersons like John Stezaker and ex–Throbbing Gristle provocateur Cosey Fanni Tutti (whose roomful of vintage porn-magazine spreads featuring herself was predictably popular) alongside Mark Leckey’s earthy and fatigued comic-strip animation featuring two soporific drunken oafs, a gothic-flavored skull-and-mirrors sculpture by Douglas Gordon, performances directed by Tino Sehgal, and a fair whack of lachrymose figurative painting (with Peter Doig at the head of the class). The backward glance was all that truly unified the show, and the obvious risk in what was otherwise a totalizing of artistic autonomy is that everything becomes acceptable. Summing up something of the event, Art Review’s Lupe Núñez-Fernández told me she’d been waiting in Daria Martin’s film installation during a projector malfunction when one woman walked in, decided she’d “got it”—“Oh, a black film in a black box”—and spun on her heel.

Still, it evidently looked different if you were a British artist overlooked by Ruf. After the show, in a nearby pub, neo-formalist sculptor Gary Webb toasted Liam Gillick for his contribution (a suspended text in black plastic) so effusively that the latter almost immediately beat an excusatory retreat, before the tired and emotional tyro proceeded to vent his apparent frustration at his outsider status by flinging ketchup at the hostelry’s walls. Oh dear. But it was gratifying—finally—to see a bit of unchecked vim and a splash of bright color.

Left: hobbypopMUSEUM's Dietmar Lutz and Andre Niebur. Right: Triennial artist Enrico David.

Left: Kodwo Eshun of the Triennial artist collective The Otolith Group. Right: Triennial artist Pablo Bronstein.