PRINT December 1991


Technique Anglaise


Renton: Technique Anglaise alludes to the French phrase for certain kinds of sexual games. The French perceive English technique as a repressive public school activity.

Gillick: I hate the title. Everyone in the book hates the title.

Renton: But you thought of it.

Gillick: Yes, but I didn’t expect you to take it seriously.

Self-deprecation, sex, aggression within, submission-to-the-system/playing-the-system, willful perversity, passion, commitment (collective and individual), acceptance, (mock) outrage, silliness, humor, spanking, but no cynicism. As with the rubric, so with London art of recent years. The current generation, well versed in the appropriate history and aware of the obsessional twitchings of the American endgame (without feeling any need to join in), has made itself required viewing. The landmarks have been a small number of group exhibitions beginning in 1988—“Freeze,” “Gambler,” “Modern Medicine,” “East Country Yard Show”—and the short life of the Milch Gallery.

A number of interconnecting factors made these shows possible. First, they were instigated by, and conceived as vehicles for, a group of potentially interesting artists educated in such a way as to have developed an open but healthily critical attitude to art and artmaking. Art-school culture, and the specific tutorial support and encouragement they received within it, were invaluable to these artists: “Freeze” was mounted when the participants had barely graduated. Second, a society in thrall to the promise of sustained growth beyond all reason engendered a climate that meshed with the artists’ ambitions for themselves. Third, and more practically, property temporarily vacant pending redevelopment—part of London’s manic expansionist bubble of the last decade—was available for use. And fourth, there were new private galleries in the city, run by young dealers able to respond to the challenge.

Technique Anglaise looks at the burst of activity centered on these conditions. Seeming put together speedily, rushed through for fear of losing relevance, it gives 26 young artists working in London six pages each to do with as they please. Some, for example Julian Opie, Simon Linke, Grenville Davey, Gary Hume, Henry Bond & Liam Gillick, Langlands & Bell, Rachel Whiteread, Ian Davenport, and Michael Landy, will be known elsewhere, others, such as Melanie Counsell, Simon Patterson, Angus Fairhurst, and Damien Hirst, maybe not. Editors Gillick, a critic as well as an artist, and Andrew Renton,whose writing has done much to promote awareness of these artists both in Britain and abroad, have pursued a policy of editorial noninvolvement, so that whatever each artist submitted was accepted, no questions asked. The result is a real mix. Some contributions are nothing more than “a few pictures of work I’ve done,” others are more or less successful attempts at what would in Artforum be called an artist’s project. This makes the book patchy, and, in places, impenetrably obscure. It is a reflection of what is there rather than a place to find out about it.

The artists’ pages are preceded by the transcript of a discussion among the two editors, dealers Maureen Paley and Karsten Schubert, critic and curator Lynne Cooke, and William Furlong, an artist and art school vice-principal. The conversation is straightforward, any woolliness being due to lapses into platitude rather than any overzealous attempts at interpretation.

Sit in the pub with your mate, take a crumpled envelope out of your pocket, and write on the back of it the names of thirty friends (think, for example, of everyone you might like to invite to your 28th birthday party). The original list of desired participants was, by all accounts, drawn up pretty much in this fashion, and it has not subsequently changed except that three of those invited (Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, and Bethan Huws) chose not to accept. This is not quite the haphazard process it might seem, since the list does almost make itself if one acknowledges two London points of reference: Goldsmiths’ College of Art and a small group of younger dealers. Three-quarters of the artists included here studied at Goldsmiths’ during the ’80s, at either graduate or postgraduate level, and Schubert, Paley’s Paley Wright, and Laure Genillard between them represent half the names in the book. In fact One Off Press, the publisher of Technique Anglaise, is Renton and Karsten Schubert, and the suspicious may see the book as vanity publishing. Yet dissatisfying as it sometimes is, Technique Anglaise is a good document of a moment, and is the more interesting for the realization it expresses that in economic and social terms, if not in esthetic ones, that moment has already passed.

Moreover, although subtitled Current Trends in British Art, the book makes no pretense to being inclusive. It is not an “edited version” of what is going on in Britain so much as an avowedly partisan view; albeit, for many, the one that matters. The assembled talents being far from uniform in standard, the book is a showcase not of the best artists but of those who share in and contribute to a collective culture. Their work, though, is not identifiable by a common look. They run the gamut of materials and techniques in the attempt to find form for their ideas, and these forms, once found, are often antithetical one to another. What the group does share is an acceptance of the ground upon which its members are working. Questions that have been asked before do not need to be put again. Unlike, for example, a slightly older generation addressing consumption, these artists do not see critique as one of their prime functions. They do not work provisionally, tentatively staking out their terms of reference before feeling they can say or do anything. They acknowledge relativism insofar as they do not insist that what they are doing need be found interesting or pertinent. But they make no apologies for what absorbs them.

Posited somewhat as object lessons for many in this young group is a trio of artists, Linke, Opie, and Lisa Milroy. (Linke and Opie show with the Lisson Gallery, which is itself thus cast as a kind of elder statesman to the trio of younger galleries.) Schubert suggests that the new art developed as it did due to the kind of work that Opie, for example, was making—“Opie broke the mould.” And Gillick’s reply makes it clear that it was at the more mundane, operative level that lessons were learned: “There is no distance suddenly, it’s not fantasy land anymore, it’s like real life, and you can do it, too.”

Michael Archer is a critic who lives in London.


Technique Anglaise, by Andrew Renton and Liam Gillick. London and New York: Thames and Hudson (One Off Press). 1991.