PRINT February 1995


Turner Again

THE VISUAL ARTISTS GET a rough ride from the British media. While books, music, and cinema are treated to respectful in-depth coverage, art is warily eyed, and the notion that contemporary work is rubbish or a con is endemic. In response, the art establishment is pumped up with missionary zeal to spread the word that art is accessible, fun, and, yes, even sexy, with younger artists dealing accessibly in the forms of the conceptual one-liner and the visual pun. Contemporary art may indeed be more popular now than ten years ago—Damien Hirst is something of a household name, and the idea has been floated that we are witnessing a renaissance of younger British artists recalling the heady days of ’60s Swinging London. Still, the degree to which art today has actual popular appeal, let alone street credibility, remains debatable.

The annual award of the Turner Prize—a misguided conspiracy between the Tate Gallery and Channel 4 TV to bring contemporary art to a wider audience—is born of the same pro-art promotional zeal. But last year’s controversy over Rachel Whiteread’s House aside, the Turner has never captured the public’s imagination in the way of the annual Booker Prize, awarded to new novels. In fact the Turner has settled into a ritual pattern: the shortlist is announced, the quality press polish up their profiles on the four contending artists, and the rest of the media get down to a bout of contemporary-art-bashing. Ulrich Loock, of the Bern Kunsthalle, had the right idea when he suggested, during a preparatory debate, that the winning artist should take the money (£20,000) and run. Unfortunately, there’s the televised dinner and prize-giving ceremony to be got through first.

Another regular feature of the proceedings is the annual demonstration on the gallery steps. This November it was the turn of a group of disenfranchised antielitists, protesting about how shameful it is that mediocrity goes underfunded and claiming that mediocritists deserve to wear tuxedos and win prizes too. At least this group believed in populism. But their mildly Situationist picket lost its credibility as serious agitprop when members of the demonstration kept peeling away from the slogan-chanting crowd to hand out invites to a late-night disco and to chat with “elitist” acquaintances who were making their way up the Tate’s steps. These dangerous subversives even asked a beer company to sponsor their intervention: this is what protest means to Thatcher’s children.

The fact that sculptor Antony Gormley won the Turner Prize this year was less surprising than that the notoriously shy Charles Saatchi gave a speech. He should’ve stayed shy, and left his voice coach at home. Saatchi pondered what it was that artists slipped into their breakfast porridge to make them so wild and wacky, and noted that the cutting edge of vanguard art courted vulgarity—and weren’t we all, in our little ways, sometimes the teensiest bit vulgar? That there was nothing remotely outre about the work of the four contenders appeared to have slipped his notice.

Sarah Staton’s “Supastore,” which turned the Laure Genillard Gallery into a boutique last autumn, is in its own way an exercise in the collision between vulgarity and sophistication: “Supastore” disguises its gallery as a normal shop. Although its contents are eccentric, it proved popular with a public that would rarely venture into a gallery. Conflating the roles of artist, shop assistant, and curator, Staton provides a portable window (she’s about to set up a stall at the San Francisco Art Fair) for multiples of all kinds, mostly made with her shop in mind. You can buy T-shirts with glued-on latex nipples, a cassette tape on which bloke-ish voices murmur approving noises for girls to get dressed to, a pair of inside-out mirrored sunglasses, and soaps embossed “Girl,” “Boy,” and “?.” Staton’s Supastore concentrates on work by younger British artists (though the obligatory Jenny Holzer baseball caps and Sol LeWitt-packaged Paco Raban have been in evidence), and much of the work proves that the spirit of Fluxus is alive and well and living in London. The reason for this is, of course, that young artists don’t have any money, and don’t have a proper market for their work, so they make pseudocommodities that reflect both their circumstances and their aspirations: work that is funny, tacky, anxious, and far too accessible to capture the attention of the Turner Prize committee.

Reflecting the current mood, the Institute for Contemporary Art has been temporarily renamed the “Institute of Cultural Anxiety.” Rather than the result of a rash of honesty on the ICA’s part, this renaming is the brainchild of an unknown from Nottingham, 24-year-old Jeremy Millar, who won a competition inviting young curators to send exhibition proposals to the ICA. The prize was that the show got mounted. The “Institute of Cultural Anxiety” follows the pattern of a number of recent exhibitions in which the curator assumes the role of auteur. (Jean de Loisy of the Pompidou is good at this, but Bart de Baere recently stumbled with his attempt to overturn the conventions of exhibition management in the clumsily titled “This Is the Show and the Show Is Many Things,” at the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Gent, Belgium.) Perhaps it is Millar’s naïvete that makes his show so refreshing: it isn’t so much a circus as a zoo. The idea came to him, he told me, on a visit to New York’s Museum of Natural History. The place was so compendious, so filled with stuff, that he came out none the wiser than when he went in, except that he had the feeling that there is now too much to know, too many facts in the world. Any culturally challenged tourist could have told him that, of course, but Millar decided to make a show around this thought.

Visitors get wafted through the show to the outdated futuristic strains of Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene” playing on their acoustiguides. This anxiously unhip and dislocating soundtrack hits the right time-warp note for an exhibition that fills the spaces and corridors of the ICA with a mixture of up-to-the-minute art, meteorite fragments, bad-taste space-shuttle jokes (“What does NASA stand for?” “Need Another Seven Astronauts”), scientific and pseudoscientific ephemera, and some piquant, specially prepared slogans by Paul Virilio. The anxiety here is about the collapse of categories and the merging of cultures. It is also about caring about not caring whether things are art or not. This attitude (and it is an attitude with attitude when done well) blurs fact, fiction, science, art, high, low, good, bad, past, present, and indifferent. It is the ahistorical creature of our channel-hopping inattentiveness, and Millar’s show is an essay in the decomposition of culture.

My favorite things among the fresh, the hot, and the new this season were Fiona Banner’s frame-by-frame description of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, printed in small text across a vast Panavision-format sheet of paper (it’s called The Desert), and a quite repellent “failed experiment” by Jake and Dinos Chapman. The Chapman brothers make Damien Hirst seem a model of good taste and decorum (there are those who mutter, in secret, that Hirst is really a formalist). Earlier this season at Victoria Miro they exhibited a life-sized mock-up of the most terrible of Goya’s “Disasters of War” featuring freshly mutilated mannequins. More recently they were censored out of a show in Italy when they turned up with two figures: a woman whose body sprouted penises and vaginas, and a man covered in sphincters.

The Chapmans’ Little Death Machine (Castrated), 1993–94, in Millar’s show at the ICA, features a plastic dildo attached to a pump that makes it squirt fake sperm into an ossified brain, while a second disembodied brain gets beaten in by a motorized hammer—or it would, but the machinery is broken, so this squalid plaything sits, junked, along with bottles of putrefying milk, in an immaculate Perspex cube. This is precisely the kind of thing the Turner Prize panel should consider next year, but I bet they’ll be too fainthearted. See you at the barricades.