PRINT December 2003

Martin Herbert


1 Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, Gentlemen (Tate Britain, London) “You ain’t even impressed no more, you’re used to it,” raps Marshall Mathers. It’s getting that way with Payne and Relph, who predictably stomped their moribund neighbors in this year’s Tate Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary British Art. So, reality check. They may have bitten much style from Mark Leckey, Harmony Korine, and Charles Baudelaire, but Gentlemen, 2003—drifting footage of decrepit London toilets, sportive pigeons, and shimmering glitter, frosted with Morse-code bleeps and a voice-over that’s the bitterest, campiest bitch slap of default shallowness you’re likely to hear any time soon—was another instance of Payne and Relph saying, in effect, “It’s not like that, it’s like this,” and being absolutely correct.

2 Jane and Louise Wilson, A Free and Anonymous Monument (BALTIC, Gateshead, England) An almost comically effective deployment of video’s kinesthetic potential: Shown in a series of exploded chambers formed by projection screens hung horizontally and vertically, the Wilsons’ footage of decrepit modernist relics like Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion (1963– 70); a North Sea oil rig; and gleaming, space-age silicon-chip factories wasn’t exactly there to be looked at. What mattered was the artists’ constant Steadicam panning and tracking over these man-made environments so that pasts and futures—specifically those of the Northeast of England—moved in your peripheral vision like the pistons of some giant, inexorable machine.

3 Martin Westwood (The Approach, London) The subjects of Westwood’s collages (suited-up gents shaking hands, drones shuffling maple leaves on glass-topped tables, and unlikely frissons between men and shop girls) could almost have been pulled from corporate brochures. His aesthetic, though, is something else: Figures are complexly spray-painted, via stencils, onto layers of paper, themselves X-Acto-knifed into explosive, overlapping floral designs and held onto bulletin boards by pretty sprays of colorful map pins. There’s a latent critique of big business in this fragile facture, but Westwood seems interested mostly in reflecting romance’s potential to manifest itself, like dandelions bursting through cracked pavements, in the unlikeliest places.

4 Milena Dragičević, Reconstruction Isn’t Easy (IBID Projects, London) There’s probably a straightforward reason why Dragičević painted this chalky, almost illustrational image of a blond accordionist (chiseled chin, Alice band, lascivious glint in the eye) who suggests Rutger Hauer in drag and whose enigmatic presence is reflected in a mirror: something to do with Eastern European folk traditions gone schizoid under capitalism, perhaps. But if you know, don’t tell me—I’d prefer Mrs. Hauer to continue disturbing my dreams.

5 Conrad Shawcross (Entwistle, London) When not driving around London in a Ford Capri fitted with external hooks for catching airborne souls, this class-of-’01 Slade MFA makes works such as those in his extraordinarily confident debut: Including a room-filling loom that slowly created a length of multicolored yarn twisted into the form of a double helix (the slow generation of DNA’s form was intended, according to the artist, to represent the shape of time), “The Nervous Systems” heralded the arrival of a geek-art wunderkind who lacks the embarrassment gene.

6 “Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight: The John Hinde Butlin’s Photographs” (Photographers’ Gallery, London) These photographs, taken by commercial photographers (the Dublin-based John Hinde Studio) in the 1960s and ’70s to be turned into gaudy postcards publicizing Butlin’s, the UK’s best-known holiday camp, were here blown up to gallery scale at the behest of photographer Martin Parr and clearly revealed the cracks in the forced-entertainment center’s shiny facade: Views of parents gulping down martinis in the bar while miserable nurses chased their feral offspring around the rumpus room said it all. Wallow in kitsch decor and then progress to the black heart of these images for a swift erasure of any lingering nostalgia for repressed Old Blighty.

7 “Extra Art” (ICA, London) Subtitled “A Survey of Artists’ Ephemera” and mostly comprising lovingly preserved private-view cards and mail art from 1960 to 1999, Steven Leiber’s pet project wasn’t just an oblique retrospect of all our yesterdays; its model of transubstantiation was also a damn good excuse for me not to clear out my loft: Post–“Extra Art,” hapless hoarders were suddenly archivists. Don’t touch that trunk!

8 Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster Name any biennale and, if Gonzalez-Foerster is in it, you know you’re guaranteed at least one oasis of ambient intelligence. At Lyon and Valencia this year, her enveloping installations—computer-generated flash-forwards into a world of stuttering pinprick lights, butterfly-flutter electronica, and abstract shapes arcing across boundless space—appeared just when the jostling for attention of so many strident practices was melting my brain and, for all their posthuman caveats, went down like crushed-ice margaritas. If I was supposed to be thinking about relational aesthetics, I can only apologize.

9 Janet Cardiff, Forty Part Motet (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London) and Hans Op de Beeck, My Brother’s Gardens (Hales Gallery, London) Typical. You wait years for one artwork that acts as a handmaiden to Thomas Tallis’s lapidary sixteenth-century chorale Spem in Alium—and then two come along in short succession. Cardiff’s widely shown piece from 2001 (which finally arrived in London) enclosed the viewer/listener within a magic circle of loudspeakers, each dedicated to one chorister, and conjured an uncanny, spectral ensemble; Belgian melancholic Op de Beeck used the same music to elevate the animated centerpiece—130 cross-fading drawings featuring ornamental gardens—of his opiated but aching 2003 video My Brother’s Gardens. Each was uniquely deliquescent, although the English composer’s shade might well query the billing.

10 Damien Hirst (White Cube, London) Solely for the art-megastar fringe benefits: Private view like a free festival; the first instance I’ve seen (though maybe I don’t get out enough) of a commercial gallery selling posters of the show; and a sign outside a bar around the corner from White Cube asking, “Got a Damien Thirst?”

A regular contributor to Artforum, Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He is currently researching the changing status and iconographic properties of artists’ signatures.