Focus: “Rites of Passage”

I succeeded, one could say, because I work in a very interesting field where I try in a very conventional field of culture, the so-called art scene, to develop a wider step.
—Joseph Beuys, 1980

As with all good exhibitions, there are many routes one can rake through “Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century,” at London’s Tate Gallery. Indeed the ride itself implies a variety of routes, as in life, with periods of transition, false doors, and so on. One could attempt to follow a chronological line, for example, noting (with initial surprise) that the oldest artist included here, the still-vigorous Louise Bourgeois, born in 1911, is fully ten years older than Joseph Beuys, who died in 1986. The youngest artist, Hamad Butt, was born over 50 years after Bourgeois, in 1962, but died in 1994, while the Spanish artist Pepe Espaliú, born in 1955, died a year earlier than Butt, in 1993. Immediately we are alert to the hands of chance and fate in human affairs, including reputations in the art world. The familiar chronological route is thus confused; rather, we find a clustering of artists whom curators Stuart Morgan and Frances Morris present in their excellent accompanying catalogue as “passeurs”—people who, at the end of the millennium, are ferrying things or people across boundaries, priests, as Morgan puts it, “of that secular religion that art has become.”1 ”Rites of Passage" is in the end a cautiously optimistic statement about art’s importance in making the transition to the next century—a transition that will include mourning and anger, and that will require many complex rituals.

Julia Kristeva, interviewed in the catalogue, describes art’s reference to the human in terms of both trauma and bliss, in a discussion one hopes she will develop beyond the staccato of the interview format. She describes what she calls the “crisis we are living through” in millennial terms, as “deeper than anything since the beginning of our era, the beginning of Christianity.” She continues, “We need to come as close as possible to the crisis, to accompany it and produce individual works because that is the predicament we are in, in a kind of pulverisation and solitude.”2 One way of thinking about ” Rites of Passage,“ then, would be as a show about catastrophe, about disaster both private and public, personal and social. It is concerned with the disastrous in Maurice Blanchot’s sense-our general, intimate awareness of disaster in our midst, disaster with a stress ”upon minutiae, sovereignty of the accidental.”3 Thus in Beuys’ magisterial Terremoto in palazzo (Earthquake in the palazzo ), 1981, we find a dramatic enactment of hazard, of the arbitrariness of the accidental—the sense that this was smashed while that was not, he lived while she died, and so on.

In one sense, all the work in “Rites of Passage” is about the disastrous. It is also and equally about secrets, messages in bottles, incantations, and hidden truths, about condensations and complex displacements. As Bourgeois has said, “The unconscious is something which is volcanic in tone and yet you cannot do anything about it. You had better be its friend, or accept it, or love it if you can, because it might get the better of you. You never know.”4 Most of the works in the exhibition proceed in one way or another from objects that are everyday and practical yet at the same time densely metaphoric, and the artists organize or choreograph these rich associations for us, leading us into fields of connotation that interact with our own experiences and histories, conscious and unconscious. Such objects range from Beuys’ felt suits and fragile, perilously balanced clay flower pots to Espaliú’s cages and sedan chairs, Bourgeois’ libidinal bedroom furniture, and Butt’s ladder. The sense of conflict between individual and collective, and of secrecy, also reinforces Blanchot’s argument that the keeping of secrets, if in itself unremarkable and a rather unpleasant restraint on what can be said, nonetheless implies at the least that there is still ”something left to say,“ and furthermore that ”saying (with its glorious capital) [is] always in excess of everything said.”5

Espaliú, who died of AIDS, presents The Nest, 1993, a standing ring of painted crutches—heavy crutches made of iron, which would bear one down rather than support one, just as the artist’s iron sedan-chair pieces (not shown in this exhibition) would make their imaginary occupant unliftable. Instead of closing at the bottom, Espaliú’s birdcages are open, as if to release the birds confined, but their bars extend downward like hair, as if to confine the rest of the immediate earth beneath—or both. Butt, who also died from AIDS, produces a massive version of a Newton’s Cradle, the popular desk-top toy—steel balls hung in a row, their movement demonstrating the laws of physics. The suspended spheres in Familiars Part 3: Cradle, 1992, however, are glass, and if a visitor were to swing one of them against its partners, they all would smash in sequence, releasing deadly chlorine gas. Familiars Part 1: Substance Sublimation Unit, 1992, consists of a stepladder, but one whose rungs are glass vacuum tubes containing iodine vaporized by the heat of infra-red lamps—a ladder one would not dare use. Alchemic optimism meets medical caution.

Miroslaw Balka made his selection of found objects "because they carry a history which I connect with when I touch them. It is like kissing the hand of history. . . . For me the history of materials is more important than the history of art. . . . These are the materials I encounter in my studio, they constitute my personal landscape.”6 Balka’s installations employ elements of everyday life in contemporary Poland to explore the extraordinary contradictions of social change there. His melancholy human fireplace, for example, is wallpapered with obituaries from the local newspapers; all his work is about religious identity, national identity, and danger. John Coplans’ landscape is his own naked body; looking at his photographs, we oscillate between movements of identification and its refusal. Fat, which equals life, also equals death. As Georges Bataille and the photographer Jacques-André Boiffard insisted, the body is always simultaneously a site of desire and repulsion, power and vulnerability, the generic and the unique.

Robert Gober’s Door with Lightbulb, 1992, returns us to one of his preferred terrains, the transitional space of the corridor or hallway. As Morris observes in the catalogue, the lobby in Gober’s piece "is an unloved and neglected space. . . . Along one wall is a doorway, with light slipping under the threshold. Above the door is another source of light, a naked red bulb of the kind that, when illuminated, warns you not to enter—and at the same time tempts you to do so.”7 Doorways of a kind are equally the objects of Mona Hatoum’s attention, in her case the openings of her own body, sites of ritual purification as well as of excreta—a theme explored in the Kristeva interview. Susan Hiller’s parallel interest in remembering and forgetting, Mnemosyne and Lethe, leaves us trapped between childhood and adult life, as the age-old puppet-theater conflict between Punch and Judy is terrifyingly enlarged and amplified in her video installation An Entertainment, 1990.

Conflict and ambivalence equally underpin the work of Jana Sterbak, whose celebrated Vanitas, Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, 1987, consists starkly of a tailor’s dummy (a stock-in-trade of the Surrealists) wearing pieces of flank steak stitched together into a dress. I Want You to Feel the Way I Do . . . (The Dress), 1984–85, consists of a costume of electrified nickel-chrome barbed wire, on a metal frame carrying associations of chain mail and the few women who have worn it—Joan of Arc, Boadicea, and so on. It too is empty. Finally, Bill Viola’s extraordinary video installation Tiny Deaths, 1993, blinds us by alternating almost total darkness with sudden light—the light of an image that is gone almost before it has revealed its own changing human subjects, not to mention the other people in the room, whose unseen presence one feels in the darkness, just as one is oneself alternately hidden and then glaringly, momentarily revealed.

“Rites of Passage” wisely eschews any openly polemical modes of art practice, as well as the shallow, fashionable, tired “antihumanism” that motivates so much contemporary work. As Morgan writes in the catalogue, the exhibition proposes that artists indeed have an important role in society, as shamanic figures, whose spirituality is revealed as much in their clinical exposure of false religiosity or cheap instant expression as in their (unstated) contention that ambivalence rather than certainty is the key artistic emotion in the West at the end of the 20th century.

Simon Watney is a freelance critic and curator who lives in London.

”Rites of Passage" remains at the Tate Gallery until September 3.


1. Stuart Morgan, “Introduction,” in Morgan and Frances Morris, Rites of Passage: Art for the End of the Century, exhibition catalogue, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1995, p. 12.

2. Julia Kristeva, quoted in Charles Penwarden, “‘Of Word and Flesh’: An Interview with Julia Kristeva,” in ibid., p. 27.

3. Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p. 3.

4. Louise Bourgeois, quoted in Deborah Wye, Louise Bourgeois, exhibition catalogue, New York: the Museum of Modern Art, 1983, p. 72.

5. Blanchot, p. 137.

6. Miroslaw Balka, quoted in Morgan and Morris, p. 34.

7. Morris, “Robert Gober,” in ibid., p. 96.