the Tate Triennial 2009

TRUE TO ITS FUNCTION as a naming ceremony of sorts, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Tate Triennial aimed at nothing less than inaugurating an alternative modernity. It understood itself as both harbinger and incarnation of this new cultural constellation and was premised on what Bourriaud calls “the emerging and ultimately irresistible will to create a form of modernism for the twenty-first century.” Fittingly for an exhibition predicated on a ringing declaration of a new epoch, “Altermodern” was surrounded on all sides by gestures of initiation, programmatic statements, and declarations of intent that ostensibly buttressed Bourriaud’s assertions. The exhibition was preceded by not one but four “Prologues,” daylong events featuring lineups of artists, critics, and theorists and addressing the themes “Altermodern,” “Exiles,” “Travel,” and “Borders.” Serving as yet another prologue of sorts was a curatorial manifesto posted on the Tate’s website as a primer for the mystified. “POSTMODERNISM IS DEAD,” Bourriaud declares emblematically in this text. “A new modernity is emerging, reconfigured to an age of globalization—understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodern culture.” This grandiose tone is echoed by the ambitious exhibition catalogue, which elaborates the idea that our nascent modernity is coalescing under truly global terms—meaning that the Western biases of both utopian modernism and the end-of-history condition of postmodern melancholy are being done away with. Or as an unsigned catalogue blurb states: “Art made in the times we live in . . . is conceived and produced as a reaction against standardization and nationalism. The art is characterized by artists’ cross-border, cross-cultural negotiations”—negotiations evincing a dynamic of creolization that, Bourriaud states, may finally subsume the outdated paradigm of harmonious multiculturalism. (True to the notion of the artist-traveler, the category of Britishness was erased from the triennial’s organizational logic; the twenty-eight artists in the show were from all over the world.)

Physically, too, the viewer’s entry into the exhibition was carefully orchestrated via a trio of works that functioned as a kind of drumroll, greeting visitors before they passed through the triennial’s ticket barrier. The first of these, encountered on entrance to the museum, was Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Private Collection, Year 3000, 2008. Fusing African and European pop-culture figurines into a display set up to evoke a private museum of the next millennium, this arrangement of fiction-fetish artifacts collapsed the distance between recent past and imagined future, as well as that between Cameroon and London. Nearby, in the Tate’s Duveen Galleries, was Matthew Darbyshire’s Pałac, 2009. This architectural mash-up re-created elements of Warsaw’s 1955 Palace of Culture and Science and of a new, Will Alsop–designed community center in England’s West Midlands. Here, what was fused were Soviet pomp, echoed in the architecture of the Duveen Galleries (built in 1937), and the anodyne avant-gardism of New Labour’s built environment. Against the backdrop of Subodh Gupta’s towering mushroom cloud of stainless-steel dining utensils, Tayou’s and Darbyshire’s works indicated a kind of multiple sitedness (in London and Cameroon, in Poland and England, in the past and the future). Significantly, a particular concept of sitedness or rootedness is central to Bourriaud’s current thinking. In his most recent book, The Radicant (Sternberg Press, 2009), he defines his title neologism thus: “To be radicant means setting one’s roots in motion.” Per Bourriaud, radicant artists remap the present as a field of temporal and spatial dislocations. It is in this paradoxical notion of racinated mobility, perhaps, that Bourriaud’s concept of the altermodern protagonist as cultural nomad—a global flaneur constantly moving across time, space, and signs—acquires whatever actual newness it may possess.

And yet, the almost too-precise correlations between these concepts and Tayou’s and Darbyshire’s installations underscored the degree to which the exhibition’s elaborate discursive apparatus had the effect of predetermining readings of the works. (According to Bourriaud’s logic, it was supposed to happen the other way around, with art generating both the discussion and, to a great extent, the shift toward altermodernity itself.) More broadly speaking, all these proclamations and performances of artistic, curatorial, and theoretical concerns had contradictory effects on the show. On the one hand, they dramatically expanded the remit of the triennial, whose previous three editions were considerably less ambitious, by appropriating the kind of discursively expanded exhibition format formulated in 2002 by Okwui Enwezor for Documenta 11 (which was presented as a series of five global platforms, of which the actual exhibition in Kassel was only one). On the other hand, however, there was a kind of narrowing, or shrinking. Bourriaud’s very insistence on inventing a new paradigm ended up periodizing the altermodern, ossifying its position as chronological successor to modernism and postmodernism. Bolstering this sense of genealogy was the fact that the curator’s theorizing of altermodernity itself lifts key tropes from modernist models (the manifesto, the artist-flaneur, and of course the emphatic notion of the now and its ostensible newness) and postmodernist ones (with the 1990s figure of the nomadic artist standing out as the most prominent and the most consistently disavowed).

Ultimately, it was the smoothness and rhetorical facility with which Bourriaud projected his propositions onto the broad range of works in the show that flattened many of them into simple modules thoroughly enmeshed in a heavily authored curatorial script. In other words, the curatorial use-value of Bourriaud’s theoretical shorthand might have been limited by the clichés it resuscitated, but the exhibition overall fell victim to a didacticism that short-circuited the dynamics through which works could animate as well as correct some of the grand claims made for them. Reduced as they were to illustrations of Bourriaud’s ideas, they were largely unable, in this context, to actively produce or negotiate notions themselves. Some works did manage to stage this tension as material for a productive dialogue. Mike Nelson’s Projection Room (Triple Bluff Canyon), 2004, for instance, features footage of the conspiracy theorist Jordan Maxwell discoursing on the nefarious connections between Exxon and the iconography of American currency. The footage—both literally and figuratively warped—proposes the neurotic tightness of the conspiratorial worldview as a reading modality for contemporary experience. At the same time, a replica of Nelson’s work space posited the artist’s studio as lab for itinerant thought and mythic production. Situated at the limits of legibility, The Projection Room insisted here on the urgency of its implicit fictions. It forced making, reading, decoding, and obsessing into a joint performance in which each was always conditioning the others, and it pushed against the constraints of the exhibition’s own conceptual tightness. Tris Vonna-Michell’s installation Monumental Detours/Insignificant Fixtures, 2008–, similarly countermanded any straightforward account of art/world interfaces. A kind of oneiric travelogue generated by a trip the artist took to Detroit, it comprised projected slides, a disjointed monologue recorded on a cassette tape, and objects collected in the city, translating the desire to decode experience and found narrative fragments into an arrangement of contradictory atmospheric triggers.

Yet more often than not, Bourriaud’s concept of the death of postmodernity, along with the inclusive we of his notional altermodern constituency, seemed to contradict the intricacies invoked and indeed negotiated by some of the works in the exhibition. Rachel Harrison’s complex sculpture and image assemblages, for instance, arguably don’t actually challenge the “postmodern,” which they seem to inhabit quite productively. Rather, Harrison’s work challenges Bourriaud’s reductive reading of the postmodern as historically finite and as determined by “mourning” and by an end of history (an end that in fact was hypothesized only by commentators at the conservative end of the spectrum).

At the core of the show, meanwhile, was a group of works that favored post-autonomous play in an increasingly airtight wonderland. Introduced somewhat over-explicitly by Franz Ackermann’s installation juxtaposing his signature psychogeographic map paintings with architectural fragments and various national flags scattered on the floor, this section seemed to put forward the image as the exclusive horizon of the altermodern universe. Walead Beshty’s cracked glass cubes, sized to fit in standard FedEx boxes and shipped that way between Los Angeles and Tijuana, bear the marks of their displacements as abstract images inscribed into the otherwise minimalist refinement of the cubes. Gustav Metzger’s psychedelic projections, Liquid Crystal Environment, 1965/2005, instantiated image as space and vice versa in an immersive sphere that effaced differences between the seen and the felt, the regarded and the inhabited. And Lindsay Seers quite literally embodied the image in her installation Extramission 6 (Black Maria), 2009, which includes a video showing the artist turning herself first into a camera and then into a projector. This work’s hermetic circuit—world, artist, image—was complemented by Loris Gréaud’s Where Tremors Were Forever (Frequency of an Image, White Edit), 2008, which uses a reading of the artist’s brain waves, recorded as he looked at a picture, as raw material for a light and sound environment of pulsating electronic elegance.

Such (alter-)modernist self-reflexivity was a key strand in the show, and Bourriaud in fact proposed inverting formalist perspectives by reading works back into the situations and frameworks from which they had emerged. They “unravel themselves,” he argues in the catalogue, “along receding lines of perspective, the course they follow eclipsing the static forms through which they initially manifest themselves.” Ironically, though, the result of such projected validations was that connectivities between art and world were almost totally drowned out. Only from such connectivities, and from their becoming productive of new possibilities, could any of the claims made in “Altermodern,” and for the altermodern, have actually engaged with the world. Marcus Coates’s futile attempt at facilitating Israeli-Palestinian understanding through shamanistic communing with animal spirits—in an Israeli mayor’s office, in a blue tracksuit, with a badger pelt on his head and a dead hare peeking out of his jacket—came across as one attempt to insist on that link. The show’s final work, however, was Nathaniel Mellors’s Giantbum, 2009, a video installation that trapped protagonists and visitors alike in a labyrinthine dead-end tale of cannibalism and coprophilia. As an absurdist re-creation of a self-contained reality and as an allegory of self-referential artmaking itself, the work was a remarkably involuted end point for the show’s altermodern narrative of artists
reshaping the world.

Edgar Schmitz is an artist and writer living in London.