Monuments to Nothing in Particular

Lenin Statue

A statue of Lenin in post-communist Lithuania

The biggest enterprise of public arts cuts in modern times occured during the 90s and 00s in the former Eastern Bloc as the last granite, steel and concrete vestiges of the communist regimes were torn down. These sometimes enormous statues were demolished, often in the middle of the night, between mobs of people supporting or opposing their demolition. People waved banners and jeered or cheered as the remnants of the old regime crumbled in front of them. In public art played out the symbolic politics of reforming national identities.

Kapoor's public sculpture

The creators of ‘Arcelor Mittal Orbit’, including two politicians, pose for the press

Now look at the profusion of public art works in the UK and you can only really shrug and scratch your head as you crane your neck back to view the gigantic monuments to nothing in particular. Take, as an example, the olympic tower to be called the Arcelor Mittal Orbit, designed by Anish Kapoor.* A giant viewing platform constructed from swirling steel girders (the billionaire funder it is named after, Lakshmi Mittal, is a steel magnate) has been described, quite embarrasingly, by the London mayor as a rival to the Eiffel Tower. It’s certainly overblown and gigantic, in line with similar conceits Kapoor has publicly realised. But it even lacks the cod-minimalist aesthetic of his usual work which ham-fistedly tackles the aesthetic puzzles the minimalists conquered with such grace, precision and economy a whole generation before him. It’s even worse than his already bad work.

The same goes for Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North. The fact that this faux-spiritual blown-up riff of his man-sized work is built for the eyes of people in passing cars says it all. What does this white, expensively-educated Buddhist have to say about the north of England and its historical trials and tribulations? Not much really, just a giant version of a previous work. (I’m an iconoclast at heart, I deeply loathe spiritual pretentions in art).

I’ve always been ambivalent about public funding for the arts, while I think that public culture is important, I’m anxious that besuited bureaucrats and politicians (like the Mayor of London) don’t have a say. Politicians never have the public interest at heart, only the public do.

Is there any good public art? Well, yes, in many ways there is, but the best public art is always ephemeral. While I don’t think much of Banksy as an artist, I know that his public work has captured the imagination of the public and turned them on to the possiblities of the visual arts in public space in ways that are witty, poignant or satirical. For the most part, the public like him and if they don’t (I don’t much) then at least we get some kind of response out of them. For entertaining and enthralling (and sometimes enraging) the nation, Banksy has received not a penny of direct public money. In fact, his work breaks the law.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt

The NAMES Project or AIDS Memorial Quilt

The AIDS Memorial quilt, the largest public work of art in the world and still growing, was a spontaneous act of creation from grief as thousands began to make quilts memorialising their loved ones, adding and combining them for public display. The first showings of the enormous Quilt covered the Washington Mall. It was at once an expression of grief, a memorialisation and protest. Public antipathy against people with AIDS withered as news helicopters captured the sheer devastation that HIV had caused in the US, displayed right in the seat of power of the western world.

Even Bill Clinton, then President of the USA, visited the quilt; an astonishing feat for a work representing such a demonised section of the public. Again, the Quilt project, at least in its early days received no direct funding from the taxpayer. (If you’re interested, I wrote a scholarly paper about it here).

Now, I don’t like soviet public art, but the point is that it became a lightning rod for symbolic politics, just like Banksy’s work and just like the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The anodyne structures by the likes of Kapoor that are increasingly impinging on public consciousness truly please no one because they try to please everyone. They are monuments to nothing in particular. But lets hope that they do, like the soviet monuments, become sites of contestation, because these monuments, as boring as they are, ought to be scrutinised a great deal more.

I hate to complain, I think it’s always best to concentrate on good things and ignore the bad. But when the bad is so high in the skyline, you can’t ignore it.

*OK, strictly speaking, Kapoor’s Orbital is not “state funded”, but it is a state sanctioned on state-owned land through a public competition. This set up – a privately-funded monument named after the funder as a state monument – is even worse than state public art in my view. It reeks of corporatism.

Colour Me Bland

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst with spots

I was looking forward to seeing Damien Hirst’s spot paintings the other weekend, I visited the Gagosian Gallery expecting the profusion of spot paintings to be overwhelming, giddy even. In reality it had a dulling effect on me. These icons of the 90s, with their clean, simple, relentlessly flat surfaces just look bland in one room together, they say more alone.

It’s a show that spans across the 11 worldwide locations of the Gagosian Gallery: 11 huge buildings full of all the spot paintings made since 1986. A show conceived and curated as a global show. There’s also a remarkably vulgar competition to award those who visit all 11 galleries during this time of global financial crisis an expensive print.

The catch is of course that anyone who could afford to do such a thing could afford the print anyway. It’s depressing how detached from reality Hirst and the Gagosian are, as if someone moronic and rich enough to pollute the atmosphere for a grid of spots deserves an expensive prize.

The paintings, for the most part, have a simple principle: the randomly coloured dots (made with glossy commercial paint), of equal size per canvas, are spaced from one another at one spot’s length. It’s a simple yet powerful ordering system, the chaos of random colour tempered by form. It’s quite brilliant when you think about it: the power of the prerequisite. And the paintings look brilliant in photos and as backdrops to the visceral vitrine sculptures of the flayed and chopped bodies of farm animals.

Where his sculptures deliberately misconstrue minimalism as a kind of packaging (a point Joseph Beuys made), the spots parody minimalism as corporate art or art-as-logo, stripped of its phenomenological underpinnings. They also provide a flat counterpoint to the sculpture and really are more than decorative in that context. But together en masse they mix to cirrus grey or a drone of white noise, they are merely decorative.

Spot Paintings

More interesting but damning: low spot-to-canvas ratio paintings

The paintings with a low spot-to-canvas ratio (with four or nine spots), with spots bigger than dinner plates, tyres even, are more interesting. The spots define the corners, they demonstrate something about space on the picture plane, its elasticity. The colours mean more when set in such a relationship with each other and the canvas because they hold a particular weight in relation to the gaping white spaces. And it is perhaps the relative success of these larger examples that damn and dimminish the whole bunch of them, because looking at them, we forget the ordering principle for a moment and we start to think about shape, space and colour, in the way, you know, we think about, say, Matisse; we start to remember better painting that’s unconstrained by ideas, that’s about intuitive feeling and judgement.

We Know that Music is Music?

Come Together is a record most British fans of the indie genre would know well as a track that straddles the boundaries of indie rock and acid house music. It’s a remix of a gospel-inspired Primal Scream track that appeared on their critically acclaimed ‘Screamadelica’ album of 1991, a collaboration between the band and house DJ Andy Weatherall. The track embodies the euphoric idealism of the acid house movement in the UK, melding synthesised sounds with acoustic brass and a slow thumping beat and a gospel choir’s refrain “come together as one”.

Its eclecticism mirrors the message of a sampled speech from the beginning which reads as follows:

“This is a beautiful day… It is a new day… We are together, we are unified… and all in accord… Because together we got power… ”

“Today on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music”

The speech sampled is Jesse Jackson’s from the 1972 Wattstax Music Festival in Watts, Los Angeles that was celebrated in the 1973 movie documentary Wattstax by Mel Stuart. The speech, it seems, sits perfectly with Primal Scream’s eclectic music and the unity sentiment of Come Together.

However, if you’ve ever seen the Wattstax speech, you’ll notice some glaring omissions: words among these words spoken by Jesse Jackson that were cut from the sample (rendered here in bold type).

“This is a beautiful day… It is a new day… it is a day of black awareness, it is a day of black people taking care of black people’s business… We are together, we are unified… and all in accord… Because together we got power… and we can make decisions… ”

“Today on this program you will hear gospel, And rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music… All of our people have got a soul, our experience determines the texture the tastes and the sounds of our soul. We may say that we are in the slums but the slums are not in us… We have shifted from bed bugs and dog ticks to community control and politics”

Jackson went on to recite the Civil Rights era call-and-response poem ‘I am somebody’ (see a great version here).

From the speech Primal Scream clearly omitted the references to the black community, giving the illegitimate impression of the speech as a universal claim for music and togetherness. When Jackson refers to togetherness and unity he is referring to the Afro-American community which had its own divisions at the time.

Now, the point of this post is not to cry foul at the band’s censorship of some important aspects of the speech but to ask: what can music mean to us?

The edited speech by Primal Scream points to an idealistic universalization of music that all genres are just labels, music is music and it unifies people and gives them power. This fits well with the acid house ethos and Primal Scream’s own eclecticism that borrows heavily from black traditions.

But Jackson’s speech’s message is far from this cosy glow of universal appreciation and empowerment: ‘All of our people have got a soul [and] our experience determines the textures, the tastes, the sounds of our soul’. Jackson’s speech contradicts the universalist message, his message is one of identity politics: he says “our experience determines [our soul]”, not “we have a soul regardless of experience“.

In this sense black music comes from a black (“our”) consciousness that is a result of the struggles of black existence in the US: poor housing, under-employment, prejudice and so on.

Primal Scream are of course white Europeans who could never really know what it feels like to be black and poor in the USA. But perhaps we – all of us – can ‘feel’ the pains and joys of a black consciousness (or consciousness) vicariously in the music of black artists like Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. So while musical invention can perhaps only be determined by a community experience, its enjoyment – its fulfillment – can bridge the vicariance of community experience.

Primal Scream’s selective borrowing underscores this: a component of experience is lost on us but found in us when we enjoy such music, the same can be said for the music of any time, place or struggle. Knowing it is impossible, but feeling it is for the taking from the music of those that know it.

And that, brothers and sisters, is a recipe for solidarity.

Colour Me Bad

What would a difficult painting look like? You could paint violent or sexual scenes, you could paint grotesque ugliness. But primary colours? Be afraid.

Primary colours just don’t work together. They are by definition at opposite ends of the colour wheel, they’ll never get on. Even Rodchenko’s red, yellow and blue monochromes, an astonishing piece of avant-gardism from the Russian revolution, were painted on separate canvasses.

Art history decreed against these magnetic poles appearing together until Barnett Newman fearlessly put them together. Not only producing one, but a whole series of paintings made up only of red, yellow and blue. And, with a little pride in his own painterly bravado, Newman called the series ‘Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?’

Newman was a proto-minimalist in his emphasis of the objectivity of his paintings and sculpture (Judd’s first ‘minimalist’ works were essentially three-dimensional Newmans). But I think these paintings are also proto-pop in their brashness and the inherent dynamism of the colour relationships and clean lines (see what I mean?). Moreover, primary colours surely represent, more than others, the industrial rationalisation of colour, short-hands for elements, situations and ideologies.

Look at the painting above, it’s bold and brave: it not only juxtaposes the three, it’s also a symmetric painting on a triangular-shaped canvass. It pushes painting to the limits, not only in terms of taste but also in its status as a painting since it’s all surface and shape, it almost becomes an object, just a ‘thing’.

Some of these paintings are enormous, some smaller, they all ‘work’ – but only just, lying beside the precipice of aesthetic obscenity. I’ve always preferred them to the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, a series of paintings Newman is most lauded for. Aesthetic problems are always more interesting to me than earnestly trying to capture spirituality in paint, the spiritual stuff works itself out and emerges from the problem. These paintings say surprisingly much about their zeitgeist.

Castor & Pollux: the old in the new

I caught the last performance of Castor & Pollux at the London Coliseum and was taken aback as I took my seat. Right there before you as the Overture played out was an enormous box, which turned out to be an amazing feat of conceptual staging. All the action takes place inside this huge wooden box, that got shallower and deeper during the show using full width screens that dropped from the ceiling. The idea here was that these characters were confined by extraneous circumstances, and the walls of their finitude, of their lust and woes was constantly traced by the movement of the bodies.

At one point a screen rose to reveal a huge mound of (real) earth that was the gateway to hades. It provided a stage within a stage for some crucial moments of the opera, such as the now famous (thanks to Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette) ‘Tristes apprêts’, Télaïres’s song of mourning for the dead Castor beautifully sung by Sophie Bevan who was by then covered in earth and Castor’s blood.

Performers sat on the ledge of the box sometimes, their legs over the edge of their ‘world’ where the orchestra and audience sat and at the end the back rose to reveal blackness and people lept off. There was so much energy in the performances, a frantic energy; Kosky had made the decision to emphasise the psychodrama of the main characters over the choreographed dance sequences typical in French baroque opera and the performers often run up against the walls of the set.

The music was exquisite with Christian Curnyn (a baroque specialist) conducting a smaller orchestra which was raised from the pit (it was very nice to see the musicians in the eye line, violin bows puncturing the action). The period instrumentation gave the sound a deftness and delicacy, and while a little less varied in timbre than the kind of opera most of us are used to, it had a melancholic air that resonates with the psychodrama on the stage.

I have a few gripes, however. The costuming was off the mark. I’m fine with the performers wearing modern business suits (the two leading women wore dresses and heels, all four ended up in underwear at various points), but Ancient Spartan dress probably would have worked better with the sparse set. The demons of hades wore grotesque masks that looked quite cheap. There was also disco-style dancing which was unnecessary and unconvincing, the movement in the opera was great as it was and any jaunty dancing to signify ‘fun’ grated with the fluidity of the bodies on stage.

The other more fundamental problem was the ‘humour’, Kosky had not only transposed an old and infrequently performed opera to a modern stage but also ‘played’ with the opera tradition. Sexuality is placed at the core of this drama, which is fair enough, but relies on readymade clichés of perverse male sexuality (lolita girls, a Japanese horror aesthetic), there was some nudity too, which was gratuitous and some ‘shocking’ moments that left the audience cold more than hot. It’s a shame because the leading characters acted out the sexuality of the drama very well without these unhelpful interventions.  Some critics mentioned that the opera was misogynistic, though I think it relied on pre-existent misogyny.

These small issues aside, Kosky really got the performers acting and moving, you could see the show was a physical challenge for the four involved but it paid off fantastically. In this show Kosky really points the way to what can be done with an opera like Rameau’s. After this, could any opera company really drop back to powdered wigs and prancing?

Disclaimer: I work for the English National Opera, but the views here are my own.

Artists Exploiting Artists

Nude with Skeleton

Marina Abramović’s gala for the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA sparked a debate when choreographer Yvonne Rainer lambasted what she described as an ‘exploitative’ and ‘grotesque’ spectacle. Sara Wookey, a  dancer who auditioned for the gala but pulled out, wrote an open letter to artists. The letter is shocking, an incitement of Abramović and MOCA who had made an audition call for dancers to reenact Abramović’s Nude with Skeleton performance. While the original was performed for video, this particular performance was for six women lying naked and in silence on the centre of tables while patrons, paying $2,500 per seat would drink and dine for nearly four hours. The performers, including many whose job was to be a head protruding from a table, were told they may be spoken to, fed or even fondled but must not move. For this and for up to fifteen hours rehearsal time, the dancers were to be paid $150. Practically minimum wage.

It sounds like a Santiago Sierra piece, a viscous and darkly sarcastic confrontation with the institution and its wealthy patrons. It was in fact an entirely earnest effort to entertain them. Exploitation aside, this is ‘high’ or left-field culture as entertainment, a piece of radical chic for those of high society and celebrity who will pay thousands to sit and be seen to be supporting MOCA. What is true and vital about the original performance is lost here as it becomes a freakish conversation piece. Abramović was a great artist, but is at risk of trashing her own exceptional legacy.

Richter and the thousand yard stare

Gerhard Richter - Bombers (1963)

Gerhard Richter - Bombers (1963)

I went to see ‘Panorama’, an overview of Gerhard Richter’s work at the Tate the other day. I say ‘see’, but it was difficult given the throng I twisted and turned through to see anything, let alone back up to see…. My gripes about the Tate aside, I left feeling ambivalent about Richter having seen his work collected together, and it came as a shock to me, I thought I’d love it.

Richter’s early work follows the lead of Warhol and Lichtenstein: a commercial artist’s wit put to the service of fine art, Richter toyed with the term ‘Capitalist Realism’, a sarcastic parallel of pop.

Unlike Lichtenstein’s pow! pop! images of war, or Warhol’s masked tragedies, Richter’s early photo-based paintings have the scopophilic calculation of the long lens: we stare from a distance while aircrews burn in the sky, young couples frolic, and dead relatives of Richter’s stare into cameras without ever knowing what could come of the image inside. The lens is a barrier in time, a bracket.

American Bombers in the sky over Dresden indifferently bomb, and in the distance one sinks from the sky leaving a gentle arc of bright smoke. Dead Uncle Rudi grins to the camera, disarmed in uniform, and old-aged war criminals are partially glimpsed as they are escorted by uniformed men while Richter’s painted commentary dryly informs us they have been taken into custody. The generation before Richter’s spoke little about the war, and his paintings ring with the hollow silence of unspoken trauma, where consumerism defines modernity for the anglo world evident in so much pop, the war looms in Richter’s paintings as if modernity impinged itself though the catastrophe of Germany’s recent history. They are painted thousand-yard stares.

The photo-based paintings became tighter and disciplined to the extent that he invented photorealism as we know it. Unlike the collage-like cut-up realism of pop and surrealism, Richter’s images are masochistically subservient to the reality-warping peculiarities of analogue photography.

Blurring is a distinct trait of his work in the 60s, a kind of apotheosis of malfunction. Colour seeps in eventually but with the chromatic intensity of cheap cameras, his first wife descends the stairs in soft focus oranges and pinks, with a palette almost as restricted as the Duchamp it nods to.

It’s when Richter discovers Duchamp – and we are made very aware of a kind of epiphany in the show (the Tate is obsessed with Duchamp) – that my doubts set in. Richter becomes more accomplished in his painting but more self-referential, more “meta-textual”. As a result, time becomes less a theme of his work and it suffers as a result.

Instead we get manufactured colour charts and barren landscapes that are overtly mediated (a moonscape, a seascape where the sky is also an inverted seascape), all very postmodern. The subject of the art becomes mediation itself.

His attention turns intermittently to images of his children and the Baader-Meinhof gang, back to inter-generational matters (except this time to the young). But again, these images are over-wrought, too concerned with a postmodern sublime which is never convincing. His daughter turns away from the camera to a grey painting behind her, to a non-existent vanishing point. It’s a blurred, flat and gaudy evocation of Caspar David Friedrich and the romantic sublime.


Abstract Painting (726) 1990

It is only later when Richter starts painting his quasi-mechanical abstracts that time appears once again in the excavatory peelings of top layers and slathers and slashes of paint over the blurred sweeps formed by dragging squeegee across the surface.

Time is distilled here, in sumptuous waves of pigment, layer on layer. For me at least, these had something of Richter’s early work in them, screens which we could never cross, which put us firmly on our feet before the paintings, staring at the possibilities of what could have brought them into being.

In one of the final rooms we see ‘Panes’ (2004), a number of panes of glass stacked against a wall. The sum total of the translucency of these surfaces add up to a dull-grey but reflective opacity. It says it all really, which is why it should never have been made, much like some of the paintings and sculptures in the show.

I found the show boring (which shocked me). This is 70% subjective, being at art school in the 90s, I saw way too much abstract “process painting” and photorealism, two of Richter’s innovations. But 30% of me knows that I was bored because many of Richter’s imitators are as good painters as he is. You can’t say that about Picasso. Innovation isn’t everything, although many art historians would like us to believe that.