Saturday, 5 December 2009

Pop Life / The Museum of Everything

Pop Life: Art in the Material World is the latest in the series of Tate Modern exhibitions this year, following Rodchenko and Popova: Defining Constructivism and Futurism, charting the development of populist art over the twentieth century. Viewed as a sequence you can trace the development of several narratives: growing commercialism, the dissolving boundaries between art, propaganda, and advertising, and the consequent focus on visually striking graphics.

From the moment you enter Pop Life you’re assailed by music, colour, and flashing lights: plunged into a morass of rolling video, industrial sculptures, and immersive installations. The sheer number of works is overwhelming. It begins with a heavy dose of Warhol, before racing breathlessly through Martin Kipperberger, Ashley Bickerton, and Cosey Fanni Tutti, among others, arriving at the present day via the YBAs (Turk-Emin-Lucas-Hirst), and climaxing with a roomful of Takashi Murakami.

It's a shrine to Sex, Money, and Fame, which come together most climactically perhaps in Jeff Koons’ ‘Made in Heaven’, a room full of vast technicolour prints of close-up penetration, and glass, marble and plastic sculptures of the artist in flagrante delicto with his porn-star wife, La Cicciolina of ‘Eurotrash’ and Italo-politics fame.

Many of the works here aim to shock, but this is a carefully calculated, saleable shock. One room contains just a small television, showing a man and a woman having sex. Here’s the Tate’s accompanying explanation:
[Andrea] Fraser initiated this project by asking one of her galleries to find a collector who would pre-buy a videotape documenting that collector having sex with the artist. The selection of the collector was left entirely up to the gallery. The result was a silent, unedited sixty-minute videotape shot in a hotel room with a stationary camera and existing lighting. The videotape was produced in an edition of five, the first of which went to the participating collector for an undisclosed sum.

'All of my work is about what we want from art, what collectors want, what artists want from collectors, what museum audiences want... not only economically, but in more personal, psychological and affective terms', Fraser has said. By offering 'herself' up for sale, she pushes this investigation and the viewer's desire for intimacy with the artist to their logical extreme.

I'm not sure if, as a viewer, I want 'intimacy' with an artist: I am sure that that desire doesn't equate to watching her have sex with someone for money. This is not intimate in any sense; it doesn’t even have the hyperreal, celebratory quality of Koons' photographs and sculptures. Without knowing the backstory, it’s meaningless, and with that knowledge, it’s grim and sordid in a peculiarly uninteresting way.

This collapse of the artwork into capitalist desire reaches its peak with Keith Haring’s ‘Pop Shop’, a whole room of the exhibition dedicated to Haring’s childlike primary-coloured designs (familiar from a thousand t-shirts, notebooks, and posters) with an actual shop incorporated into the installation, complete with shop assistant. Here, you can buy little Haring souvenirs right in the middle of the exhibition, obviating even the need to complete the ritual post-exhibition visit to the gift shop. At this point the commercialism has penetrated to the very heart of, or more accurately made a nonsense of the concept of, ‘the art itself’.

Damien Hirst’s 'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever', a range of works from from last year’s record-breaking Sotheby’s sale, revel in this merging of art and commerce. The room glitters with arrays of manufactured diamonds, gleaming gold frames, reflective surfaces… The Tate might extol this as Hirst ‘turn[ing] one of [the art world’s] defining rituals into a work of “total theatre”’ but in truth, it’s a room full of pretty objects worth a lot of money.

Takashi Murakami’s output is also pretty in the extreme, even if you’re not a fan of anime. A riot of silver discs dripping bright colours, flashing neon, Kirsten Dunst gyrating to The Vapors’ ‘Turning Japanese’, diamond-encrusted miniature versions of Coke cans. Rather than thoughts, these works succeed remarkably well in provoking desire for ownership. People who can will pay a lot of money for them (even if this is only to provoke desire and envy in others).

By the end of the exhibition you are breathless with wanting, slightly nauseous with the colours and lights and the vague hangover-aftertaste of a synthetic sugar rush. Pop Life is a riot of glitz and glamour with very little depth.

Apparently at the opposite end of the art-commerce spectrum is the newly-opened Museum of Everything. Tucked away down a side street in the genteel Chalk Farm/Primrose Hill borderlands, this gallery of ‘outsider art’ has been getting rave reviews. Architecturally and aesthetically, it is deliberately ramshackle and ‘amateur’, full of handwritten signs, half-finished walls, mugs of tea and slices of cake served in the cafĂ©. This at best semi-disguises its origins as very much part of the commercial art world; co-founded by the almightily powerful Hans Ulrich Obrist and a ‘VIP affiliate’ of the Frieze Art Fair.

The full range of outsider art is represented here: the good, the bad, and the very very ugly. Ugliness is everywhere – the ugliness of the inner self, the twists and horrors of existence, pain, brutality, nausea. Untaught and uncritiqued during their lifetimes, for the most part, these artists create not with a view to a sell, but from something inside. And the inside that you see is horrible. Most of these artists were people whose lives consisted of suffering; they were variously beset by lunacy, physical disease, childhood abuse, poverty, loneliness, disabilities of various forms.

There’s a faux-chapel, complete with battered old organ and scratchy gospel music, wherein are exhibited works connected by a religious theme, many by men of the cloth. None of these are especially artistically accomplished, but these personal takes on Christianity can be productively compared with Maurizio Cattelan’s contribution to Pop Life: a dead horse (in fact a stuffed horse’s skin – no maggot infestations or irreversible decay here) with a sign plugged into its flank reading INRI. Cattelan's is a conceptual and emotional dead-end; you enter the room and it’s there, that’s all. There’s no confrontation with mortality, nothing in particular is evoked by its big dead horseness. By contrast, the Museum of Everything’s collection of Christian-inspired madnesses has a twisted desperation that leaves you at least somewhat unsettled.

If there’s a common aesthetic to identify in the Museum of Everything’s exhibition, it’s excess: but not, as in Pop Life, an excess of money, colour and glitter. Instead this is the excess of madness, drawings that are far too intricate, eyes within eyes within eyes, endless twists of metal and wool, text that seems to scrawl on and on forever.

The ultimate example of this excess comes from the exhibition’s biggest attraction, the fairy-tale like paintings of Henry Darger. Darger is the author of the longest known work of fiction: The Realms (full title The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion) runs to over 15,000 pages with accompanying illustrations, and judging from those on show here, this excessive creation is not the sign of a healthy mind.

Darger is fĂȘted by the fashionable, and there’s even a notice up here (perhaps the low point of the entire museum) excoriating you as viewer for your (anticipated) narrow-minded conformist response, and sneering at those who have found Darger’s work distressing or distasteful in the past.

However, from outside the depths of art criticism, this is not perhaps an unreasonable response to thousands of drawings of naked girl-children being strangled, tortured, disembowelled, and murdered. Oh, and did I mention they have penises? Sometimes erect? Regardless of the quality of Darger’s paintings – for example, their impressive scope, composition, and colour – you can’t get away from the feeling that they are the compulsive and solitary expression of a very fucked-up psyche.

This shouldn’t disqualify them from consideration as art (leaving aside, for the moment, the thorny question of the ethics of selling and displaying art that was never intended to be made public), but neither does it mean that those who might find them unsettling should be denigrated by the gallery’s creators.

Another common theme, also superlatively exemplified by Darger, is repetition. The same figures with the same expressions appear over and over again. There is a practical reason for this – he was a poor draughtsman who used, and re-used, figures cut out of magazines and adverts – but it also expresses something disturbing. In ‘The Uncanny’, Freud identifies one of the major ‘themes of uncanniness’ as:
the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations.

Repetition appears in Pop Life, too, but the repetition of Warhol et. al. is a well-known ironic commentary on commercialism: the question of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. By contrast, the repetitions in the Museum of Everything are compulsive, obsessive, repeated returns to a trauma. Later in Freud’s essay, expanding upon this theme, he adds:

[I]t is possible to recognize the dominance in the unconscious mind of a ‘compulsion to repeat’ proceeding from the instinctual impulses and probably inherent in the very nature of the instincts — a compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character, and still very clearly expressed in the impulses of small children; a compulsion, too, which is responsible for a part of the course taken by the analyses of neurotic patients. All these considerations prepare us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner ‘compulsion to repeat’ is perceived as uncanny.
It’s impossible to walk through the Museum of Everything without being constantly reminded of this ‘inner “compulsion to repeat”. Other artists cover sheet after sheet of paper with black-on-white scrawls that look something like a musical score, something like words, but don’t make as much sense as either of these. Even Nek Chand’s lovely sculptures of people and animals, created from junk found beside Indian railway tracks in his home city of Chandigarh, have a deep uncanninness about them that stems in large part from the repetition of form, stance, expression between them. You stand between two sculpture gardens, one set of figures in monochrome, one set in full colour, and you are surrounded by lifesize figures all in the same postures, over and over again. Chand worked in secret for over three decades until his sculptures, already numbering in the hundreds, were discovered. He was fortunate enough that when his employers found out, they continued to pay his salary, allowed him to keep the land, and gave him a staff of fifty workers to support his creation.

What almost all of the works here evidence is an inner compulsion to repeat not only specific figures, features, words, or images, but the compulsion to repeat the process itself, the act of making art. Chand’s story is told as a happy one; His sculpture garden in Chandigarh now covers twenty-five acres, contains several thousand sculptures, and is one of India’s major tourist attractions. But it leaves certain questions unanswered: Why was he so terrified of discovery? Or, being so terrified, why did he continue to create? He wasn’t living in a totalitarian state or under sharia law; his employers’ reaction, while perhaps more generous that anyone would have predicted, demonstrates that he was at no great risk if he was discovered.

The Time Out review of the Museum of Everything concludes: "After last week's showy commercial fest built around Frieze Art Fair, a visit to this exhibition is a welcome reminder that at its base, the desire to create satisfies a basic human rather than financial need."

This is something of an oversimplification. It posits an overly-straightforward definition of art as stemming from an internal desire as opposed to commercial interests, and sets up outsider art as an untainted manifestation of that desire, reminiscent of previous attempts to reach the pure origins of art by examining works produced by the mentally handicapped, those with autism, animals, children and prehistoric people (seeking ‘the purity of nature, of animality, primitivism, childhood, madness, divinity’, as Derrida neatly puts it).

But art that interacts at some level with other people, with culture, could surely be argued to be just as ‘natural’ and ‘basic’. From ancient artefacts to graffiti tags, the desire to create often seems to include also a desire to share that creation, to reach out, to mark the world. Its opposite - the desire to conceal and to keep secret – is not pure, happy, untroubled. Just as having neurological impairments doesn’t make you Forrest Gump.

A more positive take on the possibilities of ‘outsider art’ is presented by the works of Judith Scott. Scott, who had Down’s Syndrome and was also profoundly deaf, was wrongly diagnosed with severe learning difficulties and spent most of her life in institutions. It was relatively late in life that, through an occupational therapy art class, she began to make ‘wrapped sculptures’. These are large objects, made by wrapping knotted cloth or wool around frames of bamboo or wood. Non-representational, and more powerful for that, these large multicoloured shapes have an odd force. The Museum of Everything has done an outstanding job of exhibiting them; they are suspended in mid-air, strange heavy shapes floating in a sort-of corridor tucked behind the gallery walls. Perhaps because Scott’s alienation from the world was forcible, imposed from without, there is something about her art which suggests more of a catharsis, art that reaches out and communicates, not locked into a perpetual inward-directed monologue.

Art doesn’t have to be as grossly commercial or blatantly market-driven as Pop Life, but conventionally it takes place in a context of display, sharing. What makes these artists outsiders is not that they failed to attract public attention, but that they never sought it out; indeed, in many cases, they went to great lengths to keep it hidden and private. If many of these artists were discovered posthumously, this is because they hid their works under beds, in barns, in boxes. These are the anti-Van Goghs, locked into a private dialogue. They didn’t seek to connect with others, but built barriers around themselves. These art works are big ‘Keep Out’ signs in a language you can only half-understand.

This leads to difficult questions about the balance between the inner and the outer, the private and the public, the goal of expressing oneself in art. Etymologically, to 'express' something means 'to press out'; connected to pressure, it suggests that there is a building force within, something that has to be pushed out.

But pushed out to where, to whom? The idea of art as expression is art as catharsis, but the endless repetition and unending creation of these private artists suggests it’s a catharsis that doesn’t work, a purging that fails to bring out the poison, a purification that doesn’t get rid of the stain.

Pop Life, as its subtitle suggests, is part of the ultra-social realm, the world of commerce and politics and second-guessing other people’s reactions to aesthetic productions. To be a good artist in this mould is to be a futures trader. This art is so relentlessly directed towards the generically, plurally sociocultural that it loses all soul. Nothing is expressed beyond the desire to succeed. There is nothing to purge, or if there is, it won’t happen this way.

A giant photograph of Jeff Koons’ erect penis entering Cicciolina’s vagina is nothing; not even erotic, it’s surface, it leaves you cold. It tells you nothing about Koons except that he wants to fuck porn stars and show you pictures proving he’s done it and get money for them (in some order of priority – determining this order is not very interesting at all, probably even for Jeff Koons).

Does this mean that there’s a perfect middle ground? Between the impermeable solitary self-expression of outsider art and participation in culture and society, does great art strike some kind of ideal balance? Or to put it another way, why characterise only outsider art as characteristic of the ‘inner compulsion to repeat’? Couldn’t you equally say that Mark Rothko or Pablo Picasso, painting endless variations on an idiosyncratic theme, betray a compulsion to produce the same or nearly the same work over and over again?

The first part of the answer is that there is no absolute difference, no perfect opposition between compulsive solipsistic outsider art and outward-directed socially-engaged potentially-commercial art. It’s a spectrum, and probably most great artists do share this quality of compulsive repetition to at least some extent.

However, the interaction with other people that results from the sharing of one’s work with others, the daring to put it out into the public domain and to risk the many possible consequences – condemnation, ridicule, disgust, or simple indifference – has effects on the art that is subsequently produced. Reading reviews, getting feedback, seeing other artists’ work, learning about art history, being part of cultural currents, means that the work your produce is determined by more than your own internal compulsions. It creates a dialogue, a polylogue, it feeds in more than your own neuroses and psychoses, it alters the future paths that you follow.

This might make your art less ‘pure’, but not even the most hermit-like outsiders are truly immune from others’ work. This means that there is a development, a progression. Rothko doesn’t begin by making ‘Rothkos’ and just carry on creating the same thing over and over again. Picasso has periods, his style mutates and grows. Perhaps the ability to create great art comes from taking both aspects on board, experiencing the catharsis of taking something from within but also properly ‘putting it out there’, allowing it to brave the rays of the sun and seeing if it can withstand the light.

The closest that Pop Life gets to art that drags something out from the inside is Tracey Emin’s ‘Hotel International’, a patchwork quilt which traces Emin’s own biography. Both in its focus on the personal and in its use of folksy handcrafted technique, this work could almost sit as comfortably in the Museum of Everything as it does here: strangely amateur, low-budget, and out of place in this glitzy shallow world.

Emin is often accused of being overly narcissistic and of placing herself too often at the centre of her work (an accusation less often levelled at Rembrandt, master of the self-portrait), and it is true that ‘Hotel International’ takes her own life as its subject matter. However, her use of fabrics – floral velvet, soft felt, big cotton stitches – provokes nostalgia for your own childhood. Looking at it, I had a strong memory of sitting on the floor in my grandma’s house, running my hands over the fabric of her sofa while adults talked around me.

In a broader sense, Emin’s confessions and anecdotes, while very specific to her own life, remind you of similar parallel experiences in your own life; her tale of burying her urine-soaked sheets in the snow while on a school trip is an inescapable reminder of the bodily shames and humiliation of your own adolescence. In this sense they provide the 'intimacy' which Andrea Fraser's prostitution-as-art doesn't.

And this is where Emin’s work can’t be classed as outsider art. Forget her designation as part of the YBAs, forget her trendy ‘shop’ co-run with Sarah Lucas, forget all the social context. In terms of the art work itself, what this does is to reach you, to make you aware of the connections between yourself and the artist, hence to create a sympathy in the fullest sense: a sym-pathos, a feeling-with, a fellow-feeling, a sense of being less alone in the universe.

In a sense, Emin’s own experiences are each of our experiences too; they have different specific content but there’s a shared form. A pain shared is a pain, if not halved or annihilated, at least made more bearable by the knowledge that, in some way, we are all in this together.

That’s what outsider artists can’t, won’t, or didn’t recognise, and it’s what makes their diverse works all somehow inaccessible. These are people who, through choice or otherwise, are locked into solitude and can’t use their creativity as a way to break out of that enclosure. The Museum of Everything’s founder (and major collector) James Brett has described it as a "public museum showing extraordinary works of privacy". Extraordinary privacy is not something to be sought after. It makes you strange and lonely. And it makes you draw a lot of little girls with hard-ons.

Pop Life: Art in a Material World, Tate Modern, 1 October 2009 – 17 January 2010
The Museum of Everything, Corner of Regents Park Rd and Sharples Hall St, NW1 8YL, October 2009-14 February 2010

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