Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Cheese and Biscuits: Jaffa Cakes and Marc Quinn

JaffaCakes TLV is the UK's first-ever exhibition of contemporary art from Tel Aviv. On this evidence, I hope it's not the last.

The exhibition begins with a four-minute film, ‘What about me?’, by Etgar Keret, a renowned Israeli writer who is credited as the inspiration for the exhibition as a whole. This film is a short, funny parable of sorts featuring a young soldier guarding two posts in the vast empty space of the desert, a suited businessman with a passing resemblance to Alan Sugar, and a donkey.

Upstairs, one corner is dominated by Mika Rottenberg’s short film ‘Fried Sweat’. Indian musicians play drums and pipes while a hulking body builder works out, the sweat dripping off his muscles and onto a hotplate below. It’s a heightened, grotesque, blurry feast of colour and bodies: the endless loop of the film, the bulging eyes, the impassive musicians, the sweat sizzling in the pan. There's no single obvious meaning but the effect is visceral.

By contrast, Maya Attoun’s pen-and-ink drawings and rope sculptures are cool and calm and lovely. Her drawings ‘Daily Wonders’ and ‘Daily Wonders 2’ show women sketched in simple monochrome, magically hovering in the air while they perform household tasks, while the gorgeous sculpture ‘Bloom’ consists of red roses and their trailing black stems, all made from thick twisted rope.

The works of Know Hope, described as a ‘street artist’ who specialises in ‘whimsical personifications of urban objects’, repay a patient inspection. At first glance, they have a distinctive cartoony style with a faintly disturbing edge, like one of those odd late-night kids’ TV programmes. But looked at more closely, there’s something arresting about the repetition of motifs – the red heart on the sleeve, the bird, the blue teardrops – and the silent, unexplained struggles of his cardboard characters.

However, it is Nogah Engler’s paintings which stand out a mile, even beside these other intriguing and accomplished works. Engler paints stunning, strange, multilayered landscapes, with faint Breughelesque figures half-appearing among the dark trees, streaks of dirty snow, ponds of light, large square holes opening up inexplicably in the ground, sharp dark edges, a black dog suddenly in the corner of the picture, barking from behind a fragment of wire fence. These are the landscapes of half-remembered bad dreams. Engler is an oustanding and distinctive painter of works which resist complete comprehension.

What a contrast, then, to come out of this exhibition and enter White Cube on the neighbouring side of Hoxton Square to see Marc Quinn’s latest collection of sculptures and paintings. Where the works in JaffaCakes are troubling, quietly odd and beautiful, Quinn’s new collection is a dull riot of the superficial. And whereas I was almost alone in the Rove Gallery, White Cube was crowded with pleasure seekers getting their intellectually respectable pervkicks.

The exhibition consists mainly of shiny sculptures of celebrities such as Pamela Anderson (represented here by two more or less identical statues, neither of which look much like her) and Michael Jackson, and others famous for their transgressively modified bodies, such as Buck Angel, the transsexual ‘man with a pussy’, Catman, who has undergone extensive surgery to take on feline characteristics, and Chelsea Charms, a porn star with huge silicone-enhanced breasts.

The centrepiece of the main gallery is a oversized white marble nude of Thomas Beattie, who was widely hyped in the media as ‘the world’s first pregnant man’ (he is, in fact, a female-to-male transsexual who has only partially undergone the transition). Accompanying the statues are several very similar multicoloured paintings of vaguely sexualised flowers, with long pretentious titles (e.g.: Venus After Magellan (In the Night Garden); On the Separation of the Body and Soul (Easter Island)).

The White Cube's write-up states:
Although all modelled from life, these bodies seem to exist beyond the normal boundaries of classification - appearing almost 'trans-gender', or 'trans-corporeal' - throwing the very notion of identity into question, exposing it as a fragile, complex and multi-layered construction, interminably co-existent with their external physical selves.
Surely it's understating matters quite drastically to say that Buck Angel, a thickset tattooed man with female genitals, ‘appear[s] almost “trans-gender”’?

In any case, these are obviously, glaringly non-natural bodies, and simply displaying them doesn't do anything to disrupt the relationship between the experienced self and the perceived physical form. Art has tried to approach questions of identity, the self, and the body in many different ways, but just reproducing those which are already renowned for their self-conscious artificiality and blurring of boundaries doesn’t get anyone anywhere.

All of those who dabble in the worlds of online pornography, genderqueer, ‘furries’, and body modification have long been familiar with those featured here; they are celebrated examples of people who have deliberately undertaken extreme alterations for various reasons (such as attempting to conform more closely to a perceived ideal body, or to gain money or fame). But their fame isn’t restricted to underground subcultures, although the breathlessness and prurience of some of the coverage might suggest otherwise. One reviewer writes:
It's at once an unexpected ensemble Рthe risqu̩ sculptures arranged in front of a series of vibrant psychedelic flower paintings Рand shocking too. Shocking because the figures I'm confronted with haven't just been conjured up by Quinn in some kind of hormone therapy, plastic surgery, skin bleaching freak show; they are real life people, who really look like this. And have chosen to look like this.
It makes you wonder what kind of elevated cultural bubble people must live in to be genuinely shocked by the existence of these ‘real life’ bodies: Catman has been featured in documentaries on Channel 4 and Channel 5, while Thomas Beattie is familiar from a slew of front pages and Pammy was the darling of ITV teatimes way back in the early nineties. It is they who deserve credit for exposing identity as a construction not grounded in essentially natural physical bodies, if anyone does - not Marc Quinn.

The joke, or the serious point, of these sculptures lies (the reviews assure us) in their deviation from the idealised physiques of Greco-Roman statuary, a similar idea to Quinn’s earlier sculpture of amputee artist Alison Lapper, which occupied Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth. But even leaving aside the fact that sculptures have historically depicted an enormous diversity of human bodies, it is difficult to see that this does anything more than highlight their abnormality by placing them in this frozen freakshow. Certainly this is suggested by the reactions of the exhibition visitors, goggling and giggling as they peer at the statue of Buck Angel being fucked doggystyle by chick-with-a-dick Allanah Starr. You can find this stuff online, you know - someone should tell them.

In the end though, the most significant difference between these two exhibitions is their affective power. Quinn’s previous project Self, for which he modelled a sculpture of his own head from his own frozen blood, had something immediate about it, but these works don’t. The statues don’t implore or beseech or threaten; no human connection is made; they leave you cold and detached. Compare this to the stifling heat of Rottenberg’s ‘Fried Sweat’, with its grunting, sizzling, straining flesh. The works in JaffaCakes refuse the crowd-pleasing shortcuts and leave you with a lot to chew on. And a smashing orangey bit.

JaffaCakes TLV, Pop-up exhibition at Kenny Schachter’s Rove Gallery, 33-34 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN. 16 April – 15 May 2010
Marc Quinn, White Cube, 48 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB. 7 May – 26 June 2010

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