Mark Dion Tate Thames Dig 1999
© The Artist
Courtesy Tate Images
Contemporary Art at Tate Britain
Curated by Clarrie Wallis and Andrew Wilson
22 June – 23 August 2009
A review by Tim Jeeves for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Much of the art of the 20th Century was concerned with the importance of context. Duchamp’s Fountain would be just a urinal if seen in the gents whilst Robert Morris’s Untitled (Mirrored Cubes) were designed to draw attention to the fact that they would no longer provide opportunities for calm reflection should they be removed from the gallery and placed in the middle of Oxford Circus.
Yet the Tate seems quite happy to forget all this and sit cosily alongside its corporate sponsor for this exhibition, plastering the name of BP wherever they can and not acknowledging at all the humiliating hand-in-cap soul vending that comes with snuggling up to one of the world’s biggest polluters, a human rights violator (see this on the Bake-Ceyhan pipeline of which they are the chief funders) who, as an employer, has a safety record such as this.
Since 1990 BP has supported the Tate’s Collection Displays in an effort to maintain a pleasant face of corporate generosity whilst, over the same period, two decades of shame has befallen the art gallery.
Upon entering Classified, the viewer is confronted straight away with Jeremy Deller’s Turner Prize winning The History of the World 1997-2004, a complex flow chart illustrating the links between acid house and brass bands. From civic pride through to warehouse parties and the miner’s strike through to Kraftwerk, the interrelations are incredibly well thought through and hard to argue against.
In light of the welcome message from BP’s CEO Tony Hayward that we pass on the way in, it’s particularly interesting to see the unobtrusive mention of Advanced Capitalism near the bottom of the diagram. Spinning off from this come Privatisation and Superclubs, the corporate vampires that sucked the life out of the vibrant scenes described above them.
Simone Starling’s Work, Made-ready, Lex Baux de Provence (Mountain Bike) occupies the entire second room and also comments on consumption, production and capitalism.
An installation illustrating the story of Starling’s journey to a mine in France to collect several hundred kilograms of bauxite which, after processing into aluminium, he then cast as a copy of the frame of the mountain bike that he’d used to ride to the mine, the work takes the form of a circular production line that illustrates the various steps undertaken in his DIY refining process.
By being circular (the mountain bike being both the initial activation and the product of the process), Starling illustrates the unceasing nature of consumption, whilst reminding us with the chunks of the bauxite littering the gallery floor that it is the natural world that lies behind this, a resource that is most definitely not infinite.
There aren’t a great many paintings in the exhibition, but those that there are are powerful and well chosen. Fiona Rae’s explosions of colour provide us with abstracted scenes of convoluted and bizarre narrative, whilst Gillian Carnegie’s work is diverse and fantastically executed. Playing with abstraction and form, her Thirteen shows a still life of flowers, sad and melancholy as they wait to wilt in a vase made of half a plastic bottle, whilst the threatening yet removed presence of Black Square shows a woodland scene on Hampstead Heath through the sculptural forms of the thick layers of black paint heaped upon the canvas.
Video work is represented by Tacita Dean’s portrait of the poet and translator Michael Hamburger, which, with its long shots of the apple trees in his Suffolk garden, skilful awareness of natural light and occasional interpolations of the man alone as he either works or talks about the apples he has grown, conjures up a beautiful awareness of time passing and a solitary life near it’s end.
Damien Hirst takes over two rooms, one of which is, perhaps unsurprising considering the exhibition’s subject, dedicated to his work Pharmacy. This and its cabinetted displays of various pharmacological solutions acts as both a classifier of medicine itself and asks, through re-examining medicaments as art, whether it is possible to recategorise art from the place of luxury it currently occupies to a role, such as that held by the medical establishment, where it is of more central import to people’s lives.
The exhibition concludes with those other darlings of the YBA generation, Jake and Dinos Chapman, and their sculptural series The Chapman Family Collection.
Presented as a series of ethnographic relics that their family had accumulated from former British colonies, the premise is easily revealed as a fraud through the regular punctuation of the works with references to McDonalds. Burger headed figures on crucifixes, shields etched with the golden arches, shocks of clownish red hair, such are the feature of these figures.
Jake and Dinos Chapman - Chapman Family Collection (Detail) 2002
© The Artist
Photo: Stephen White
Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)
Raising questions of how the relics of our own civilisation might be perceived, there is a modal shift towards figures of death and disfigurement as the viewer walks through the works, whilst one particular carving, of a man tearing his torso in half, creates a particularly strong visual metaphor.
Viewed as a whole, the exhibition explores a wide variety of links to its subject matter, some of which are more tenuous than others, though the dynamic between the works themselves does not gel as completely as perhaps it could have. Though each artwork illustrates aspects of how classification orders perception, there is no coherent classification within the curation itself.
And lest we forget, BP is lurking, like a poisonous and noxious odour throughout. With government funding of the arts on the wane over the last few years, there is a danger that such corporate involvement will become more integrated into the world of the arts. But artists are a creative bunch and other alternatives need to be found, or if not, then perhaps there should be no shows existing on this scale; for rather that than have otherwise admirable institutions such as the Tate and the National Theatre (whose summer production of Oedipus was sponsored by Shell) sullied by some of the most despicable organisations on the planet.
Damien Hirst Forms Without Life 1991
(c) The Artist
Courtesy Tate Images
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