It has been in many ways a somewhat melancholy year for art exhibitions, here in Britain – or should I say: ‘here in London’? -since pretty well all the shows I will mention here took place in a capital city that seems to be drifting steadily away from the rest of Britain.
One reason for melancholy was the lack of any blockbuster show for a significant British contemporary artist – ELS
No equivalent for the Hockney retrospective that starred at Tate Britain in 2017. The nearest equivalent was, also at Tate Britain, the exhibition All Too Human – Bacon, Freud and a Century of Painting from Life. What this chiefly seemed to demonstrate was that the experimental impulses of the Modern Movement had pretty much died the death in British art.
A view corroborated in a more general sense by the complete current absence of shows of work by feisty, trouble-making young artists. Shows of this sort stick two naughty fingers up at the cultural establishment. For two decades now there’s been a lack of events of this kind in London galleries. That is, they’ve been absent since the dear dead days when the YBAs were in their prime, producing regular winners of the annual Turner Prize – or else, better still, missing out on it as Tracey Emin did with her notorious Bed, which missed the prize but nevertheless garnered most of that year’s publicity.
The nearest equivalent, at the very end of the year, was the big, noisy show – at the private view noisy in every sense of the word, with ear-splitting rock music – of Hunt Paintings by Philip Colbert at the Saatchi Gallery. Best described as Rubens diced up with Pop Art and Surrealism, these paid no heed to political correctitude. Their exuberance made a great contrast with the disappointment of this year’s Turner Prize show, a dispiriting display of artist videos of a rather jejune kind. To see these complete, you were expected to sit on your butt in the gallery for nearly five hours. By far the best offering, but sure enough not the main prize-winner, was work by a group called Forensic Architecture, concerned with exposing legal implications rather than with making creative art. When the list of contenders was first announced, the leader of the group seemed a little bemused to find that its activities were being categorised as art.
British art-world worthies – curators and directors of official institutions, and some commentators as well – now embrace video for two reasons. First, that promotion video art seems to show they are technologically savvy. Second, that art of this kind is safely removed from the financial madness that prevails in the big auction rooms, and even more so at Art Basel Miami Beach. However, the videos of the sort these worthies favour tend to lag well behind what is now possible in the form.
Pointing out that that the Turner Prize selection was basically crap is not to overlook the fact that video, or things linked to video, are playing an increasingly important role in the world of contemporary art. Examples are, first, the stunning video that concludes the Oceania show just concluding at the Royal Academy (ends December 10th). Mischievously based on an early 19th-century French scenic wallpaper romanticising the South Seas, this marvellous presentation by the Maori artist Lisa Reihana looks sceptically at the relations between an indigenous people and incoming colonisers. It scrolls gently along a vast expanse of wall, and as you look and look away, different incidents appear in from of you.
Equally fascinating is the use of video in an ambitious installation now on view at Firstsite in Colchester. The work of the Indian Raqs Media Collective (just three individual members) and entitled Not Yet at Ease, this focuses on subject matter that is inherently depressing – the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by some Indian troops who participated in World War I. In effect, you, the visitor, are invited to look through a series of window-slots in padded walls. Each narrow opening reveals something different, relevant to the central theme. The coiling space used for the show embraces and disorients you. Occasionally you are confronted with a bigger more emphatic image. Like the Oceania show just described, you feel you are participating in a collective dream.
The element of participation – or should one say immersion – is even stronger in the Videogames show that runs at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 24 February. I don’t think all of this has pretensions to be art, but some of it is undoubtedly venturing into territory that belongs to contemporary art. It’s not all just shoot-em-up, though this is undoubtedly the way in which video-gaming achieved its current colossal popularity. The video-games community, we are told, numbers 2.1 billion participants, worldwide. Though the show occupies a large area in the museum, not surprisingly it tends to feel a bit cluttered, with so many games jostling for one’s attention, and so many visitors competing for the best spot. What is not in doubt is the technical sophistication that many of the games display. The immersive quality far outstrips anything offered by the contenders for the Turner Prize, where the work looks smugly babyish by comparison.
Also very directly participatory was another event that surfaced at Saatchi, in their sub-basement Salon space. Offered by a group instead improbably named Marshmallow Laser Feast, this provided a fully immersive Virtual Reality experience, for which you had to be kitted up with equipment of all kinds – a heavy backpack, a helmet, bindings on your wrists, or to quote the press release, ‘breath sensors, heart rate monitors, binaural sound, scent dispersal system and wing machines’, this plunged the participant into an alternate reality. The show, still on till 20th January, is entitled We Live in An Ocean of Air, and comes very close indeed to delivering on the promise made by its creators: ‘With each exhale of your breath, the very essence of life is seen before you, while all around nature explodes in breathtaking light and colour.’ While the equipment needed to deliver this experience currently seems a bit clunky, one is indeed tempted to say: ‘I have seen the future, and it works.’ It may seem a great leap for here to another show that much impressed me this year – the Ashurbanipal exhibition recently opened at the British Museum. Basically, most of this is a collection of scenes rescued from an ancient comic strip – through the word ‘comic’ is only in this rigorous sense applicable. The reliefs over incidents from the life of a very unpleasant ancient Assyrian Superman, careful not to get too involved in the nastier bits of mayhem himself. When enemies are skinned alive, he is not present. He hunts lions, but they have been brought into cages to the place where he waits to shoot them with his bow. He relaxes, after his exertions, with a feast in a garden, his defeated enemy’s severed head hung from a branch above him.
One of the things that fascinated me about these reliefs was their use of overlapping narratives, with little inscriptions in cuneiform to tell you where you are in the story. One can compare them to comic strips and graphic novels, but they also eerily prompt comparison to the videos I have just been describing. Imaginative art, one concludes, does not necessarily have anything to do with the kind of piously moral universe that museum curators of today so often want to give us. However, these panjandrums do mysteriously relax their moral standards when the artist concerned, or the declared subject of the exhibition (as the case may be), is safely dead.
Recent exhibitions devoted to Modigliani, to Picasso (in his exploitative relationship to his doomed mistress Marie-Therése Walter) – both Tate Modern – and to the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat offer cases in point. No signs of disapproval there.
The Basquiat show, flashily installed, was at the Barbican Art Gallery. A more recent occupant of the same space, available until the end of January, is an ambitious show called Modern Couples. This is about various artistic and sexual couplings, by no means all of them heterosexual, and often involving more than just a couple of participants, that played a role in shaping the development of 20th-century art.
I won’t pretend that I thought the show was entirely successful – too many names, too cluttered, not enough sock you-in-the-eye pictures and sculptures, as opposed to photographic documentation – but it was indeed thought-provoking. It elucidated, for example, the silent acceptance, even at that period, that while women might do half or maybe more than half, the work in a heterosexual creative partnership, they were seldom accorded full credit. Same-sex partnerships, both male and female, more reliably give the partners equal credit.
The show seemed to me to deal much better with the gender issues now preoccupying the art world than simple insistence on higher pedestals for female artists – those long departed as well as those who are still with us.
Nevertheless, where this kind of thing is concerned, I do sometimes long to slink guiltily away and look at the work of some long-ago laureated indubitably masculine Old Master. I loved the Mantegna/Bellini show now at the National Gallery in London, and equally, I loved the Lorenzo Lotto show at the same institution. Both are still available till the end of January. Only a significant metropolis can provide delights of this kind. It’s a privilege to live within reach of them.
But, alas, where the Royal Academy’s 250th anniversary show was concerned, certainly in historical terms one of the big artistic events of 2018, I’m afraid my reaction to this ultimately non-academic wallow, an event that, for the most part, abandoned everything that, for better or worse, academies are historically supposed to be about, was to reach for the phrase: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Top Photo: Royal Academy 250th Anniversary Summer Exhibition P C Robinson All Material © Artlyst 2018