Friday, 12 June 2015

All that is solid melts into air

Charles Saatchi’s first ‘public’ gallery was in London’s St John’s Wood and opened in the 1980s in an old paint factory, not too far away from Sigmund Freud’s final home. You couldn’t have hoped for a more telling symptom of the times. Here was the advertising guru who had helped Margaret Thatcher (with her espousal of a return to Victorian values) get into power, and here he was collecting and curating avant-garde art. It was like watching epochal change on fast-forward. The old factory that once manufactured paint for industrial and domestic use, produced for painting walls and ceilings, was now being repurposed so that visitors could look at paint in a very different form, and one that was way out of the price range of ninety-nice percent of the visitors.
            The first time that I visited the Saatchi Gallery was for a press opening that I had somehow managed to wangle an invite for (perhaps I intended to write something about the exhibition of American art that was on show). The floor and the walls had all been newly painted with heavy-duty white emulsion. I had been to white cube galleries before, but none that took it quite so literally and none that realised the de-materialising space so completely. At one point in the gallery there was a step between two levels of the gallery. It was almost impossible to see and you would watch journalists regularly tripping over it as they tried to balance canap├ęs and notepads while negotiating this invisible obstacle. The step was a little touch of the real in a space that seemed to have lost all contact with the ground, or with any sense of place or reality.
            It must have been my second visit that I saw and experienced Richard Wilson’s installation 20: 50. The artwork is a room that you enter via a walkway that feels as if it is carved into a solid dark mirror made of oil that completely covers the rest of the room. Wilson’s installation must be the most perfectly realised site-specific artwork for the Saatchi experience: even though the gallery has changed premises a number of times, this work is perfectly suited to the Saatchi ethos. It offers both an immediate embodiment of the Saatchi world – a de-realised space of reflective surface made out of that number one commodity, oil – and an imminent critique of that very same world. This is an art work that un-grounds you while making you dirty. The reflective surface is so perfect, so unworldly, that people can’t help themselves they have to touch the mirroring material. And here is the second touch of the real. What looked sleek and impenetrable turns out to be used sump oil that immediately ruins clothes and saturates skin. There is a legal warning from the Saatchi Gallery that accompanies the exhibit. Should you dirty yourself then Saatchi is not legally responsible for your dry cleaning bill.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Roadside Memorials

For a while I lived in the London ‘village’ of Barnes. It’s just over the river from Hammersmith and is favoured by media types and artists of a certain age (it has become far too expensive for the younger brand of bohemians). I had a very cheap room there as my friend ran the fish shop in the High Street. Sometimes in the morning I would find purple and blue lobsters lumbering around with thick elastic bands around their pincers. (I would see them again later, inert, and a livid orangey-pink.) In one of the residential streets I noticed a blue plaque telling me that Kurt Schwitters had once lived in the area.
            It was in Barnes that the pop star Marc Bolan had died. His Mini had crashed into a tree on the bend of a road. I can remember when he died. Or at least I think I did until I looked it up on the internet and found that he died in 1977, when I was 16. In my memory I was about ten or eleven and one of the teachers at school told us. I remember how he rushed into the classroom visibly upset and told us that Bolan was in hospital and it looked like he was going to die. This can’t have happened as I was at a different school in 1977.
Bolan was for me the iconic pop star of the 1970s. With satin trousers and tousled hair Bolan was the one and only electric warrior. Well perhaps not the only electric warrior: there was always Micky Finn to contend with – the mysterious bongo player who cast an eerie shadow over T-Rex. What was he doing? Who needed a bongo player when you had a drummer? Perhaps he was there for the parties, the glamour; perhaps he was Bolan’s minder or his dealer?
            When I was in Barnes I visited the site of Bolan’s crash. I knew it was a site of pilgrimage for his fans and that a shrine had built up over the years, with keepsakes, letters and ribbons festooning the very tree that had killed him. Like lots of things in life it was a good deal grubbier than I had imagined it. The purple ribbons had frayed and turned the colour of wet concrete. The letters had become unreadable after the predictably unpredictable English weather had had its way with them. I wasn’t sure what looked worse: the thoroughly dead flowers or the plastic ones whose unnaturally bright colour was fading as it absorbed the colour of exhaust fumes.
Where I live now I always pass a roadside memorial on my way to the train station. It must have been there for about ten years. The flowers and cards are replenished once or perhaps twice a year (on the anniversary of the crash, and perhaps the birthday of the deceased, would be my guess). It is formed around the metal post of a road sign. There is little that is more dispiriting that the sight of dead flowers stained with car fumes. The flowers and cards are taped to the post with parcel tape. This year there is a new addition. At the bottom someone had taped (using the same tape) an open can of cider. Perhaps it was the favourite tipple of the person being memorialised. Perhaps a drunk driver had caused the crash and this was a way of marking that fact clear. It reminded me of a wreath that had been fashioned to look like a giant cigarette (it is included in Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive). The wreath memorialised the deceased’s deep love of cigarettes, a love that for some is also a death sentence.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Coloured Mud

In some distant time, when the treasured items of industrial modernity will have been disinterred from the ruins of the Anthropocene, there will be some questions about what to make of those rectangles of paint on canvas to be found in museums across the world. What could be said, for instance, about those rectangles where the paint is arranged in patterns of line and areas of colour that don’t seem to refer to anything out there in the world (or out there in a world that once existed)? How would an archaeologist specialising in earth-history square the idea that these highly worked surfaces were produced at the same time as the world was producing global communication systems, pursuing space investigation, and developing human organ transplants? Would they be seen as cultic residues from a previous age – some weird, untimely practice with mystical associations? And how would this fit with the incredible monetary value that had been attached to some of these rectangles, or the critical evaluations that had declared these works as ‘cutting edge’, ‘progressive’, and so on?
            Perhaps the producers of these paintings will be seen as mystics, shamans, weavers of magic spells? Or, more reasonably, as people who spent their lives experimenting with colours, space, tone, light and line, as a way of investigating nature, of cultivating an attention towards the perceptual world. From the other side of the Anthropocene such practices will be greeted with some sympathy if they can be understood as attempts to investigate nature but without the added ambition of then being able to exploit it for financial gain. The impetus to investigate colour, for instance, might well be seen as close to the metallurgists working to produce new alloys, but without the same potential impact on the earth. These coloured rectangles would perhaps be seen as non-instrumental experiments that refuse the ambition of wanting to master nature.
            Yet the world of instrumental reason is vindictive. As a planetary force it is spiteful. Here it casts a veil of ludicrous inflated financial worth over these sensorial experiments. To stop us seeing them, it renders them opaque by equating them with the bombastic lustre of the commodity form. It is hard to see a painting of squiggles and blotches when it comes with a price tag in the tens of millions of dollars; it is hard to see it as a project to engage with when it is locked up in the massive jewellery stores that go by the name of National Galleries. An alternative reality would have liberated them, sent them out to grace the walls of primary schools, hospitals, and community centres. In this reality painting abstract paintings would have been seen as a noble pursuit: like keeping an allotment or learning the ukulele or designing a school.