The City in Relation to, and the Artist Enslaved (Part One)

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The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the remnants of an age before subtopia, if one subscribes to the architectural nay-sayer Ian Nairn. Not his words, but more a miasmic conflux of Lefebvre, Foucault and…the latter-day artist who trawls the city streets knowing full well that he is, in fact, walking on all streets in gestalt. Without the frame of architecture, art can say little about its environs and more often than not carries an a la mode motif which is not merely influenced by trends in architectural norm, but is also governed by them.

Artists, like writers, are involuntary narcissists. Both fabricate worlds in which said artist’s ego has the dominant ideology, and both dictate life and death according to their whims. Every writer and every artist is God to their individual micro-disciplinary practice, a practice which we can perceive as a world, or sphere. If we were to create a model of the seemingly endless practices being engaged at any one time, we would see an actual world filled with these spheres orbiting one another, feeding off of a shared, reciprocal energy. To begin any kind of creative endeavour is to feed from and absorb the energies flowing from these multiplicitous bodies, and to negotiate the regulations governing these. The artist borrows and re-conditions: nothing is purely genius. In this sense art is always a collaborative process, allowing multiple voices to be heard to varying degrees of intensity. This process has previously been referred to as a constellation, though art practice in the 21st Century has become a thing decidedly more immanent, allowing literal connections, juxtapositions and collaborations to occur. The artist, we can argue, who does not engage culturally, socially or creatively with the spheres in orbit around them must either be an artist of the most profound genius, or no artist at all. We may also think of the artist as the zeitgeist of their particular field, in that an artist cannot help but be a vector in a specific chain of semiotic connections starting with obsessions and inspirations, contemporary osmosis and going on to include those works which the artist has necessarily inspired. Naturally, the number of “inspirational” vectors both before and after the artist’s own vector can be nigh-on infinite, and each prone to mutation – for the flow of creative energy goes backwards as well as forwards. We retrospectively attribute aspects culled from other sources to a piece of work after we have encountered the second pieces of work, altering and mutating the meanings and semiotic representations to both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, in this respect are there any longer primary or secondary pieces of work? The present is irreducible to any singularity. This is what Bergsonism teaches us, and what common sense forces us not to forget. The present can only ever exist in any quantifiable measure as a memory, in which case it is imbued with attributes gleaned from the fanciful whims of subjective recollection (an object observed by many people five minutes ago is already undergoing an erosion of reality whereby the individual recollections of these many people have themselves trailed off into the unstable areas of perception, association and interpretation). The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the consensual assemblage of memory and fantasy. The organic optic machine has gradually been superseded by the technological optic machine, which we are more prone to place our trust in, but this new optic machine is still slave to perception: holding a camera in one’s hands is still a subjective choice and remains dependant upon the whims of those hands’ owner: does the photographer stand or crouch?

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The homogenisation of Western culture has been so insidious in its multiplication that one struggles to attribute any one particular starting point to it. Certainly, it has become more noticeable since access to the internet, and yet more acutely its associated virtual cellular structure, became a global entitlement. The dominant economic patois of affected American doggerel has never, since the Second World War, loosened its grip on the remaining Anglosphere. On the contrary, we have collectively become increasingly enchanted by the two extremes of North American lexical orthodoxy: to wit, the disaffected dismissiveness of Generation X, and the hyperbolic enthusiasm of Disney-regulated plasticity. These two ends of an economic spectrum are doubtlessly also tied geographically – The West Coast, most typically associated with the American Dream, promotes the latter, whilst those areas hit by economic struggles (Michigan still being the primary exemplar of American civilisation in decline in the minds of Europeans) inspire the former. This gross generalistion notwithstanding, it barely scratches the surface of psychoanalysis to suggest that this is no accident. The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the consensual assemblage of memory and fantasy, a virtual engine which powers an ideological zeitgeist machine of sorts, and this machine is constantly leaking non-standardised dialectical argot which Europe has long been (bafflingly) enchanted by. European Contemporary Art still heroically stands, here and there, against this inexorable tide of semantic slovenliness and does so with a clinical aloofness which has nothing to do with what might be called “pedantry.” I am here thinking of the kind of minimalist, precise sculptural works associated with the likes of Heimo Zobernig, Angela Bulloch or John McCracken – artists who, while certainly borrowing certain traits of American minimalist art, adhere more strictly to a Germanic aesthetic rather than the pop-infused work of, say, Sarah Morris. Understatement is still understood as being more intellectually keen than the peremptory vicissitudes of the great spectacle: it allows for contingent interpretations wherein lines of flight flow more rapidly, and with greater intensities.

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Ryan Gander – Night in the Museum @ Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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There is an infamous scene during John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer in which the film’s two protagonists are seen torturing and ultimately murdering an innocent family, which is disturbing enough in and of itself, until we then cut away from the scene to find that we have actually – and chillingly – been watching the killers watching themselves perform these deeds. It is in this detached act of voyeurism that we find the most human of truths: we habitual third-party observers, even in the face of injustice, intolerance and iniquity. This framing device is a trope which has been used so often in popular culture that we barely register its recurrences, and has been used across the board (in one form or another) by Coleridge, Shelley, Robert Wiene and The Simpsons. Ryan Gander, at Night in the Museum, uses a similar framing device in the form of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, ostensibly to focus on the act of looking (we encounter, throughout the exhibition, examples of sculptural works “looking” at two-dimensional artefacts from the Arts Council Collection). However, the vaguest familiarity with Degas’ sculpture discloses an historical truth: at the time of its creation, Little Dancer represented the face of the underclass which art criticism balked at. Rendered in beeswax, as opposed to the more traditional bronze, and lacking in grace, she was stuffed away in Degas’ cupboard for more than half-a-century until she emerged somewhat serendipitously, in 1956, to a slightly more enlightened age.

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In 2008, Heimo Zobernig unveiled his curatorial intervention – titled Heimo Zobernig and the Tate Collection in his characteristic detachment – which brought together artefacts from the Tate’s collection and arranged them with a certain dialogical tension alongside the Austrian artist’s stripped-down, aloof (yet, for all that, playful) works.  Zobernig, with tongue-in-cheek, obstructed the view from the gallery of the Cornish coastline with a red chroma-key curtain.  One can read this is a pointed suspension of the relationship between art and leisure, or indeed the preoccupation with the aesthetic balance – a thing which even today is all-too-British.  It was in such disruptions that Zobernig’s exhibition succeeded dialectically, whereas Ryan Gander’s decision to use The Little Dancer in the aforesaid prosopopoeial manner (ostensibly to exemplify a notion of formal liberation) is little more than a cynical attempt to bring the family back into a modernised version of that very thing which Zobernig disrupted.

In this sense, the Gas Hall is an ideal parallel of both the Little Dancer’s story and the present-day state of Government funding of The Arts: until privatisation, this hall was used by Birmingham’s populace to make their gas payments and, although we no longer queue in our serried bureaucratic misery, we are still nonetheless paying a debt. Today’s debt in the Gas Hall is our collective tribute towards a threat of “use it or lose it,” and this re-imagining by Gander of the Little Dancer, as she surveys Modern and Contemporary Art and its indifference to proletariat ballet enthusiasts, finds her in an age in which Britain is happy to pat itself on the back for its obedience to the tribute. Not only is Britain retentive of an holistic understanding of its own cultural heritage, but has also fostered an appreciation of the historical imparity of others’.  One sees art-world rhetoric scattered throughout the exhibition, designed – one imagines – to encourage the family away from Ikea and into the museum:

 “The reason why being an artist is one of the greatest jobs in the world is that you get to see what intangible ideas look like in the real world – the fallout of thinking is never quite as you imagined it.”

 One such magniloquently declarative soundbite boasts in yellow-on-spruce, in its congruent nestling among other such quotes which only ever belong either on a Sky Arts ident or, like here, as a congratulatory punch on the arm to the “family what arts.”  A municipal enterprise such as the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, forever chasing next year’s pot of municipal gold, is terminally enslaved to such bombastic cultural jingoism.

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Gander’s curatorial choices (my cynical take on the exhibition notwithstanding) are well-chosen, given the theme of a crepuscular, after-hours museum.  The paintings, impressively supplied by Robyn Denny, Patrick Caulfield et al, are all of a deep-blue, evening hue.  Though it is the sculptural work which is truly meant to attract visitors.  Sirs Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, solidified within the cultural lexicon of the Twenty-and-Twenty-First Centuries, give the Arts Council the greatest opportunity to flex its muscle, whilst more subdued works by such contemporary figures as Angela Bulloch are arranged as conversation pieces for the uninitiated.  As ever, though, with such municipal ventures, the focus is always upon education – not to mention the implicit condescension that the age of advanced technology has somehow made the populace more beastly and torpid towards its own culture.

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Curiously, the museum elevator is out of order, and given my present cynicism I am forced to entertain the notion that Gander has engineered a false breakage.  My suspicions are leant further buoyancy when a mother with a pram arrives in exasperation of this situation, and as I help her up the stairs towards the museum’s main body I cannot help but feel as though I have been caught up in some elaborate postmodern rouse.  Promotional material for Julia Donaldson’s timely half-term exhibition promises more prams and pushchairs in pursuit of the Gruffalo – a beast whose ferocity in outweighed only by his own credulity.  As we part the exhibition, this updated morality tale feels like the most pernicious indictment of Night in the Museum of all.