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.
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.
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.
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.