05 October, 2008

Wer band dich in Schlummer so bang?

Today I went along to a little film-screening, courtesy of Owen Hatherley and his cinematophile chums, as part of an ongoing art exhibition called the Wharf Road Project. The walk from Angel took me through the back streets of Islington, under a precipitate artillery—the ideal landscape of a miserabilist London. I almost walked right past the front door. Inside I was greeted first by a uniformed security guard, then, beamingly, by one of the artists, who invited me to explore the four floors of art. And the four floors were full of the usual rubbish that passes for art today—abstract paintings, video-screens, the distended head of a cat with black gunk oozing from its eyes—the sort one sees shortlisted for the Turner Prize every year. It made no impression on me.

On the second floor two pretty girls were wiping walls and rails. They seemed to be cleaning, but the motions of their hands were so spectral and disembodied, or mechanical, they might have been droids, or apparitions. They evinced no desire to exercise any control upon their surroundings. This did make an impression on me. Perhaps it was a performance piece.

Hand-dryers were located in the corridors outside the toilet cubicles.

In one of the rooms on the third floor I found the films being set up. Another young woman in an attractive brown dress handed me a little pamphlet, bearing essays on the event's theme of apocalypse, clamouring with references to T. S. Eliot and Heidegger, Dasein and diegesis. One of them quotes an article by the Marxist economist Harry Cleaver:
Crises are not to be feared or "solved"; they should rather be embraced and their opportunities explored. We should always be ready to take advantage of any crack or rupture in the structures of power which confine us. Only those who benefit from these structures should fear such cracks.
Naomi Klein, clearly, disagrees. (Affidavit: this is the first and last reference to Klein that will ever appear on this site.) We sat in the dark silence, some of us, not me, slurping Red Stripe, others munching on chocolate bites. Owen sat in the middle, communicating little to the assembled crowd. We watched a Herzog documentary on a volcano that never erupted, ending rather inappropriately to Siegfried's Trauermusik, and then an odd made-for-TV drama about nuclear apocalypse in Sheffield. The beards and scarves slurped and munched in passive silence; the DVD broke, and they couldn't find a remote; the rain spat a bit outside; the conspirators were quiet but really very pleasant.


There is now so much emphasis on the revolutionary. I suppose the contribution of modernism, on which Hatherley has written a book, was to make revolution—aesthetic, and then political—the aim of art. The problem is that revolution runs itself into the ground very quickly. Revolutions in taste happened every year until Duchamp put urinals on display, and then there could be no more. Revolutions in literary technique happened every year until Finnegans Wake, and then writers could only go backwards. The same happened with atonalism, photorealism, brutalism. We are still in the abyss of modernism. Its finest results are all in the past: we cannot best them, and we refuse to be conventional—or rather, to accept the conventional, for there is really nothing more conventional than today's art. By refusing to accept convention we have become hollow, straining for empty revolution, which in artistic terms no longer has any meaning. This was brutally and hilariously clear in the Hirst pre-auction show I attended last month out of pure idle curiosity, a fadged-up array of sheikhly gewgaws entirely lacking in talent, ideas, beauty, originality, even shock for Christ's sake—but whose contents went on to fetch £111m.

Up the road from the gallery, on the south side of Noel Road, the interwar Hanover Primary School is heavy and powerful in the drizzle. An architecture that lumbers and speaks, grey and dark. The sky, too, is grey and dark, and the canal. I walk the mile to the Barbican. London can be so flat, so unremitting, lacking in love and romance, so unrevolutionary—and it is magnificent.


Greg Afinogenov said...

I find in this post nothing to add or object to. Crisp and insightful, as usual. Time for people to start unlearning the belief in great events, as the man said.

Andrew W. said...

Am I nuts, or was this post called "Twilight" this morning?

Zurück vom Ring!

Conrad H. Roth said...

I thought this was a better title...

Raminagrobis said...

"an odd made-for-TV drama about nuclear apocalypse in Sheffield"

Threads, was it? Don't tell me that made no impression on you as well?!

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, it is indeed. It's just that when I read this post the first time, the opening chords of Götterdämmerung popped into my head!

Regarding your post, this past weekend, Toronto had its annual Nuit Blanche festival, which is basically an all-night party with art exhibitions across the city.

It's fun to be out and see people on the streets, but a lot of the art was very uninteresting, and I found myself wondering where we go from here.

Conrad H. Roth said...

R: Yes, Threads. It was OK.

Murphy said...

A couple of points, if I may:

The Kino Fist event was only linked to the larger art ensemble in the loosest and most utilitarian of terms, I wouldn't consider them to be part of the same milieu at all.

The citation you've pulled from the pamphlet (handed to you by Nina, the other member of Kino Fist) doesn't really suggest anything, does it? I think you're conflating two attitudes, one of the 'art world' and one of the 'revolutionary'. Hatherley's modernism is of the kind that Thatcher had to suppress, rather than anything that Saatchi was buying...

Also, I think Herzog's choice of music is fantastic. The inappropriateness you speak of is perfect as a methodology of nihilism. Taking examples from the pinnacles of human achievement, romance and grandeur, and setting them against the infinite indifference of (N)ature, it's brilliant, and very typical.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"The Kino Fist event was only linked to the larger art ensemble in the loosest and most utilitarian of terms,"

OK, fair enough; the relation of KF to the whole was not entirely clear. I should have asked. Nina seemed very nice, not that we spoke much.

Could you possibly expand the distinction you are making between 'art world' and 'revolutionary'? It strikes me, from the interaction I've had in the past with these sorts of artists and art students, that they see what they do (or at least what modern art in general does) as, broadly, revolutionary. Hence the sensationalism and the constant slew of objects that are un-artlike, in a Daily Mail sense. Hatherley's piece on apocalypse was pure masses-against-the-classes revolutionarism: "This is what the optimistic apocalyptics are reduced to, in a world where it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. 'There is hope, but not for us'"

I take your point about Herzog. It didn't work for me, but let's be honest, it was a very small point, and on balance I liked the film as a whole.

Murphy said...

well, very basically, it's incredibly rare to find anything even remotely class-aware in the deterritorialized, smooth, nomadic world of the freelance curator or contemporary artist... Maybe we've met vastly different art students on our travels, but most of the ones I know wouldn't recognise the political if it bit them on the marx...

Conrad H. Roth said...

I'm inclined to agree. But having serious political views or awareness (or even class-consciousness) is no requisite for the dream of revolution, a dream which is largely a hangover from adolescence; coupled with a fondness for a period in art (Modernism) that favoured 'revolutionary' aesthetic experimentation--a revolution which, as I have claimed, is now spent.

Today's art is entirely dependent on the rhetoric of radical innovation: the language of the Turner Prize every year is "Well it may not be pretty, but at least it challenges our notions of what 'art' is." This deconstruction (which has been allied to the ideals of political revolution since the late 60s) is now art's role and purpose.

Of course, it is all terribly vague and unintrospected.