Living in a Material World
'Material Culture: The Object in British Art of the 1980s and 90s'
It is a commonplace of Modernist theory that in order for art’s value to be preserved and maintained, each artwork must expel the influence of every other and must also distance itself from all that is non-art. The counter-argument to this is now at least as well known. In the theory of avant-gardism formulated by Peter Burger and practised in the post-war period by figures such as Cage, Beuys and Kaprow, the demand is for the dissolution of the arts into one another, and for a merging or a blurring of the boundaries between art and life. To this day, these fundamentalist alternatives can be seen to underpin a variety of theoretical positions on contemporary art, the evangelists of ‘new philistinism’ notwithstanding. So much for the theory. In effect much of the most compelling, most demanding and most vivid art has walked on a kind of tightrope between these absolutist alternatives, practising a balancing act which involves both taking on that which threatens the ‘purity’ of art, and holding off the moment of its dissolution. What has often resulted is neither ‘pure’ art nor the withering away of art, but an irregular, hybrid, unstable and uncertain form of work. It recognises that the boundary between art and non-art is neither clear nor consistent, and explores the uncertainty of its existence as a way of continuing to exist.
For sculpture and three-dimensional work, the ready-made and the found object have, since Duchamp, generated the necessary tension between the artistic and the ordinary. In addition there is a vast range of materials whose origins and uses are generally nothing to do with art, and then there are the various methods of arrangement which distinguish themselves from conventionally aesthetic compositions and techniques. Almost all of the work in ‘Material Culture’ incorporates such objects, materials and arrangements, homogenising work made over more than two decades by three generations of artists and giving the exhibition a surprisingly consistent look and mood.
The significance of the object in 20th-century art is discussed briefly in the short catalogue essay, but the evidence in the exhibition suggests that ‘object’ is in fact far too broad and loose a category. Robert Morris may have said in 1969 that ‘sculpture stopped dead and objects began’ but he had in mind something different from either the pre-war Surrealist object, Judd’s 1965 formulation of the ‘specific object’, or the objects of pop art. The type of object employed in ‘Material Culture’ is quite specific, but not in anything like Judd’s or Morris’ sense: it is, in the majority of cases, a small scale, domestic, urban consumer item made for the kitchen or the living room or the playroom. It is usually also distressed, tarnished, used or abused. That is, barring the odd and significant exception, it steers away from both the pristine, the new and the industrial; and from the raw, the wild and the natural. Much of the work in this exhibition looks towards mass production and popular culture, but away from Modernity. It might be said also that the work looks away from North America, at least if the US is taken, in art as in other areas of culture, as a cipher for newness, scale and power.
But how does one account for this tendency to cluster around the familiar, the homely, the used and the bruised? A partial answer might be that the grand themes of nature and industry have for most of this century belonged to one or other of the strands of high Modernism and Abstraction, and that in turn they have come to be seen as fatally compromised or somehow foreign or, probably, both. Perhaps Modernism has also been conventionally associated with the Utopian in culture and politics. This association may be wrong - many Modernists were also card-carrying pessimists, not least Adorno - but it has stuck nonetheless. These days, it seems, almost no one would want to be mistaken for a Utopian, an optimist or a Futurist.
Not Modernist, not abstract, not heroic, not tragic, not industrial, not natural, not pristine, commercial and new: most of the work points to the past, but not on a large scale, or to a present which is never far from the past and never promises to be free of it. The past is not History and the present is not New. The work offers something far more local, more anecdotal, more incidental, more idiosyncratic, more ambivalent and more personal. Sometimes, when it takes comfort in this relationship of past to present, there is nothing more than whimsicality, nostalgia and sentimentality - the worst that British art can ever offer and something it can always supply in bulk. It is remarkable how each new generation seems effortlessly able to reinvent this type of kitsch in some form - its neatness, be it physical or mental, usually gives it away. In the better work, the materials suggest an emotional uncertainty or instability, presenting an awkward relationship with the present-past that neither redeems or denies it. While certainly of a particular time and space, the work is resistant to it, often in the sense of finding pleasure in unexpected or unauthorised places, more pleasure than there is room for. Whatever else it is, this is an uncertain and compromised pleasure, no more a pure pleasure than it is a pure art.
In this way the globes of John Latham are perhaps not that remote from the world of Sarah Lucas; the screech of Anya Gallaccio’s kettles are not that different from the sounds of Douglas Gordon and Graham Gussin’s jukebox; the different logics of Damien Hirst and Lucia Nogueira, Richard Deacon and Rachel Whiteread, Bill Woodrow and Marcus Taylor, Anthony Gormley and Ceal Floyer are made - in this exhibition at least - to look complementary or at least compatible.
It is a world with little space for colour. Tony Cragg’s plastic shard Spectrum and Jacqui Poncelet’s asymmetric cubist carpet are just about the only works that carry any vivid hues, and even their brightness is qualified, if not diminished, by the pathos of the discarded. Where there isn’t colour there is occasionally something clean and polished. One of the few pieces that appears at all new and shiny is Gavin Turk’s Pimp. But this is hardly the optimistic shine of a brighter future. For Richard Hamilton and Julian Opie, who also work with effects of newness, the future only seems to exist in the past. The luminosity of works by Kapoor, Wilding and Houshiary is often talked about in terms of the spirit and salvation; what it actually offers are levels of perceptual disorientation. Maybe that is the point: disorientation is perhaps the nearest we can get to salvation these days.
Gavin Turk’s Pimp (1996)! A knee-juddering collision of brutal, black-painted steel and architectural space. Sitting there with a hard volumetric simplicity, it hustles its position with ease, threatening to suck up the nearby brightly coloured carpet of plastic flotsam that makes up Tony Cragg’s Spectrum (1983) and coolly reflecting back the humming blue of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s neon musings. Although Pimp’s solidity gives it the impression of immobility and stillness, the image of a skip swinging through the air, looping in a chain-clanking arc from truck to street, also suggests the potential for mobility and motion. If Rosalind Krauss is right, that ‘sculpture is a medium peculiarly located at the juncture between stillness and motion, and from this tension, which defines the very condition of sculpture, comes its enormous expensive power’, then Pimp must be its apotheosis. 1
Pimp: brothel-keeper, sleaze bag, grease ball, ponce, go-between… Show stopper and show saver, fitting the exhibition’s title, ‘Material Culture’, like a lead weight in a boxing glove. Even at the sharp end of anthropology and archaeology, from where the phrase comes, ‘Material Culture’ is a resolutely vague and nebulous term. In the hands of this exhibition’s curators it is about as precise as playing tennis with a duvet. The lack of focus reduces everything to a sameness, an undifferentiated hotchpotch of objects with the feel of a car boot sale.
Sculpture operates in space, and at the Hayward that can mean hospital boiler-room space, concrete shopping centre space and multi-storey car-park walkway space. Ceilings and walls hum with visual noise and interference. A sculptural installation at the Hayward can deal with this through clashes of scale, colour and off-kilter placement, but ‘Material Culture’ employs none of these strategies. With most of the artworks roughly the same size (a kind of handy, portable, domestically manageable size), evenly dotted around, and ranging between various shades of grey, the exhibition trundles along in an unemphatic, tired kind of way.
The lifelessness of the show’s installation drains Sarah Lucas’ Is Suicide Genetic? (1996) of both its bristling fuckedupness and formal detailing - half squashed into a corner, it takes on the appearance of a discarded and burnt out chair that has somehow made its way into the exhibition from nearby bonfires in the Bullring. Likewise the sharp white clarity of Julian Opie’s hermetic shed D/889-E (1990) gets washed out in the unsympathetic muddy lighting. One might have thought Grenville Davey’s particularly relevant sculptures of reified quasi-functional objects would have been centrally presented, but his single piece, (gold) Table (1991) was relegated to the end upstairs room amongst a scattering of other work.
Find something good in the show. Well there’s Pimp, which I returned to several times, getting a kick each time, mixing it like a stimulant with my coffee-break buzz. And there’s Michael Landy’s Appropriation (1990) videos. Easy to walk past, just like the passers-by in the videos who see nothing of interest in the shopkeepers’ daily ritual of setting out their fruit and veg displays, they make their point over time and not through immediate sensation. The videos record the setting up of three different displays, each made from the same basic materials - milk bottle and bread crates, and fake grass. The shopkeepers follow their familiar routines, going back and forth, carrying out crates from inside the shop, building them into stacked platforms with sloping shelves at the back. From the straightforward viewpoint of a single fixed camera, Landy allows the work of the shopkeepers and their sculptural constructions to be observed without ostentation. It’s a simple, direct approach that positions his work right on the line where the distinction between the world of art and the world of everyday objects breaks down.
The lack of pretension in both Landy’s and Turk’s work is something that characterises the work of the younger generation of British artists in the exhibition. Manipulation of materials is kept to a minimum and there is a shared directness and concision. Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Table) (1994), for example, is a resin cast of the space around a table; Ceal Floyer’s Light Switch (1992) is a slide projection of a light switch; Cerith Wyn Evans’ (1996) is a neon exit sign reversed.
By comparison, the older work, by artists such as Mona Hatoum, Avis Newman, Shirazeh Houshiary and Anish Kapoor is marked by its heavy reliance on metaphorical significance and allusion. Hatoum’s No Way and No Way III (both works, 1996) - a colander and draining spool with their holes blocked by bolts - represents the containment and restrictions faced by Arab communities in Jerusalem. But it is sterile, laboured and burdened by its political message: the combination of two disparate components has little of the suggestive power of Man Ray’s iron with nails (Gift, 1921) or Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-lined Tea Cup (Lunch in Fur) (1936). Similarly unprofound is Newman’s La Scatola Dell’Uccello (Bird Box, 1992) - an old piece of wood with a small hole in it, presented in a fussy, over elaborate manner, which alludes to… well, things passing through holes, I guess.
Dramatically large, though ponderously so, is Houshiary’s Isthmus (1992), a sculpture with the feel of a copper-lined walk-in wardrobe. Though I tried hard, I found myself unable (or unwilling) to make the necessary imaginative leap to ‘penetrate it in search for an essential, spiritual truth’. 2 Kapoor’s lump of plaster, resin and white pigment was dependent on its title, In the Beginning (1997) for any sort of useful meaning. Change its name to Zaproxey and what does it become?
In randomly mixing the work together, the curators have failed to bring to light the real differences that exist between the two generations. The younger artists combine the humour of Dada, the literalism of Minimalism and the détournement strategies of Situationism to produce an art that recognises both the questionability of its own status as art and its essentially political nature. The others engage with essences and metaphysics and, conservative in their compliance with the institution of art, depend on it to validate their illusionism and mystification. This may be an over-generalisation, but at least the distinction provides some kind of model for the important shift that has occurred over the last 20 years, a shift that has taken art from privilege and closeted rhetoric into a meaningful, open dialogue with the culture of everyday life.
1. Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, pub. Cambridge, MA and London 1996
2. Michael Archer and Greg Hilty, ‘Material Culture’ catalogue essay, 1997
David Batchelor and Carl Freedman
frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at firstname.lastname@example.org.