Thanks for the Memories
Reflections on 'Doubletake', the largest international show of contemporary art in Britain for six years
For weeks, travellers on the London underground kept catching sight of small posters with no words at all. Only images: of what resembled a small toy, for instance, or a man’s leg stuck through a wall, or part of a diagram or a fuzzy surveillance image of a
bare-chested boy. Noticing things out of the corner of one’s eye may be enough to reveal all the facts we need. Information can be registered before it is understood, after all. (Doesn’t any assertion of understanding derive from private bumptiousness or a pact with oneself to be content
not to know any more for the time being?) Simple surprise might have been the initial reaction to these and other unexplained additions to the cityscape. And to others: a wordless hoarding - obviously not an advertisement - opposite Waterloo station; an inscriptionless monument just west of Hungerford Bridge and, in the Thames itself, a raft moored in mid-river, with what looked like a man bobbing about on top. Gradually, surprise gave way to bafflement. During the same two weeks, bookshop browsers began to come across piles of heavy, red books with the words and music of a song printed all over them. The song was ‘Those Were the Days’, made famous by
‘Once upon a time there was a tavern…’ With its bittersweet lyric about backward glances, dashed hopes and missed opportunities, the song hovers between major and minor, killing time before a rousing, gipsified chorus, all clapping and la-la-la’s. ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ the words enquire. Or, more prosaically, ‘Whatever happened to old Thingummy?’ At the turning-point of the song, the narrator gazes at her own reflection in a glass and discovers that she has turned into Old Thingummy. ‘Is that lonely woman really me?’ she asks herself, knowing the answer only too well. In the nick of time an old friend enters the tavern, calls her name and as they take ‘a glass or two’ they realise that looking back over one’s shoulder is a permanent affliction, just another aspect of a present tense which includes us whether we like it or not. As the chorus strikes up for the last time and the song is put on automatic pilot, its title takes on a new significance: as both source of and meditation on the lyric impulse, combining an Audenesque ‘We must love one another or die’ with an aspect of mindless, plug-in reverie. Regardless of occasion or age, the merest hint of a Good Old-Fashioned Singsong is enough to summon a raucous crowd, living for the moment, raising a glass or two, rememb’ring how they whiled away the hours, and… Like the song itself, its interpretation is circular, turning listeners into a Breughel painting of a rugby scrum, consigned to that infinity of pleasure the song proposes, ready to kermess till they drop. Like medieval rabble, they are easily manipulated by push button cues. But so, indeed, are we.
Nostalgia accounted for some of the exhibits in Doubletake, like the sounds issuing from a terrace near the Waterloo Bridge, where an oversized music-box-cum-medieval-torture-instrument droned forth an amplified and hideously distorted version of ‘Those Were the Days’, the official anthem of the exhibition, for which the large red tome served as catalogue and the carved figure (by Stephan Balkenhol), the monument (by Juan Muñoz), the hoarding (by Boyd Webb) and the music-machine (by Jon Kessler) formed components. Juan Muñoz’s inscriptionless cenotaph, for example, presented a blank face to passing boats but a line of bronze flags to pedestrians. Edward Woodman, invited by the Hayward Gallery to photograph it, complained that as he tried to work, passers-by would bombard him with explanations. It was a war memorial, some told him, or a tribute to victims of last year’s riverboat disaster. They were all so convinced that their version of events was correct that it never occurred to them to ask him if he knew the truth. In terms of the exhibition as a whole, their eagerness to jump to conclusions was crucial. Current art, the curators seemed to be suggesting, exists as a means of awakening dormant responses or stimulating other, private reactions - not exactly ‘interpretations’, which presupposes too high a degree of focus. Indeed, the very idea of precision seemed under attack in that hefty catalogue. Instead, art would first surprise, then promote a state of reverie, a process which could be regarded as circular, for reverie may have been its source. And more specifically metropolitan reverie: the city’s equivalent of cues lines on the backs of props to help actors or verses inscribed on seats in 18th Century landscape gardens. In this case the city’s existing sights would be augmented - by reminders of Mr and Mrs Koons at home, for instance, or signs by Jenny Holzer… Those small, wordless black-and-white posters all over London proved to be integral to the meaning of the entire event. The shirtless youth approaching a cashpoint at night in a big city, unaware of being photographed by Sophie Calle; an ambiguous Saint Clair Cemin sculpture, a huge Simon Patterson wall-drawing, all related to artworks on display at the Hayward Gallery. In addition, they were works in their own right.
Not surprisingly, Doubletake was designed by Aldo Rossi, for whom the essence of cities lies in their history. As Rossi sees it, the city is a repository of memories, negotiated by an individual mind. As recollection replaces history, however, individual buildings serve as cues and the city comes to resemble an updated equivalent of the Renaissance memory theatre. In Rossi’s architecture, monumentality replaces context and typology rules. (‘Typology is life’, he once declared.1) His floating Teatrum Mundi, for example, in 1980 in Venice, has the same pyramidal lid as the giant coffee-pot, which like lighthouses, bathing huts, barns and chimneys, takes precedence over other shapes in drawings which recall the work of de Chirico and Morandi. Perhaps this pervasive visual research undoes the actuality of his buildings. It is also possible that it alters the way they deal with meaning. (‘Some of his best buildings are paintings,’ wrote Charles Jencks.2) Rossi has theorised about an ‘analogical’ architecture - ‘analogical’ in its Jungian, not its Freudian sense - which touches on what is ‘archaic, unexpressed and practically inexplicable in words’.3 Critics have not always regarded his work in such near-mystic terms. Manfredo Tafuri, for example, called Rossi’s architecture dead, tautologous and lacking in interest and marvelled at his naïveté in supposing that Italian Fascist architecture can be plundered for its form alone, as if it were possible to jettison historical significance at will.4 Rossi’s work exists on a cusp between ‘meaning’ and ‘abstraction’, formal beauty connected with or divorced from politics. His housing estates have been confused with mental hospitals and the chimney form in his Modena cemetery with a concentration camp gas oven. What continues to attract us to the drawings and plans is their compulsive repetition and variation of motifs, and the emerging relations between history and the present, dream and reality, the pace of perception of the city seen on foot and the relative rate of its registration in a drawing. In a similar way the art in Doubletake communicated on two levels at once: one eye-catching and subject to change and context, the other evocative and far-reaching. The history of 80s art could be described as a debate between the ‘new subjectivism’ which led to increasingly complex, fractured definitions of the first-person singular or was overtaken by varieties of simulation, both sophisticated and naive, an art which resuscitated that object nature of sculpture which conceptualism seemed to have threatened, while fighting to preserve its conceptual integrity. In this exhibition the former position was taken by (among others) Julio Galán, the secretive Mexican painter whose mental universe hinges on fantasy, disguise and complex sexual references and elisions, messages he may not want to be understood. Boys weep magnolias, his sister’s skirt becomes a landscape and longing creates its own private spaces. In Galan space and time (or place and period) seem initially untethered, but ultimately at the service of erotic desire. The second position was taken by Katherina Fritsch, whose room contained blank, painting-like metal shapes, a cheap bookshelf, two religious statuettes (all works by Fritsch herself, not readymades) accompanied by a gentle soundtrack of toads. Aimed at a general public, it seems - recent projects have included plans for parks - Fritsch’s room looked like a room, was filled with objects that related to objects people have in rooms, but ended by looking like a set from Star Trek. The cues were there, they met with a response, yet the response was wrong. Fear and emptiness resulted, which not even the sound of toads could dispel. In Fritsch’s work, meaning seems conjured by objects despite its refusal to inhere in them. Like Rossi’s architecture, the art shown in Doubletake communicated on two levels at once: one novel and eye-catching, sensitive to change and context, the other evocative and far-reaching. In the course of the last decade the resuscitation of the object nature of an art which is conceptual by definition left it emptier than ever: the artwork as a source of curiosity and a reflector of common values. Faced with this idea of culture as conduit, curators found their attitudes to the display of contemporary art tending in opposite directions: outwards to the culture which confers meaning on it and inwards to the peculiar qualities of the objects themselves, often qualities of artisanship, bogus or genuine.
Differing views on the qualities of objects were reflected in a polarisation of the ways in which those objects were displayed. In 1988 Stephen Greenblatt described two main responses to art in a museum setting: ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’5. ‘Wonder’ he defined as ‘the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention’. On the other hand, ‘resonance’ could be understood as ‘the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in a viewer the complex, dynamic forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by the viewer to stand.’ In Doubletake, the resonance without qualified the wonder within, while Rossi’s design served as a reminder that private meets public in the space around the artwork, whether that space was a forum, like the large open area in front of Simon Patterson’s blue wall, or a broken shell of a house, designed for more intimate confrontation with Rachel Whiteread’s strange ‘ghosts’ of domestic objects, or simply a door, part of Fischli/Weiss’s installation. From the Middle Ages to the Baroque, great rulers collected rarities. ‘In those old collections,’ wrote Umberto Eco, ‘a unicorn’s horn would be found next to a copy of a great statue, and, later, among mechanical crèches and wondrous automata, cocks of precious metal that sang, clocks with a collection of little figures that paraded at noon.‘6 Consciously or not, Fischli and Weiss were making a parody of a Wunderkammer - a life-size re-creation of their work-room - to be viewed through a door, accessible to only one or two viewers at a time. And in so doing, they succeeded in combining wonder and resonance. In the same way, Robert Gober guided visitors down a flight of stairs through a room with nothing but a pair of hairy male legs, complete with socks, shoes and trousers, appearing out of the wall at angles, hinting that the missing body was being tortured or that thousands of people were strolling through the (invisible) crack between its (invisible) buttocks, a prospect that brought together comments on casual, zoo-like promenading and specific admiration for the modelling technique, a depressive observation about lack of intimacy in public spaces where intimacy is necessary, and the visual equivalent of a gang-bang. Here, as elsewhere, the disturbing combination of high focus and a far-reaching sense of relevance to the workings of culture were allowed to exist side by side.
With luck, art can challenge both. Simon Patterson’s three works extended his earlier preoccupation with words and their positioning. In each case, the words were names, well or less well known, drawn from what used to be called General Knowledge. The connecting devices were also borrowed - the periodic table, a Delta Airlines flight chart and the London Underground map, with the help of which travellers can now journey on lines where every station bore the name of a Renaissance painter or a British comedian. (‘I’m just leaving Tommy Cooper,’ a man tells his wife on the telephone, ‘Meet me at 3.30 at Fra Lippo Lippi.’) Looking like the Trevi Fountains drawn by Walt Disney, the Delta Airlines map, previously shown on a smaller scale at Transmission in Glasgow, was Patterson’s most complex work so far. Pensive or laughing by turns, viewers would collect in groups to puzzle out the relations between the stops on each route and to put their memories to the test. Can you remember who Fred Quimby is? A similar test, carried out in purely visual terms, was provided by the work of Saint Clair Cemin. Cemin has said that he devotes himself to ‘The question of the Identity of the Mental Object translating itself again and again through the processing mind’7. How this translation process operates is complex. In 1988, for example, he made a bronze sculpture called This is a Pipe. Admittedly, it looked like a pipe. But it also looked like a clog, a cradle, a brontosaurus rising out of water… If there are portmanteau words, there must be portmanteau objects, models of liminal states: between identities, between states of mind, permanently adolescent. Cemin’s conceptual approach to materials explains the sadness of Washdog; dabbily modelled and cast in bronze, a kneeling statue with what look like handles, and parts of an animal, a lamp, a bowl and a semi-human figure. There was something deeply demeaning about its posture, constantly abasing itself before you, a large and potentially savage creature reduced to this. Its loss of sharp outline may have indicated that it was unfinished; an eternity of demeaning chores lay ahead. Yet, as with any object that is used and grows old in service, it gained a perverse dignity, even a kind of definition.
Is it possible to analyse works from Doubletake to arrive at what Dan Cameron has called ‘a sociocultural notion of form’?8 First, the most obvious candidates must be eliminated. Ann Hamilton’s installation, for example, provided an example of social theory touted in as didactic a way as possible. Advocating seriousness, hard work, vegetarianism and animal rights simultaneously, her worthy installation provided a 20th Century equivalent of Victorian genre painting. (‘And was it all done by hand?’ asked Oscar Wilde loudly, on being taken to see Frith’s Derby Day.) In Hamilton’s work everything means something, even the way it is constructed, in this case by teams of unacknowledged workers, asked to weave pigskins with wire and needing tetanus jabs to do so. A more adventurous example would be Boyd Webb, whose work was placed opposite the front steps of Waterloo Stations, in a no-man’s-land near what used to be Cardboard City, where hundreds of homeless survive by sleeping in boxes. Begging thrives in this area, and there is no way of reaching the South Bank centre from this direction without encountering the homeless face to face, and registering their plight before listening to great music or looking at art objects with ‘houses’ made for them by a world-famous Italian architect. For the entrance to this patch of misrule, in which law and order are held in permanent abeyance, Webb made a poster without words. A deflated globe lay on its side, against a hazy background. Gradually it became evident that it was a damaged beach ball, losing its shape but crowned, in cartoon fashion, by a golden laurel wreath, an aptly placed touch of millennial sentiment. Webb’s use of humble materials always had political overtones. In this case they seemed especially potent.
As Webb made clear, the notion that what we see is tied, in Greg Hilty’s words, to ‘a fine network of associations’, affected by ‘hundreds of value systems’ which overlap incoherently may mean that art arises at intersections between previously distinct social sectors.9 Or it can derive from hitherto incompatible contexts. Philip Taaffe’s paintings involved complex overlays that recall Op art, terrazzo pavements and much else. ‘Painting concerns the use of memory in the most palpable of ways,’ he wrote in 1992. ‘Ornamentation… elaboration… longing for place.’ The same set of notes contains a question: ‘Exuberant ornamentation as a substitute for clear, purposeful thought?‘10 Since in theory it can go on for ever, pattern-making is founded on postponement. Refusal to condense or define suggests that it is homeless, vagrant, possible only on boundaries. Doubletake dealt with many of the same preoccupations; its main proposal could have been that meaning in current art occurs on thresholds, whether physical, mental or social. The artist courts the viewer - often by techniques of dislocation - and keeps his or her attention by the use of devices and subtle variation. Intricate surfaces in Doubletake - Narelle Jubelin’s petit point, Philip Taaffe’s Op homages, K.O.S.‘s gridded comic books, Gary Hill’s video of nude bodies, with complex jumps from screen to screen - hinted at workmanship, craft, complexity of surface incident, the communicated pleasure of making. That making meaning is a communal activity, was clear in (for example) the work of Patterson or Balkenhol, whose river-based statue caused havoc as more and more Londoners contacted the police to complain about a man marooned in mid-Thames. It was even evident with Koons, refused permission to display his work on the underground. Bored with life, the boozy art critics from London newspapers called the whole affair incoherent. Admittedly, the entire event raised more questions than it solved. But it asked about how art occurs to us, how it impinges on everyday life, how we make it mean, matters of subjectivity, communal aspects of interpretation, and what it is to be a person… All matters about which we should think at least twice.
I. Heinrich Klotz: A History of Post-Modern Architecture tr. R. Donnell, Massachusetts 1988, 250
2. Charles Jencks: The New Moderns, London 1990, 122
3. A. Rossi: An Analogical Architecture in A. Papadakis & H. Watson: New Classicism, London 1990, 133-5
4. Manfred Tafuri: A History of Italian Architecture tr. J. Levine, Massachusetts & London 1989, 44-85
5. S. Greenblatt: Resonance and Wonder in I. Karp, S. D. Levine ed. Exhibiting Cultures, Washington & London 1991, 42
6. Umberto Eco: Travels in Hyperreality tr. W. Weaver, London 1986, 5
7. Press Release, Daniel Newburg Gallery 1986, quoted by Lucio Pozzi ‘Ceminal Art’ Artforum May 1988, 109
8. Dan Cameron: Setting Standards, Parkett no.25, 1990
9. Double Take: Collective Memory & Current Art, London 1992, 15
10. Philip Taaffe, Gagosian Gallery exhibition catalogue, New York 1992 n.p.
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