BY Mark Currah in Reviews | 07 JUN 94
Featured in
Issue 17

Every Now and Then

BY Mark Currah in Reviews | 07 JUN 94

Site-specific work makes peculiar demands upon the artist. While painting and sculpture need only concern themselves with themselves, the site-specific artist spends a lot of time looking around: at architecture, social and political structures, in short anything that might affect the reading of the work. Unfortunately, these features, such as the colour of the carpet, often come under the category of mundane coincidence. Paranoia on the part of the artist can soon set in: a sort of site-specific hyper-sensitivity. Allow the site to intrude too much and the artist is lost, drowned in a sea of quotation, consideration, deference. Unlike installation art, a catch-all so vague as to be almost meaningless, site-specific work labours under the rigidity of its definition. Despite all this, it's obviously got something: artists continue to make it and when it works it works well.

'Every Now and Then' took place in artists' studios, purpose-built in 1886. The location, Edwardes Square, with its neat little town houses and gardens, has a general air of stiff prosperity. Three of these spaces, lit with cool northern light, are owned and used by the dealer Richard Salmon. They are redolent with dissipated glamour: heavy doors, elegant but bruised fixtures and mouldings. Salmon sat at a large desk in one of the studios carrying on his business by phone while viewers wandered around feeling at once privileged and excluded, pretty much the same as they might in your average commercial gallery.

In this not-so-average space, Rear Window, who can best be described as artistic facilitators, invited five artists and a writer to make work. For the artists it represented something of a poisoned chalice. Looking good in such a space would be no problem, but how to make work that did more than bathe in reflected glory? Perhaps the difficulties and a possible way to circumvent them were most clearly revealed in Mark Wallinger's piece. He made a work in Derek Jarman's old studio, a space were Jarman had been working up until a few months before his recent death. Of all the spaces, Wallinger's was the one where history was at its most acute.

One way of coping with death is to pretend that it hasn't happened. The room still contained stacks of blank canvases, with three others attached to the wall in preparation for painting. Tools and paints were laid alongside. Jarman's overalls were slung over his chair as if he might stride into the space and take up his brush at any moment. In many respects Wallinger couldn't have gone about his piece in any other way. Fetishisation of the artefacts once possessed by the dead compensates for loss; Wallinger was simply following custom. But artists are supposed to do more than this: their job is to invent new customs, codes, traditions. Wallinger brought into the space a grand piano. Its sound-board cover was raised but the lid over the keys was closed. Speakers in each corner of the room broadcast the artificial sound of the piano being tuned. As with the canvases, the instrument of creativity was prepared but the creator absent. The discordant piano notes, which were audible throughout the space and in the square outside, insistently stood as evidence of what was not there.

Wallinger's elegiac approach was something of a contrast with the rest of this show. Morgan Doyle was pragmatic. In the floor of his space (full of crated artworks and documentation) he cut a small aperture which offered a view of the dealer at his desk in the studio below. Doyle occupied the room, acting as interlocutor and explaining to visitors his sense of exclusion, seemingly at odds with his position as voyeur. His presence in the space paralleled that of Salmon; Doyle was guest and Salmon his host. But though he could look down on his host, Doyle's elevation was a cruel parody: surrounded by the evidence of other artists' successful careers, he was like the mad relative confined to the attic.

João Penalva was similarly ambivalent towards the artist/dealer relationship. A decade of sales were recorded as a score-chart: 'Gilbert & George 4; Warhol 2; Hirst 1; Jarman 58.' A series of letters and faxes partially related the end of a business partnership between Salmon and Karsten Schubert; these in turn were enthusiastically censored by Salmon and an anonymous other. Part of Penalva's chaotic installation was in an uncompleted bathroom; a (fictional) letter from an interior designer suggested redecoration by a painter who is 'very Alma-Tadema', at the same time chastising Salmon's own taste in 'polka-dot' paintings. There was also correspondence from the beginning of the century between an artist and his model, the letter's every word and detail revealing the inequality of their relationship. Much of Penalva's work would have been impossible without access to the archival material Salmon provided. Any critique of the 'gentlemanly web of secrecy' (to use the press release's phrase) was always at the sanction of another.

The building's and the dealer's history were more obliquely referenced in the work of the other three participants. Nicole Ward-Jouve's novelette 'The House Where Salmon Perched' was published to coincide with the show. Glenn Brown copied a sci-fi illustration and contrasted it with two etchings by John Martin which were equally apocalyptic and a good deal more ludicrous. Jonathan Parsons' washed-out Union Flag - actually remade in greys - hung limply from the building's facade as if testimony to past glories.

Behind all these approaches was the site, looking over each artist's shoulder and surreptitiously intruding now and then. When site-specific art works, it works well.