in Frieze | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

The Future's Not What it Used To Be

Visiting 'The Institute of Cultural Anxiety'

in Frieze | 06 MAR 95

Once upon a time, London's Institute of Contemporary Art was intended as an alternative to a museum. Decades later, a make-believe ICA presented as a Christmas treat by guest curator Jeremy Millar - is based on the assumption that this project failed. In Millar's parody institute or musée imaginaire, the building becomes genuinely alternative: a site of definition and redefinition, recalling the past with references to the Wunderkammer, while envisaging the future with quaint sci-fi videos. The future is not what it used to be, we conclude, confronting a glass case containing a copy of If magazine from the early 60s, with gems by Heinlein and Ballard. Meanwhile the present is museal, with more labels than objects and more objects than enough. For the fetish of time has exhausted us, fatigue has set in and, like Alice, we must run our hardest to stay in the same place. Take that darkened room in which Neil Chapman's film loop of dredging is shown. Is this a metaphor of an unsuccessful attempt to recuperate, a struggle to stand firm on shaky ground, or of an image of a giant, slavering maw, spitting its food out time after time? Useless work, hopeless reclamation... All these metaphors apply to the exhibition itself, a Noah's Ark filled with what is representative of our culture rather than what is best. In other words, this is civilisation as we recognise it. 'THE MOUTH IS INTERESTING BECAUSE IT IS ONE OF THOSE PLACES WHERE THE DRY OUTSIDE MOVES TOWARD THE SLIPPERY INSIDE', announces Jenny Holzer, our equivalent of the Cumaean sibyl. For the anti-museum is a museum after all, the museum a body, the body one big gullet.

Questions of time and space are mooted. Taking the long view, Simon Patterson's Time Machine (1994), a sort of clock-cum-sliderule which turns out to be useless, situates us in relation to Very Primitive Fish, while Henry Bond's presentation of documents about the damage caused to the ICA in 1984 by the German band Einsturzende Neubauten reminds us that a place that was nearly demolished once, could be again. In Beyond the Infinite (1994), two video monitors high on the walls play eerie shots culled by Graham Gussin from the film 2001. In Gussin's version, a space traveller happens upon a stranger with whom it is impossible to make contact because he seems to exist in a parallel universe, an experience a little like trying to get served in the ICA bar. There are more ways than one to suggest a parallel universe, of course. In a darkened corridor, the visitor passes alcove after alcove, each containing one of Catherine Yass's lurid lightboxes depicting what look like hospital interiors, while back in the mausoleum, the perverse Peter Fillingham has photographed the ground floor section of the exhibition and attached the photographs to the door, as if when it shuts, the entire space can be transported elsewhere.

On both sides of a passageway, two sets of badly stencilled football shirts hang in preparation for a soccer match between Millar's Institute of Cultural Anxiety team and Ross Sinclair's Passive School of Cultural Inertia. (Anxiety versus inertia sounds like a fairly even contest. The match will never take place, of course; instead, both sides will sit in the dressing room wondering who stole their shirts.) The shirts themselves belong to another, major aspect of the revised Institute: the cultural oddity or treasure. Some of these are of purely historical interest. Or not, as in the case of Donald Campbell's helmet, suspiciously called Pete, or the drawings upstairs which could (but only could) have been made by Hieronymous Bosch. Why are they there? Discovering useless reminders of the past, our first instinct is to put them into a museum - or, of course, the House of Lords. Whether contemporary examples should be placed in the same category is a moot point. Does the top of a lavatory cistern by Michael Joo deserve a knighthood? Or a hairy pole partly shaved by Claire Barclay? Or a Thomas Ruff portrait? (Although everybody likes a bit of Ruff.) This type of exhibit is the stock-in-trade of group exhibitions. David Griffiths's veteran black and white photograph An Even Stranger Secret (medium) (1987), for instance is one of those unassuming works that nag you gently for years. (In itself it is not odd; it is about oddity.) The label of a young man's shirt pokes out so that the word 'MEDIUM' is visible. Or, in fact, 'MOYEN', showing that he shops at Marks and Spencer. A small, black and white photograph has become evidence. But what kind of evidence? Like the label, it never quite fits in.

Another haunting item is Andrew Bannister's Sleepwalker (1994), a wax candle in the form of a full-sized walking-stick. Attached to a canvas covered with blue fabric, it belongs to a series which began with church candles and leather belts. Then the undercurrent was monastic or sado-masochistic. Now the subtext is more complicated. (Its godfather may be Magritte's painting of a man stuffing his pipe with his humungous nose.) Undercurrents of mortality - of needing that stick rather than using it for rambles - are compensated for by the ultimate freedom that dreams bestow, a wide blue yonder into which we all step nightly, candles at the ready. There is also something surreal about Edward Lipski's elegant white plane, signalling as it flies. And continuing his set of works about objects purporting to have been discovered in or around famous places, Simon Starling's Cast Aluminium Replica of a Toy Pistol Found on the 18th January 1994 in the Grounds of the Weissenhof Housing Project, Stuttgart (1994) consists of 300 prints of the gun, piled beneath a plastic cover. Starling's main talent is his command of the shaggy dog story; he makes us so interested in the circumstances of his discoveries that we forget the oddity of the scenario. Why was he there? Whose pistol was it? Why 300 prints? Are there 300 prints? Does it matter? What connects the false teeth and the museum? A relic is a relic is a relic, Starling seems to imply, but does that make it art? Then he goes one step further and suggests that it may not matter.

Memories of Victorian living rooms haunt Mat Collishaw's Antique (1994), an ornate wooden pedestal bearing a bell-jar, and, thanks to state-of-the-art technology, a virtual canary, twittering soundlessly - a large initial outlay, of course, but what a saving on seed, grit and slivers of cuttlefish. Also under glass is Dinos and Jake Chapman's Little Death Machine (Castrated) (1993-4), a 3D diagram of the act of ejaculation, almost as messy, automatic and mindless as sex itself. Originally made in an even more obscene, mechanical, 'uncastrated' version, it offered a trip from brain to penis and back again. Amazing what can be done with a hammer, a motor and a pot of squirty goo. This is art at its most museal. It is not alone. Under, and made of, glass are piles of artificial eyes from Dumfries. Even Vincent Shine's superb Untitled Bilateral Dead Papyrus II has the air of an exhibit, or part of the background for one. A full-blooded comment on simulation theory - it was made in 1990 - this beautiful work plays a double game. So, perhaps, does Jacob Robson's eerie International Tropicana (1994) - not, as you might assume, a Las Vegas cocktail lounge, but a strangely-hued painting that seems to belong in Scientific American, illustrating plant life during the aeons when rhubarb had conquered the world. Equally 19th century, like parlour games, are Douglas Gordon's shelf of books bought for a patron whose task it is to discover connections between the titles - let's hope he is as fond of S&M as Gordon assumes he is - or Christine Borland's partial skeleton in a box with the price (£65) and a description on a wall nearby. These do not quite rank as oddities; instead, they can be explained, like puzzles.

Some puzzles do not lend themselves to explanation, of course. Thomas Gidley's Seeing Things (differently for the first time) (1994) consists of three photographs taken of himself staring at a psychological puzzle made of dots. I saw a bird in flight on the one side and a butterfly on the other. All I saw in the middle was dots, or it might have been Winston Churchill smoking a cigar. Accompanied by a small picture of a dodo, Keith Tyson's very large Map of the World Part V: (The University) a generator from a series of 5 (1993-4) had a maze at the centre and hundreds of numbered references to parts of the plan. Two things are wrong. Firstly, spelling; even simple words like 'plumbing' or 'textiles' are misspelled. (The same applies to Vaughan Matthews who paints two words and spells one wrong.) Secondly, though it fits in perfectly with the Institute idea, Tyson's plan tends to be a work of work rather than a work of art. Similarly museal, Philip Riley's Lake of Dreams (1993) reveals areas of the brain with beautiful names: Sea of Nectar, Marsh of Mists, Seething Bay, Sea of Crises... Riley could either be a poet conscious of the weight and texture of words, or a didact submerging ideas in an overload of verbiage. Let's hope the poet wins. Fiona Banner also writes, although whether her large canvases covered with stories can be construed as comments on 'reading' paintings or whether they are just another way of making monochrome surfaces is unclear. Whatever. At least she can spell.

Some areas of the exhibition prove baffling. Photographs of facial reconstruction from World War II, a black rubber heart by Fischli and Weiss, a painting of a bulky doctor by Luc Tuymans and the appallingly tasteless video Look Mummy Has No Hands (1994) by Karen Eslea seem to belong to a medical section. Roderick Buchanan's stylised Petrol Bombs (1994), Martin Boyce's witty Souvenir Placards (De-Lux Edition) (1994) and Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene, played on tape recorders borrowed at the entrance belong to the 'historical' section of the Institute, where history is misremembered and battles are simplified and sentimentalised. Philip Lai's Duty (1994), a video of a hand covering a land mine with vaseline, also ranks as history and the history of the ICA in particular; it is the kind of work that gave the avant-garde a bad name. Baffling too are the references to invention and travel - trains and planes, air and land, industry and landscape in the form of Peter Fraser photographs and a miraculous Vija Cemins drawing of a desert. A Godzilla video suggests a battle between the natural and the made-made, a theme which characterises the room, cutting it off from the previous, less clear-cut discussion. Downstairs, arguments come thick and fast, to the confusion of the visitor. As the top of the building is reached, matters become easier. And here, as in the ICA's fine Situationist exhibition, the viewer becomes a flaneur. In Marianne Moore's famous line, 'It is a privilege to see so much confusion.'

For me, everything else in the Institute of Cultural Anxiety was put to shame by John Haslam's book Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity... with a description of the tortures experienced by Bomb-Bursting, Lobster-Cracking, & Lengthening of the Brain. Published in 1810 by John Haslam to prove the insanity of James Tilley Matthews. According to Matthews, gangs of people were placed in important parts of London with a machine called an Air-Loom. And 'if the police were sufficiently vigilant, they might detect a set of wretches at work near the houses of Parliament, Admiralty, Treasury... and there is a gang established near St. Luke's Hospital. The force of assailment is in proportion to the proximity of the machine; and it appears that the interposition of the walls causes but a trifling difference: perhaps at the distance of 1,000 feet a person might be considered free of its influence.' Those attacked had first to be saturated with 'magnetic fluid' by what sound like an early version of spray cans, while not even Matthews, an innocent bystander, was free from the maleficence of the gangs. As he struggled to report their depravities, members of the gangs did their best to sabotage him at every turn. One in particular, Lord Archy, 'the common liar of the gang', tried to defeat him by cheek and bad language. It is unfair to artists to show them alongside material like this. The old show-business principle applies; never perform with animals and children. Yet that sounds purely competitive. In fact, no competition exists, there is no argument to be had. Adolf Wolffli is a greater artist than Pablo Picasso, every child artist greater than any grown-up, every so-called 'primitive' better than any sophisticate. Why? Perhaps by virtue of some quality of belief. That the print in question is not even by Matthews is of no account. It is there, that's all. And we all have our Air-Looms and Lord Archies.

Cultural anxiety, we conclude, takes various forms. First the anxiety about what culture could be: here Western, sanctified by culture as we know it - monolithic, white, heterosexual, metropolitan - with a nod to actual objects which are not 'art', the most experimental move in the exhibition. Secondly, anxiety produces a feeling of overload, tiredness, slow development, the eclipse of the new by the novel. Thirdly, anxiety is dealt with as the norm, so that Paul Virilio's wise words, written around the gallery, are incorporated within the exhibition despite their critical content. Nowadays what used to be called buying up the opposition exists in a different form; depending on the highest bidder, criticality is on sale, willing and eager to be incorporated into the way things are.

Perhaps because the weight of the present is greater than the weight of the past - for it subsumes that past and demands a constant, albeit token reaction to it - forward movement has stopped, retrogression is pointless, a pincer movement is still possible but any meaningful definition has ceased. Like a Victorian entertainment, it puts art in inverted commas of its own. Heavy with irony, overloaded with all the paraphernalia that accompanies it, it has tottered to a standstill. The air is thin, the hour late, the forward movement of culture has reached a standstill, the waters are rising. In a glass container in the last room lies a Jeff Koons snorkel. It is behind glass, it is made of metal, but it may just come in useful...