in Frieze | 09 AUG 95
Featured in
Issue 24

Until the End of the World

Rites of Passage

in Frieze | 09 AUG 95

Here follows a message from the 21st Century :

I have just been clearing out the remains of the archive of the old Tate Gallery, prior to the re-allocation of the building as a Public Retribution Centre For Moral Crimes. Most of the records went downriver, years ago, to Tate 2, but since that was returned to its proper use as a power station, all the documents and objects held there have been sold off. It is my understanding that a great deal was chucked over the side when the decision was made to concrete-over the river.

However, amongst the wreckage in the Tate Library, I came across a booklet for an exhibition which hailed itself as an exhibition of 'Art For the End of the Century'. This was a little premature, don't you think, in 1995? The century not yet done, five more years to run and you were already wishing your time away. Or perhaps you were trying to send a message to your future selves.

The millennium came and went, you'll be glad to learn, much in the way these things usually go. There was no apocalypse, either medieval or modern, and nothing to spoil the fireworks or the speeches. President Gingrich put on a particularly fine performance. It was just days before the world learned of the synchronised mass suicide of all the Scientologists.

Looking back, it is a wonder you felt there was anything to celebrate. Caught up in the frisson of your fin de siècle, you imagine yourselves the successors of your 19th Century counterparts, and are taking this time to indulge in a little speculation about the future, gorging yourselves on a great deal of introspection concerning the century you are about to leave behind. Hence your disconsolate mood. You didn't even have an Oscar Wilde to cheer you up.

The millennium, it turned out, was nothing more than an accident of the calendar, an arbitrary alignment of numbers. Count to a hundred and then I'm ready - a game that children play.

Leafing through this catalogue, it strikes me that you half-heartedly hope that if God can't save you, Art and Beauty might. Beauty is a strange word, and Art even more so. Slippery words. But what you wanted most of all was some certainty about your place in the world.

We like to imagine that yours was an age of innocence - but there are no innocent ages, not even yours and certainly not ours. Some aspects of your time are still familiar: MTV, the first outbreaks of the new diseases, the Ethnic Wars. Yet your social habits, your customs, your fashions and your sexual hang-ups, they're so quaint. And those figures you found so important are now barely remembered: the mythologist, Freud, for example. Though we do know his grandson, the painter - the one whose picture of Charles the Third, Man Reading Abdication Speech, still hangs in the Regional Portrait Gallery.

Coming to the close of your century, your heart-breaking pessimism was understandable, your laments to your loneliness, your lack of purpose, your confusion and your inwardness, your guilt. Just look at you, the state you're in. You talk of crisis and fragmentation, but it is worth recalling that you are not the first to feel that way, nor the last. You fear that from now on, it will always be like this. You didn't like the way things were, but you still hoped that there was a sense of continuity to the world, that it had a shape, a beginning and an end. You hoped for a collective rite of passage, and as the year 2000 approached, someone to see you over to the other side. Never trust the ferryman.

* * *

John Coplans' stomach slumps like a slow landslip towards his septuagenarian dick. This is the first thing one sees in 'Rites of Passage' - proclaiming 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'. Curated by Stuart Morgan and the Tate's Frances Morris, the exhibition is a series of exquisite attempts to rescue the human subject. But the subject refuses to be saved, mourning for itself in death and loss. We cannot be rescued from the natural order of things, nor from ourselves.

Time is gently wreaking its havoc upon Coplans' body, yet what is striking is his candour, the humour and grace of his unembarrassed, stoic display. He bloats his stomach for the camera, giving himself a pot belly. He adopts a contraposto pose, like a model in an academic drawing class. He turns his back on us. The camera forces the viewer to come almost too close - focusing on hair and blotches, elephant-hide elbows, flabby chest and puffy buttocks. Coplans, naked, apes the monumental dignity of a classical frieze, but he is neither God nor Hero, just an ageing man.

We don't much like thinking of our decline, our lapse from ardour, our looming dependency, the coming end. Belittled inside themselves, the old become children once again, locked in their wheezing houses, with their reminiscence and their anger.

Inescapably, one wonders how many of these artists will be around for the party at the end of the century. Some of the others have already gone: Hamad Butt, last year, at 32; Pepe Espaliú, in 1993, at 37; Beuys during his 60s, in 1986. In an earlier time, such early losses would not be unusual. We, however, brought-up on the conceit of immortality, promise ourselves more time than we could possibly live with, too much daylight and too many nights.

Her pillow says 'Je t'aime', I Love You, but everything else about Louise Bourgeois' room, with its mirrors and her sewing, her lamps and needles, toys, trinkets and implements, the red glassware, the skulls and severed fingers, says there's no love lost here. Except perhaps, self-love, a kind of loathing. The Red Rooms are the phantom chambers of her dreams, her insane boudoirs, the multiple lairs (Lair is a favourite Bourgeois title) of a fictive character she has created out of herself. The mysterious inhabitant of these rooms leaves us fragments of herself, a self that has, quite literally, gone to pieces. Amidst the clutter, the visitors who peer in keep bumping into themselves, caught in mirrors, as though they too were caught up in this old woman's yearnings and private miseries.

Louise Bourgeois was already in her fifties when Miroslaw Balka and Pepe Espaliú were learning their catechisms (one had a picture of Lenin frowning down at him from the school wall, the other, General Franco). Hamad Butt was clattering around the living room floor with his Dinky cars and building blocks. Butt has left us his dangerous, adult toys: sealed bulbs of chlorine, each fragile globe holding a last gasp of deadly gas; tubes of noxious bromine, a ladder of iodine vapour. These are less the products of science, hard-headed bench-work in the lab, than the wondrous instruments of a private experiment: part chemistry, part alchemy. But mostly these works strive for a kind of symbolism, their bequest, an inert, impersonal chill.

'Rites of Passage' is punctuated by such violences: Bourgeois' rooms, with their longings and violations; Susan Hiller's manic chamber, where Punch and Judy's family romance is played-out again and again; Jana Sterbak's electrified dummy, her meat dress and her rage ( 'I want you to feel the way I do: there's barbed wire wrapped all around my head...'); Robert Gober's closed door, a little vignette of fear and dread.

Beuys' reconstructed installation, Terremoto in Palazzo (1981), is a scene of destruction, awaiting a further, impending disaster. The precarious, wonky bench, resting on overturned jars, the flowerpot teetering like an acrobat on the lip of its mate, the egg just dying to fall from its resting place, are witnesses to a catastrophe that has already happened: the tower of jars which fell and smashed as Beuys was constructing the piece in Naples in 1981. The fragments of the broken jars lie scattered on the carpet. Re-staging the aftermath of this fortuitous calamity, not in its original setting but at the other end of Europe, years after the artist's death, provides an echo of the lived moment, the dim aftershocks of a distant earthquake.

Inside the blackness of a nearby room, shadows move about through a drizzle of blips. Some are buried in the fizz and grain projected on the walls, while others are spectators, silhouetted in the broken black, as though trapped in an aquatint. The darkness is interrupted as the figures in the video flash and flare for a moment, burning up in their own light. Bill Viola's Tiny Deaths (1993) is a parade of mumbling transients, a succession of spontaneous, orgasmic combustions. Only in their 'deaths' do these figures come spectacularly, and momentarily, to life in the tedious, endless dark.

The camera slowly sniffs around Mona Hatoum's body, looking for a way in. Eyes, nostrils, mouth and navel. Vagina and anus. It leads us down, on its vertiginous, invasive journey, wallowing in its terrible intimacy, through bubbles of mucus and a slick of lubricant. The walls of her viscera glisten, webs of rose and tan, the embroidered tracery of capillaries, her hidden vaults. Her muscles flex and clench to their own, unconscious rhythm, seeming to ingest the viewer's gaze, or to rid the body of its intrusion. Standing in a narrow, dark column, pressed against its walls - as though already inside the artist's body, in her windpipe or in her colon, we watch the images swirling at our feet, mesmerised by the vision of excessive, inner life.

While the journey through Mona Hatoum's body is alarming, being inside one's own id is a terrifying experience. Susan Hiller's An Entertainment (1990) sucks us into a room bloodied with images, a montage of brutal beatings and infanticides, wife-battering and consummate, exuberant evil. She turns the Punch and Judy puppet show into a frenzied orgy, exacerbating the violence with her calm-toned voiceover. 'That's the way to do It,' she says, benignly, as though encouraging a child's first attempt to bake a cake, as Mr Punch beats hell out of Judy and hurls his slaughtered daughter away.

A headless torso with a pair of skipping ropes draped uselessly over its armless shoulders; a circle of iron crutches, each too heavy to walk with, but which nonetheless support one another; a baptism of angels, submersed in the air beneath a hovering trapeze. Three massive, hanging cages whose wires fall in a tangle to the floor. Pepe Espaliú's work was always concerned with the unattainable, with impossible aspirations, thwarted desires, demands that could not be met. He was much pre-occupied with death, even before he knew he was dying.

The cages, both imprisoning and protective, contain nothing, not even a bird. Doubled and redoubled by the light and shadows which fall through them, they occupy neither the space for which they were intended (a cloistered courtyard in Madrid), nor are they wholly here: they hang in limbo between the earth and the sky, life and death. The religiosity in Espaliú's work was always connected with his ambivalence about being in the world. Writing about Holy Week in Seville, he described seeing a figure of Christ being carried towards a church at 6 in the morning: '...on reaching the church door the cross supporting Jesus enters the sacred, forbidden space, but only comes in a little way and immediately turns round and leaves, and in this toing and froing the miracle occurs.' The sacred was also linked, inexorably, to forbidden ecstasies. Inside the church, the Dolorosa waited.

While Espaliú approached questions of faith obliquely, Miroslaw Balka, in one early sculpture, returned to the scene of his first communion. The plaster figure of the young artist (with a schoolboy's bloody knee, rosy cheeks, grubby, rumpled socks) stands beside what passes for an altar, a pair of fingers with painted nails sprouting from his shoulder - the trace, perhaps, of his mother's hand, egging him forward. A hole in his plaster form reveals a pin cushion where his heart should be, and where his soul is, no one knows.

The last thing one takes from 'Rites of Passage' is Balka's Shepherdess (1988-9), an elongated, sexless figure in concrete, with a pointed, conical head, like a dunce's cap or the cowl of a Spanish penitent. There's a hole where the face should be, and a torch shining from inside her empty sleeve, illuminating a tiny head which sits on the floor. Appearing right at the end of the exhibition, her presence here makes us wonder why she wasn't around when we needed her, as a guide and protector from the start. Balka's mysterious figure occupies a pivotal place in the exhibition, a guardian spirit - Death with a lamp, to see us over to the other side. Never trust the ferryman.