12.30, May 2, on a visit to Material
Culture at the Hayward Gallery I was greeted by a considerable police presence
at the door of the exhibition. Insults and expletives were being exchanged
on this sweltering day. A bomb scare? No, just some disgruntled Marxist
students from Middx. University who on expecting to find in Material Culture,
at last, an exhibition with a dialectical twist, discovered instead a show
about sculpture. Their noisy impromptu protest was short lived. I paid
my £5 and went in.
Material Culture promised a survey
of British object-based work spanning 1980-97, a period that seemed to
have a special significance given the fall from office of the Conservative
party the night before. The security guards appeared menacing: nervous
and unsmiling, bulges under their left armpits, they watched through the
narrow slits of half closed eyes. The most alarming feature of Material
Culture was not the impression of increased security but an intense feeling
of deja vu; an effect created firstly by the familiarity of the art works
on display and secondly by the customary pluralism of exhibitions payrolled
by the big cheeses of the London art world. Special agents Greg Hilty and
Michael Archer, the curators of Material Culture, attempted to iron out
the contradictions and approaches.
The resources of the South Bank
were put at the service of the two masters of mis-information. Their numerous
acts of propaganda included an affordable catalogue which contained a user's
guide explaining the themes of the exhibition. Small, square in shape and
containing 45 black and white photographs of artworks from each participating
artist, this catalogue was widely sought and read. Not everything went
according to plan though. Hilty's and Archer's hidden agenda contained
within (the reading of recent artworks through an 80s agenda in support
of flagging quasi-formalist sculptural tradition of 'questioning what an
object is') was beginning to implode. Material Culture received criticism
from all manner of publications.
The curators suggested that the
exhibition was staged as a conversation between works. An example of one
such imagined conversation was described as follows:
"Wilding's Echo and Turk's Pimp,
while not necessarily shown side by side, demand to be compared here. Both
are sculptures of highly polished metal, occupying similar floorspace and
volume; both cold and highly sensual, they combine transparency and containment,
in an emotional and not merely formal sense; both have been made with the
help of industrial manufacturers, and both are among the respective artists'
Hilty's and Archer's conspiracy was
beginning to come apart at the seams. The comparison between Wilding and
Turk was a desperate choice as Turk is part of a recent initiative among
artists to address questions of identity and, in Turk's own specific project,
to address the legacy of the readymade and past critiques of the culture
industry; while Wilding makes sculptures exploring interior and exterior
space. Echo, constructed from slotted metal strips, is a sculpture concerned
with volume, mass and infinity. By comparison, Turk named a large, black
roadside skip Pimp, a reference perhaps to the expensive cars with smoke
black windows that cruise the streets of London? While Turk's use of this
stereotype is alarming, it does place him firmly in a discourse that is
a million miles away from Wilding and her fellow travellers (Marcus Taylor;
perspex fridges, Rachel Whiteread; negative sculptures of domesticity,
Richard Deacon; formalist garden sculpture, Kapoor; mystical phenomenology).
This negative-formalist faction has close ties to the Revolutionary Army
of Structuralist Formalism (RASF) whose commander in chief, Richard Wentworth,
had a high profile in Material Culture. The RASF were strongly represented
by Abigail Lane, Damian Hirst, Ceal Floyer, Julian Opie and Simon Patterson.
Sitting uneasily along side these artist's work were contributions from
Susan Hiller, Lucia Nogueria, Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, but any conversation
between the artworks in the exhibition was governed by post-modernist protocol.
By placing the various artworks in seemingly random relationships, any
shared or contradictory contexts, attitudes and influences were carefully
erased: the discourses that have evolved around artists' works over the
last two decades were effectively silenced.
Despite the smell of panic in the
air the Hayward did feature significant and engaging works. Bill Woodrow's
early disfigured consumer objects and Tony Cragg's rainbow plastic floor
piece Spectrum stood out as did Roderick Buchanan's Chasing 1000 and Sinn
Féin. In this latter piece from 1990 Buchanan upset the geometry
of a white plinth by inscribing the Gaelic phrase in pencil upon the face
of the plinth. The accent above the 'e' creates a ridge on the top of the
plinth unsettling a white tea cup which balances precariously.
Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren both
showed pieces that suggested narratives of domestic life. Is suicide genetic?
by Lucas presented a motorcycle crash helmet made from cigarettes placed
on a smoke blackened arm chair, a burnt offering to her interest in clichés
about life, pleasure and life harming habits. Rebecca Warren's Every Aspect
of Bitch Magic was a spell made out of household debris arranged on a plinth
that included a shard of green glass, a bee in a jar and pants stretched
around a stiff white envelope. Warren had made an artwork that appeared
to be the kind of construction made when bored or when wasting time. A
spell that has significance only for its maker? These last two works refreshingly
showed little interest in craft, skill or Radio 4 poetics that dogged some
of the other works in the show.
Material Culture, however, was not
staged to open up these issues but to maintain an uneasy peace. That the
exhibition has so little to say and no position on the differences between
the works revealed a lack of nerve. The market success and media status
enjoyed by some young artists, who have little in common with the likes
of Deacon, Gormley, Opie or Davey, has been troublesome for many commentators
and curators. For this reason Material Culture is a timely, if dismal,
failure at attempting to deal with art produced in the last 5 years. Diverse
practices have emerged in circumstances shaped by a growing interest in
vernacular culture and identity amongst artists (which has unfortunately
seen the adoption of stereotypes by some), and an unprecedented media interest
in young artists, often seen as unproblematic by many of today's practitioners.
This change in circumstances does represent a generational shift of positions
and concerns which Material Culture was not keen to explore. Others have
been more forthright.
Peter Suchin, when writing on Live/Life,
astonishingly chastised much of the art on show for being amateur and badly
made, and praised work whose production values matched the rigours of critical
thought. A misguided nostalgia for the 80s and the professionalism of Neo-Conceptualism
perhaps? Adrian Searle, writing about the same show worried about beauty
and brevity and many thought that too much attention was being given to
a scene rather than concentrating on the quality of the work, Live/Life
being a telling example of this.
Quality is the issue here. It unites
those who might under other circumstances find themselves in opposing camps,
and behind this call for quality is a belief that the production of art
and culture is an ethical activity. In comparison to Material Culture,
Live/Life, despite its faults, placed an emphasis on the contingencies
of recent art production by involving independent art spaces, exhibiting
magazines and connecting different generations of artists through collaboration.
Material Culture had little interest in such a dialogical space despite
the claims that it was structured through conversations.
20 seconds of my visit to Material
culture will stay with me for a long time. One of the Middx. University
students managed to regain access to the exhibition; dressed in denim and
wearing Dolce and Gabana sunglasses he passed easily for a German tourist.
The student joined a group being conducted around the gallery by an artist.
He listened intensely and then raised his hand to ask a question.
His dry lips parted: "A large percentage
of the works on show are either owned by the Saatchi Gallery or the property
of the Lisson Gallery, I've heard of a one party state but..."
He never finished his sentence.
Ten bullets were pumped into his chest raising red craters on his denim
shirt. In slow motion he fell against the white wall, smearing a path of
red blood as his dead body fell to the floor. Gasps from the group were
quickly silenced. All exits were sealed. Two security guards stood motionless,
arms outstretched holding objects of highly polished metal, occupying similar
volume: both cold and sensual. They had delayed shooting only for a second
and then carried out their duty, just as they had been instructed. One
guard, his mouth covered by a bushy ginger moustache, raised his radio
to his lips and croaked: "Dead terrorist in gallery one." Within the hour
the only trace of the event were the small blood speckles that now decorate
Richard Deacon's Art for Other People. It never made the papers.