All posts by Mark Sheerin

10 years of art/history in the Turbine Hall

As Tate Modern blew out ten candles on its birthday cake this year, there was reason to think it has been lucky. The Bankside gallery has lived through a decade of turbulence in the wider world.

This century has been filled with war, terror and recession, not the best conditions for an infant. But if art imitates life, or vice versa, then surely we can find that history within the walls of Herzog and de Meuron’s reconstructed power station.

Look no further than the annual commission of monumental work for the Turbine Hall. Viewed in a current affairs context, the Unilever Series has been more topical than it might at first appear.

  • Louise Bourgeois, Maman, I do, I undo, I redo (2000) Three sculptures of mother and child were installed in bell jars at the top of towers. Nearby was a 30ft stainless steel spider, the name of which was, in French, Maman. Meanwhile, Mother Russia was to soon demonstrate tough parenting in the realm of foreign affairs. In 2005 she began a cold war with Ukraine and in 2008 a real war with Georgia.
  • Juan Muñoz, Double Bind (2001/2002)Two elevators rose and fell through a patterned floor. Empty lift shafts, some false, also sank from sight. Sculpted figures were visible from the lower space, involved in a mysterious human drama. In 2001 we were stuck in a lift with George Bush descending into war with Afghanistan. Two years later we were ‘shoulder to shoulder’ for an invasion of Iraq, a Double Bind if ever there was one.
  • Anish Kapoor, Marsyas (2002/2003) Red PVC was stretched across three giant rings to fill the length of the 155m hall in a piece of work named after a satyr who was flayed alive by the god Apollo. Doctors in France would in 2005 carry out the world’s first partial face transplant. The patient, Isabelle Dinoire, had been ravaged by a dog, not a god. She is reported to be happy with the results.
  • Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003/2004) Mono-frequency lamps were assembled into a yellow semi-circle at the far end of the space, while an overhead mirror rounded out the impression of a dazzling indoor sun. The weather has been big news this century. The West took its worst globally-warmed hit in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in New Orleans causing $81 billion worth of damage.
  • Bruce Nauman, Raw Materials (2004/2005) 22 spoken texts were piped into the gallery in bands of sound which filled the space with an aural collage of jokes, pleas, poems, greetings, statements and propositions. Perhaps the most momentous words of the century were spoken in Washington in January 2009, as Barack Obama was sworn in as the first black president of the US in front of crowds of 1.8m.
  • Rachel Whiteread, EMBANKMENT (2005/2006) Translucent polyethylene was used to make thousands of casts from old cardboard boxes, taken from an original in the artist’s mother’s attic. These were stacked throughout the Hall in disorder. Given the title, this work brings to mind the 1998 demolition of nearby Cardboard City. Some 200 homeless people were living out of not dissimilar boxes opposite Embankment on the Thames.
  • Carsten Höller, Test Site (2006/2007) Several giant winding slides turned the gallery into a temporary funfair. The artist used the phrase “voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind,” to describe the experience. But voluptuous panic was soon to engulf the City’s financial markets. First signs of the recession were already in evidence and by 2009 the entire global economy was hurtling down the tubes.
  • Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth (2007/2008) Shibboleth fractured the building’s concrete floor to create a deep crack running from entrance to far wall. This comment on colonialism gave the impression of a biblical disaster. It was only three short years since the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake, aka the Tsunami. Waves of up to 30 metres claimed the lives of 230,000 people in 14 countries.

  • Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, TH.2058 (2008/2009)Bunk bed frames, experimental films, artwork replicas and glaring lights transformed the Hall into an offbeat public shelter for a city under some unspecified form of attack. Although set in the future, this piece reflected a siege mentality in the West. 3,000 were killed in New York during 9/11. Subsequent bombs in Madrid and London killed 191 and 52 respectively.
  • Mirolslaw Balka, How It Is, (2009/2010)A vast steel crate rose 13m high and stretched 30m long. Visitors could walk into the depths of the container to experience near total darkness, which echoed to the sound of footsteps. The most recent historical phenomenona expressed through the Turbine Hall is global migration. How It Is could refer to the dark of a freight train, container truck or Calais warehouse.
  • Ai Weiwei, title yet to be confirmed, (2010/2011)Details of Ai Weiwei’s project will be kept secret for another few weeks. Let us just hope it contains some good news.

The next commission in the Unilever Series will be unveiled in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern on 12 October.

Caleb Larsen, A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter (2009)

To reduce it all to economics, which is often tempting, artists make product to make money, or a living at least. Those who do not manage this, still put value on their work.

Say the artwork’s function is to generate revenue. It has done so historically by being beautiful and hence desirable, and from the 20th century onwards it has done so by being new which, as advertisers will demonstrate, is another way to sell.

But it cannot be said that art is an efficient way of getting rich. As with most creative pursuits, most pracititioners never make it pay. In professional terms it is like panning for gold or gambling. Although some do well.

Given all this, A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter by Caleb Larsen is a very pure gesture. As you see it as an unadorned black box which apparently does nothing, while in fact this objet d’art is sending messages to a web server to check on its own progress in an eBay auction. Yes, it sells itself.

Each new owner must plug it back it into the ethernet and let it create a new auction. It has automated the role of artist and of dealer, which is apparently to deceive and slaughter. If you thought art was a gift economy, this piece by Larsen should make you think again.

The starting price is $7,500 and you can check out the eBay page here. And there is a precedent for this kind of thing. In 1961 Robert Morris made Box with the Sound of its Own Making, which did pretty much what it said on the plaque.

A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter is part of Suspending Disbelief, an exhibition at Lighthouse, Brighton, until 5 September. See gallery website for opening times.

Victoria Karlsson – Scores for Silence, a&e gallery

Art has always had a close relationship with the frame around the work or the plinth on which it sits. At least one entire book has been written about this frequently overlooked object.

In either case, the presentation brings something to the art. It adds value. No consideration of a painting is possible without some influence from its frame, or the fact it does not have one.

The plastic vials in Victoria Karlsson’s show are vital to the meaning of her tiny exhibits. Each one draws attention to the curiosity within and puts clinical distance between viewer and contents.

The artist has assembled a number of small objects which might provoke a thought, memory or an emotion. The containers stop them blurring into one another and keep the genies in the bottles.

As the name of the show suggests, Karlsson has arranged her show to resemble a musical score. In this case the scraps of gauze and chips of wood are individual notes, while the vials act as a stave.

This framework makes it easier to read the show. Perhaps all gallery plans and hanging conventions could be described as Scores for Silence.

Scores for Silence is at a&e gallery, Brighton, until August 29. See gallery website for opening times.

Meaning Decoration Mass at Grey Area

Just as there is decorative art, so too is there decorative news. The lightweight stories in freesheets like Metro are there to soothe. The editorial is designed to sell advertising, and this is more or less true for any commercial publication.

But as soon as a newspaper is used to decorate a gallery, meaning returns to the pages. You can see them for what they are: wallpaper. And the colour pictures and image-driven ads become eye candy without any pretension to meaning.

Worse still, the messages which do emerge from this flat and neutralised scree of information become absurd. (The England manager says of a football game, “This is important,” and the pull quote is reprinted about a million times, as can be seen from this show.)

You would have to say that given its context in Metro, nothing is important, and yet Metro itself, and the news culture to which it belongs, is of real concern. Here artists Huw Bartlett, Chris Smith and Lulu Allison have all highlighted the paper’s anodyne force.

Using only scissors, glue and a few hundred copies of an August edition, the three have created a series of site specific installations at Grey Area. A 1926 quote on the wall by Theo Van Doesburg proclaims the end of art. These days he might have added something about journalism.

Meaning Decoration Mass is at Grey Area, Brighton, until August 29. See the gallery website for opening times.

Interview: Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is (2009). Image courtesy Imperial War Museum

Visitors to the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth may be shocked by the imminent arrival of a charred and mangled car that was last driven on a suicide mission in Baghdad.

“There’s a central atrium as you come in, which has all the planes and missiles and so on, and it’s going to be right dead centre of that, so it’s almost the first thing you see when you walk into the museum. It’s an incredible statement for the museum to make,” says Jeremy Deller.

Deller, an artist not a military historian, acquired the car in a bid to install it on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. He was in 2008 shortlisted for the public art commission, eventually losing out to a less contentious piece by Antony Gormley.

“I wasn’t surprised when it wasn’t selected, because I was kind of amazed it was shortlisted anyway, because it’s such a provocative thing to put on a plinth in the middle of Trafalgar Square, such an ugly, horrible thing really to put on public display.”

Nevertheless, it did go on display. Last year Deller took the car to the US, where it spent more than a month at the New Museum, New York, before a three-week road trip saw it towed to Los Angeles. Two Iraq experts and a writer accompanied the vehicle on a series of meetings with the American public, who were keen to talk about the war.

“It also brought up a lot of questions about domestic politics in America, people were talking about what it was like living in the US, what it had been like living in the US during those years in post 9/11 America, and how that had changed the landscape for a lot of people. So it brought up a lot of things,” says Deller.

Despite the risks of taking a terrorist weapon to the American heartlands, the artist suggests this show was made for the road.

“When it’s in a gallery you always have this problem with people thinking it’s an artwork or you’re displaying it for art purposes, if you put it like that, whereas when its on the road, you just accept it for what it is, or not accept it for what it is,” he adds.

The name given to his stateside project was It is What it is. In the Imperial War Museum it will be called Baghdad, 5 March 2007. When proposed for the Fourth Plinth project, it was to be called The Spoils of War. Deller’s car has become more straightforward with each new setting.

The London war museum is, for Deller, “the best place it could be.” Having killed at least 20 people in 2007, the car will now be set in a non-art context as a testament to the effects of war on civilians. The artist hopes that its new home will continue to spark discussions.

“I think probably the public don’t realise that the Imperial War Museum is not a museum that’s out to glorify war,” he speculates.

“Maybe it was at one point or thought that it could be, but it actually has a different role, so they are taking risks in a way one might not expect.

“When I tell people in America about what’s happening to the car they can’t believe it. A similar institution in the US would never do this in their eyes. They couldn’t see it happening in the US.”

Indeed, it might not have happened here so soon, were it not for some degree of artistic intervention. “It’s unlikely that the war museum would have got hold of a car and got a car from Iraq if it wasn’t for me doing it first for an art gallery and then offering it to them,” admits Deller, describing his role as an artist.

“You’re just pushing at the edges of things and trying to make something happen – to precipitate something, is the best way of putting it.”

Well aware of the difficulties of acquiring spent military hardware, Deller is enthusiastic when asked about the current Fiona Banner installation of fighter jets in Tate Britain: “I really like them, especially the one that’s hanging,” he says. “It reminds me of a crucifixion, so you’re in a church and that’s the crucifixion at one end.”

But the biggest threat to public art commissions has come from the recent announcement of arts spending cuts, rather than a supposed axis of evil.

“I think it will threaten anyone who works with museums and galleries,” says Deller.

“Anyone who works with art in the public realm, in ways that the public can see art easily, that kind of art is going to be threatened because a lot of it’s funded centrally.”

He also points out: “These conversations aren’t just happening in the art world. They’re happening in all different areas of British life.”

So it may be timely that his next project celebrates exhuberance, humour and fighting spirit. “It’s the biopic of a wrestler called Adrian Street,” the artist explains.

“He’s a British wrestler from Wales. He was a miner and he sort of left the mines and wanted to become a wrestler in London and made this sort of career for himself and now he lives in Florida and still wrestles. It’s a film about him and his life.”

The first screening will be in Brazil in September. Clearly Deller, now an artist with a major project in a war museum, has a taste for the improbable.

Written for Culture24.

Antony Gormley/Tomoko Takahashi/Alice Neel/Ed Pien/Jorge Santos/Simon Yuill

Recent reviews and previews written for Culture24. Check ’em out:

Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is (2009)

Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is (2009). Image courtesy IWM London.

Not many objects could be juxtaposed with an entire country. But touring the US with the wreckage from a car bomb in a Baghdad market has surely done so.

You would think the crumpled car would prove as unwelcome as an early readymade sculpture in a museum of fine art. But it seems Americans are nothing if not open and the vehicle is reported to have drawn more interest than antagonism during its three week trip from New York to LA.

An artist was behind the project, but the object was not signed and it was not intended as a work of art. That would have got in the way of a first hand encounter with an effect of the recent war. If you wanted to know more, there were Iraq experts on hand to talk about the situation on the ground.

But the minimal presentation, the simplicity of the project, and its documentation could all still be called art. The gesture itself, to trace an imaginary scar across America, is nothing else but.

Perhaps an educator or an activist might have wanted to undertake this project, had they thought of it first and been daring enough. Perhaps Jeremy Deller is a bit of both. He, at least, knew enough to let the car, more or less, speak for itself.

From 9 September the car will go on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum London as Baghdad, 5 March 2007.

Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara No.2 (1960)

Frank O’Hara, No. 2 1960, Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 61 cm, Estate of Alice Neel

The face of Frank O’Hara in this portrait by Alice Neel is in its way shocking. With his bad teeth, sharp nose and wild eyes the New York poet appears ugly at first, even repellent.

There is no composure in this likeness and his expression is raw. But with all its imperfections, his face is also vulnerable. It is this which makes it difficult to look at, which makes it burdensome.

For all the laughter, O’Hara appears unguarded here and we cannot turn away from such nudity. It must have been a face like this which philosopher Emmanuel Levinas had in mind when he spoke about the concept as follows: “The relation to the face is a relation to the absolutely weak, to what is absolutely exposed, naked and destitute.”

Levinas also said the face was not to be confused with a portrait, but there are surely portraits and portraits. Neel does not immortalise her subjects, indeed quite the opposite. If anyone could prise away the mask and put us face to face with another human being, she could.

Elsewhere it has been written that this portrait shows something bordering on dislike, which can coexist with pity; read a review by Adrian Searle in the Guardian here. Neel is the subject of a major show at Whitechapel at the moment and there is a review by Robin Blake in the FT, here, and one by Laura McClean-Ferris in The Independent here.

Alice Neel – Painted Truths is currently at Whitechapel Gallery until September 17.