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Art by Artists Who Don't Believe in Art

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), March 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Art by Artists Who Don't Believe in Art


Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

The Tate's latest bombastic survey of the state of contemporary British art is full of artists who haven't created anything more exciting than a paper bag

Out of the loop: a video projection of the subterranean world of men's public lavatories in London, Nick Relph and Oliver Payne's Gentlemen, is not on continuous play and can easily be missed

IF the panjandrums of Tate Britain wish, every three years, to mount an exhibition that is a plain statement of the condition of contemporary British art, then I wholeheartedly support the project, no matter how depressing the material may be - but I wish the exhibitions could be called Triennial I, Triennial II and so on, instead of Intelligence and, now, Days Like These.

Intelligence, three years ago, was a silly title, asking for the crushing quip, and Days Like These has the air of half a line misquoted from one of the more dimwitted ditties of Tennyson or Swinburne.

Thirty such exhibitions, scrupulously assembled and catalogued, should provide the perfect record of this century's art, but I doubt if, on the present slanted showing, the series will last much beyond Triennial III in 2006.

Intelligence was a directionless show, indulging the whims of its curators, and Days Like These is self-indulgent, too, gathered together by a pair of butterfly curators incapable of intellectual or aesthetic rigour. Physically, it rambles, it sprawls, it invades vast areas of Tate Britain that would be better employed doing its duty as the great gallery of historic British art.

It is so incoherent in layout that the visitor must be given a map so misleading that it directs him to cross the streams of Millbank traffic and leap into the Thames, and for Margaret Barron's paintings it points him, as it might a urinating dog, to the lampposts and railings of Atterbury Street and right around the gallery's rear wings.

Even so, the visitor is unlikely to see or hear (yes, hear - this is an exhibition of sound as well as sight) everything in a single visit, for one exhibit, a CD player with loudspeakers is, it seems, played only at noon outside the Millbank entrance, another at irregular intervals in only half the rooms, and a third, a video projection of the subterranean world of men's public lavatories in London, is not on a continuous loop and the unlucky will, in this benighted company, take the screen, empty of toilet bowls, to be as much a work of art as when replete with them. This useful information seems only to be available in small print on the verso of the map, and thus not to be seen when the map is in use.

The information in the catalogue is misleading, too. At u19.99, this thin volume is an extravagance and a deceit. It begins with three short essays larded with the pomposities that in David Lee's Jackdaw - the monthly Ruskinade against the idiocies of modern art - are labelled Artbollocks, enlisting the support of authorities of whom only the insider cliques of contemporary art have ever heard.

These attempt to set the scene, establish the context and justify the junk, but then run out of steam and slip into tedious descriptions of the work, in the course of which the writers discover secondary meanings.

We learn, for example, that the Lockerbie trial, at a deeper level, "enacted a confrontation between Christian America and Islamic Libya".

One paragraph, and only part of that, makes any sense: "Many of the most interesting artists working today don't believe in art. There is an aesthetic atheism ... Ideas of art as ...

occupying a higher place in human culture, are rapidly losing ground ...

it is becoming clear that art and artists are not necessarily special."

Following the essays we come to condensed sections devoted to the artists' lives and the discussion of works that it is reasonable to assume are in the exhibition.

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