Magazine article Art Monthly

How to Improve the World

Magazine article Art Monthly

How to Improve the World

Article excerpt

How to Improve the World Hayward Gallery London September 7 to November 19

In his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle, American black humourist Kurt Vonnegut invented a utilitarian and relativist religion called Bokononism whose central tenet is that there are no ultimate truths, only more or less useful lies. Curators ought to be Bokononists, particularly those charged with organising large public collections into multiple shapes so that they might tell different stories. The Arts Council Collection has been used this way in the past, the 7,500 works its buyers have amassed since 1946 being pressed into service for everything from surveys of drawing practice to explorations of landscape photography to showcases for yBa. In the case of this particular show, however, the subtitle '60 Years of British Art' and the scale of the exhibition--131 artists, several represented by multiple works--forecast a rather more ambitious enterprise, one with a claim to final veracity. The Arts Council Collection is a wonderful thing in many ways: a testament to acuity and foresight, a boon to struggling artists, a bringer of otherwise inaccessible art to the regions and the world. But being built up on what Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton describes in the catalogue as 'a famously low budget', angled by the personal tastes of dozens of buyers, weighted towards affordable early examples of artists' work and resistant to retrospectively filling in gaps, it quite possibly isn't the best vehicle for a comprehensive survey of postwar British art practice.

As it turns out, that subtitle could be considered both accurate and deceptive. The first survey exhibition of the ACC's holdings since 1980 is not chronological, is not explicitly thematic, and has no arc. It has occasioned a display of John Cage books in the gallery shop. For curators Michael Archer and Roger Malbert have taken their title from Cage via Cerith Wyn Evans (who utilises the American's text in an included example of his chandelier-and-Morse-code pieces) and their ethos from the Welsh artist's principle of polyphonic meaning arising from unpredictable collisions. And so the show opens with a capricious spread of names and eras: a ratty suspended Bill Woodrow sculpture, Armchair and Paraffin Heater with Campfire, 1981; an abyssal polished-steel void set into the wall by Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 1995; a vitrined stack of elastoplasts by Martin Creed, Work No 78, 1993, and Bridget Riley's classic chequered painting, Movement in Squares, 1961, all grouped together in the first few square feet. This sort of thunderous era-blending overture usually gives way, in big survey shows, to comforting if stultifying linearity. Here it is the rule throughout.

Furthermore, Archer and Malbert have studiously avoided the more obvious historical correlations. There is a brash and brilliant Philip King sculpture here (the cantilevered geometric forms of Point X, 1965), and there are examples of neo-formalist sculpture (Gary Webb's neon, wood and plastic aggregate, Mirage of Loose Change, 2001; Eva Rothschild's spidery intersection of linear black triangles, Heavy Cloud, 2003). But forerunner and revivers are kept apart, the latter two juxtaposed with a Richard Long Stone Circle, 1972, in a convocation of outlines. Long's contribution, meanwhile, is kept well away from Carey Young's serio-comic, ambivalent, urbanised tribute, Lines Made By Walking (After Richard Long), 2003, a slide projection of herself pacing back and forth upon London Bridge.

In general, and for reasons of budgetary constraint, the work on show does not necessarily represent the peak of the artist's production, and hence the curatorial emphasis on a pinballing interrelation: discerning influence and visualising batons dropped and grabbed across the decades. …

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