History of Art, the
David Roberts Art Foundation London 7 May to 10 July
'History of Art, the' asks what it might mean for 'art to be understood and historicized on its own terms'. In a climate that remains oversaturated by theory this seems a welcome, if potentially conservative, move. In his essay 'Art History, Interrupted', curator Mihnea Mircan dreams of 'a discourse of the present, a present that does not adhere to the past as an inexorable condition or to a future as a necessity of confirmation'. His statement articulates the appeal of the contemporary, but also its attendant anxieties. For him, art history's attempts to reinvent itself have led to an impasse--to the writing of an endless series of prologues to unwritten and unwriteable histories. Contemporary art, for its part, seems to him to suffer from a 'historiographic compulsion', remaining mired in its attempts to prove its lineage from art history. Can the curator come to the rescue? He sees the exhibition as 'a locus where two distinct ways of imagining the future converge and are tested against each other: art's and art history's ability to figure--or fabricate--the future'.
The show brings together an aesthetically appealing but suspiciously mute assortment of works in many media. They provocatively anticipate our interpretation but deliver only some of the desired clues. When meaning is not forthcoming we inevitably start rifling through the default art historical back-up drive, if we have one. Nina Beier & Maria Lund's to my mind horrible--clay bathers (Calling--The Sunbathers) Loss and Cause, 2010, begin to seem to refer to Picasso, for example, while the series of four grey monochromes that punctuate the exhibition begin to rework Robert Ryman, and so on. An intriguing installation of rows of geometric shards in plywood, part painted red, suggests a suprematist city waiting to be taken down from the rack and assembled Alon Levin, Or Why Not Celebrate the Past Before the Future will Come (accounts of happenings I, II, III), 2010. Clearly, it is up to us to make something of all this, but it is hard to forge the links. A flickering TV screen of white noise installed on the floor provides a diversion. What could the girl in headphones standing watching it possibly find so amusing?
Then it is my turn to smile at the flickering screen. Benoit Marie's Spider's Web, 2006, is really a great pleasure. We are listening to what sounds like a private conversation between two voices--one drawling, American, the other French. The artist has asked Arthur C Danto to say something about a painting that he has never seen before. The conversation is entirely conjectural. Danto decodes the iconography adeptly, but admits that he has no idea what it is that he is looking at. 'I don't know the name of the painting and I don't know who did it.' 'I have no idea, myself.' 'Clearly this is an allegory of some kind.' Danto: 'I really admire the work Marie: 'It's not a work ... it's just an image to have a discussion about.' After all, Marie says he has no idea either: 'For the moment, I don't know what I'm doing Danto is unfazed: 'You don't know what you're doing? …