I’m always the first to admit to my lack of knowledge of the contemporary art world. It’s been my most glaring cultural shortcoming for as long as I’ve given a toss about culture and creativity. Up until a few years ago, if you’d have asked me what ‘baroque’ is, I’d have said a form of interpretive dance. I’ve just never been terribly attracted to artistry, either as a personal creative pursuit or career, and the subcultures surrounding contemporary art can be very unappealing.
Art schools, for one, are saturated with petit bourgeois students whom will fly the flag for social democracy in one hand whilst nimbly milking their parent’s wallet in the other (this comes from personal experience: I studied English Literature at Goldsmiths, the stomping grounds of such acclaimed art aficionados as Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen and Charlotte Prodger). The satire of Velvet Buzzsaw, whilst being far from a perfect movie as a whole, does get it slightly right (if very exaggerated) when it comes to the clichés and attitudes pervasive amongst artists and their critics, in Dan Gilroy’s depiction of a turtleneck brandishing flock of inflated super-egos. The ever-increasing commodification of popular art also feels uncomfortable – you can’t help but feel that emotions, experiences, and empathy are being stroked onto paper only for capital gain.
It is frivolous, though, to argue that these are issues exclusive to the contemporary art world. The independent and arthouse film scene is similarly plagued with these self-indulgent, bourgeois, intelligentsia types, and that doesn’t push me away from my geeky adoration of indie cinema (for the most part). It certainly doesn’t take away from the personal consumption of any given piece, and it would be indignant to generalise based on stereotypes. I’m actually open to the idea that I’ve been absorbed into an unfair image, that the jokes and clichés have veiled a world of true emotional expression, and I’ve simply not given myself the opportunity to experience said truth. I’ve certainly not sought one out.
As you might expect, when this week’s column was proposed to me, I found myself slightly on edge. A little guarded. I’ve consumed other branches of visual art for many years now, which has led into this want to write my thoughts on it all professionally – but these fields, especially cinema, are firmly within my comfort zone. Writing on contemporary art would be an entirely different story. However, I’m never one to turn down a challenge. And I’m glad I didn’t.
I’d say ‘believe it or not’ at this point, but I’m sure given what I’ve written thus far, you’d default on the ‘believe’ side: up until this exercise, Tracey Emin was not a name for which I could immediately find a face. It was a niggling name, one I’m sure I’d heard, but the bells weren’t quite chiming. I expressed this over drinks for a friend’s birthday the evening before I attended Emin’s exhibition at the White Cube in Bermondsey – the subsequent guffaws of shock registered somewhere between bewilderment and despondency, thumbing me as thoroughly stupid and so far from the culturati I clearly aspire to be. Some critic! Tracey Emin may not be on your immediate radar either, of which I’d honestly be quite glad, and feel significantly less stupid.
As the surprise died down, my memory was jogged that she is one of the famed Young British Artists – aha, bloody Goldsmiths – and most famous for My Bed, a controversial work shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999. The exhibit? Literally Emin’s bed in a state of fairly grotesque disarray, seasoned with used condoms and blood-stained panties. When the exhibition debuted at the Tate Gallery it was met with considerable media furore and satirical jibes from the likes of Private Eye, with many treating it as a farce. Retrospective lenses have been far more rose-tinted; a position I align myself with. There’s a lot, as Emin proved, to learn from one’s bed.
Having been reminded of this exhibit, and now assured that, actually, I did know something about contemporary art, I felt fairly confident going into Emin’s White Cube exhibition, A Fortnight of Tears (running until the 7th of April). With white walls, grey floors and exposed fluorescent lights, the White Cube is more evocative of a mausoleum or a hospital ward than it is a traditional gallery. It’s a wonderful example of sterile post-modernist design dirtied with a tinge of industrialism. Emin has worked with a variety of mediums for A Fortnight of Tears, although the pre-eminent examples are painting, sculpture and drawing. The various exhibits explore a variety of remarkably honest, sincere and candid expressions of explicitly dark emotional zones, brought on from Emin’s personal experiences of trauma.
On the first left, in South Gallery I, are fifty self-portraits of Emin during periods of insomnia, in various states of light, comfort and undress. Text upon the wall describes Emin’s insomnia as “relentless”, a feeling fiercely communicated by her self-portraiture. Your own anxiety is rapidly heightened by Emin’s unbridled, candid expression of her own discomfort. Deeper into the White Cube we descend further into Emin’s deeper traumas, as it turns to an exploration of her mother’s death, the works within The Ashes Room evoking her bereavement and grief. One projection depicts an ornate wooden box, lit majestically with natural light, the frame moving from mid-shot to close-up; as the lens comes closer, we see a date of death, her mother’s, etched into a golden plaque adorning the lid. The entire exhibit feels incredibly solemn, almost spiritual, more so as if you are attending a gravesite than a contemporary art gallery. But that’s manifestly the intention, and it works.
Thoroughly shaken by Emin’s traumatic candidness, I decided to take in some air and walk the twenty minutes to my next stop, the Tate Modern on London’s South Bank. Here were Franz West’s punky, abstract sculptures and collages, works which felt plucked straight from the Cold War, from the eponymous Franz West exhibition (running until the 2nd of June). After all, many of West’s earlier works on display, particularly his earlier, popish examples of collage, were consummated as thoughts in Viennese cafes in the early nineteen-seventies. In stark contrast to Tracey Emin’s candid sadness, West’s shown works are playful and often cheeky; many of his collages incorporating cut-outs from vintage porn magazines, placed in comic-like strips satirising both popular contemporary culture and the artistic styles of his peers.
The works are often sexually charged, both in blunter terms (a series of his drawn pieces depicting kitsch cartoon figures urinating on one another) and imagery that is subtler and evocative – his sculptures, particularly those from later into his career, evoking bodily functions and parts, from intestines to phalluses.
The sense you get from West’s exhibition is of an imaginative, evocative, suggestive mind, but one not too gratuitous in off-colour toilet humour. In fact, the exhibition is keen to back West’s naughtier works with his ear for philosophy, and his desire to overcome the separation between art and life.
To this purpose, the final section of the exhibition is named “A Franz West Living Room”, which invites the viewer to interact with some of West’s sculpted furniture in a room which is one-part exhibition space, one-part lounge. Indeed, by the time you leave the gallery, the stuffy institutional conventions of displaying art feel thoroughly dismantled. And West? He would’ve been a fun guy to be around.
Consider me now a modern art enthusiast – but hold the turtleneck. At least until August.