David Cunningham

Days Like These, The Tate Triennial of Contemporary British Art
Tate Britain, 27 Feb - 26 May 2003.

Catalogue Essay, Jonathan Watkins


work by Jim Lambie, David Batchelor
photo credit -Tate Britain
Many of the most interesting artists working today don’t believe in art. There is an aesthetic atheism abroad - quite unlike previous anti-art gestures, which gives cause for optimism and hope for the future. Ideas of art as embodying extraordinary creativity, or somehow transcendent or transcendental, occupying a higher place in human culture, are rapidly losing ground. Instead, it is becoming clearer that art and artists are not necessarily special.

Current art practice is characterised by a remarkable openness. In Britain as much as elsewhere, increasingly there is an acknowledgement of the dissolving distinction between art and its environment, between process and finished work, between artists and their audiences.  It is now widely accepted that works of art are not self-contained and that objects and/or gestures traditionally apprehended as art acquire their identity and meaning through what exists around them. Recent emphasis on audience participation and shared authorship, the continuing prevalence of photography and video, installation and readymades, as well as an increasingly frequent use of non-art (often public) space is symptomatic. So too is an emphasis on directness and accessibility, the antithesis of the academicism and obscurantism which marred early postmodernism.

The logical conclusion of this blurring of lines between previously discrete areas within and around artistic activity, eventually might be the undoing of art as an institution. Meanwhile, we continue to witness manifestations of an all-too-human need for it and the kind of intense ambivalence described by British artist Ceal Floyer in a recent interview:

I think that what informs my practice is a certain dissatisfaction with being an artist, with operating in this art context, even if it is the very situation that accommodates, and tolerates, my sort of cultural practice. I still don’t trust it though. It’s that Russian Doll syndrome. By admitting this scepticism I make myself vulnerable, and then, by manifesting this uncertainty as art, I compound the situation still further. It’s a bit like being in a really crowded room, a party, say, and suddenly the music stops and you’re the last one talking, and your words just sort of hang in the air. Often the art world seems like a place where the ambient noise has been removed, the background airbrushed out.

Floyer’s description of the art world as an insulated place, where creative gestures are detached from their milieu, could not be more poignant. It is exemplified by her Nail Biting Performance 2001, a live artwork in which she bites her fingernails, amplified through a microphone, alone on stage prior to a concert of classical music. The orchestra is off-stage, the audience full of anticipation for the advertised Mozart, Beethoven or Stravinsky, while the artist defiantly asserts her nervousness.

Nail Biting Performance, with its conflation of absurdity and a rigorous internal logic, is typical of the artist. Putting something into a spotlight which is not supposed to be there, it embodies Floyer’s observations on spaces, actual and metaphorical, dedicated to art.

This exhibition includes a number of British artists - namely Margaret Barron, Nathan Coley, David Cunningham, Richard Deacon, Richard Hamilton, Cornelia Parker, Susan Phillipsz and Rachel Whiteread - whose work has oscillated significantly between dedicated art space and non-art space. However, there are also other artists here whose art work is always imagined on a trajectory through galleries or museums, but then equally they are insisting on a close scrutiny of life beyond institutional walls. They are sharing space inside this exhibition, with the assumption of an osmotic relationship between art and everything else.

Richard Deacon's placement of work outdoors is not a gesture designed to make the world a more civilized place by filling it with art.  Rather it is informed by the artist's ongoing preoccupation with the problem of identifying certain objects as art.  'Ordinariness', he once explained, 'is the ambition I have for my sculpture'.  For many years he has been making Art for Other People 1982-, small sculptures that are meant to co-exist with furniture and other non-art objects in private homes.  The openness of his practice, literally manifested in the walk-through nature of much of his work, and his enthusiasm for collaboration with other artists - thus confusing notions of artistic authorship - is remarkable.  In this vein Deacon's ceramic sculptures, here located outside, in front of Tate Britain's Clore Gallery constitute a subtle challenge to conventional ways of seeing art.  Their abstract shapes suggest an aesthetic formalism, but everything else about them, including their location and organic appearance, signifies that they are proposing an art which enjoys its unelevated place in everyday life.

Margaret Barron makes paintings on adhesive tape. They are small cityscapes, painted from photographs taken by the artist and then stuck onto an existing surface, perhaps a gallery wall or the base of a lamppost, within view of their subject. For this exhibition a number are located either inside Tate Britain, or nearby, outdoors on Millbank. In the latter case, the artist’s carefully wrought and unique imagery is completely unprotected. Without invigilation, environmental control and insurance (or government indemnity) it could not be further from the cushioned existence of objects in the care of a national museum. More often than not, a painting by Margaret Barron enjoys the short life of a fly poster.

Barron’s work corresponds, to some extent, with the notion of the "anti-Readymade" - conjuring up a Duchampian scenario in which a Rembrandt painting is used as an ironing board - whereby art, in this instance signified by sincere painterliness, is thrust into a world that has no respect for it. Context is everything, and clearly the reverence afforded Duchamp’s stools, shovels, bottle racks, bicycle wheels and urinals, within dedicated art space, has its obverse. Almost a century later, confounding logic but conforming with cultural habits hard to break, reaction to the implication of readymades is still often one of umbrage and incomprehension. Despite their introduction being one of the most liberating gestures in the history of western culture, absolutely transparent and overt since the outset of Modernism, Readymades  still don’t look like art to a lot of people.

Richard Hamilton is the British artist whose work is closest to the spirit of Duchamp. His role in the development of Pop Art, a movement intent on a fusion of art and everyday life,  was seminal and continues to reverberate through subsequent generations of artists. He has always enthusiastically encouraged a two-way traffic through popular culture, taking its imagery in the direction of high art, for example, in the case of his famous collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?1956, and then, significantly, with a similar degree of seriousness, he undertook the graphic design for The Beatles’ White Album 1968. As Hamilton explains, "Its standards [were] those of a small edition print pushed … to an edition of millions".  For this exhibition, amongst other works, he provides us with a diagram of Duchamp’s acclaimed Large Glass 1915-23 derived from the format of a Michelin road map.

Cornelia Parker also refers to Duchamp in this exhibition through her treatment of Auguste Rodin’s Kiss 1901-4, one of the most popular works in the Tate’s collection  Parker has bound the sculpted heads of the two lovers in one mile of string. Sixty years previously one of Duchamp’s contributions to a Surrealist exhibition had been an entanglement of the same amount of string that impeded visitors’ movement through the gallery space. Parker’s simple gesture suggests at once the original surrealist context and a wealth of possible meanings consistent with her work overall.

Since her emergence as an artist, during the 1980s, Parker has resisted the idea of the artistic monument, with all its literal and metaphorical heaviness. Her installations such as Thirty Pieces of Silver 1988, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View 1991 and Breathless 2002  involving distressed objects suspended by wire, embody a dream of the world without gravity, a floating place without a conventional order of things. These works make it understood that value is invested rather than inherent, and nothing naturally makes a Rodin marble sculpture more precious than a piece of string.

Parker’s ongoing pieces with fireworks, such as Meteorite Lands in Birmingham's Bull Ring 2002, similarly conveys her preoccupation with such relativism. Working in collaboration with a pyrotechnician, she incorporates a pulverised meteorite into the chemical mixtures of a fireworks display in order to create a kind of meteorite shower.  She gives a heavenly body another landing on earth and thereby evokes at once ideas of an unfathomable cosmos - from whence meteorites come - as well as memories of childhood fun. Beyond this, there is the appeal of fireworks, their vivid colours, abstract and constantly changing, felt by almost everyone. It is the appeal of what Dave Hickey has referred to as "the language of visual affect - the rhetoric of how things look… the iconography of desire - in a word…  beauty."

Beauty no longer has a special relationship with art. Conversely, it exists, as always, in countless situations which, like fireworks displays (unless involving an artist such as Cornelia Parker), have nothing to do with art - unless involving an artist such as Cornelia Parker. In his recent book, Chromophobia, David Batchelor is concerned with the perception of colour, crucial to the "language of visual affect", and comes to a similar conclusion:

I was expecting to write a book about art, if only because most other things I have written have been about art, and one would think there is a lot to say about art in a book about colour. It just hasn’t turned out that way. The more I have written, the more art has got pushed further and further back …
Batchelor goes on to discuss Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, none of them artists who use oil paint on canvas, all working through the 1960s, when "something important happened to colour in art". Quoting Stella, who had famously wanted to keep the paint he used "as good as it was in the can", Batchelor suggests that the artist "knew it might be hard to improve on the materials in their raw state, that once the paint had been put to use in art, it might well be less interesting than when it was ‘in the can’. … [And that] … at that time and since … painting has been tested against that which stands outside painting-as-art: the photograph, the written word, decoration, literalness or objecthood".  In other words, this was painting not aspiring to the condition of art.

This idea has considerable bearing on our understanding of the milieu within which Richard Hamilton was operating as he developed his interest in Duchamp and pop culture, and likewise provides an important key to the philosophy which informs the work of younger British artists represented here. Their work, with its "in-the-can" realism, is an antidote to the poses of early postmodernism. Against a strong "new wave" of Neo-Expressionism and overtly theory-based imagery, predominant during the 1980s, Ian Davenport was one of the first to make a break back into abstraction. His continued use of household paint - straight from the can - since then, signifies an undeviating pragmatism and a phenomenological approach. For this exhibition he ejects different colours, through syringes, from along the top of a fourteen-metre-long wall letting them spill onto the floor at the bottom . The final enveloping result, ultimately the effect of gravity on fluid, is a striated panoramic painting of paint Untitled Poured Lines(Tate Britain) 2003.

Similarly, Tim Head’s projection Treacherous Light 2002 is a vast field of abstract colour, with a moving pattern derived from the technology involved. A programme randomly designates a particular colour, from a choice of several million, to each of the hundreds of thousands of pixels making up the screen image. Their movement on a monitor is almost imperceptible to the human eye, but projected onto a wall across a large space, as they are in this exhibition, the twitchy systematic progress of the pixels is very visible. Head, an artist whose work previously was representational, is now subscribing to an essentialism based on visual information and the means by which it is communicated. It is at once the compelling subject and object of his work.

David Batchelor makes various kinds of structures, often assemblages of second-hand components, which function as foils for the lightness of light. They are, in effect, vehicles for the phenomenon of colour - so fugitive and insubstantial - which preoccupies him. For this exhibition Batchelor has made a tower of light-boxes. From the other end of the vast Duveen Galleries, where it is located, it resembles a multi-coloured zip of light, but a closer look reveals its nuts and bolts, its wiring and other means of construction. Batchelor thereby resists a theatrical seamlessness and dispels any sense of mystery, opting instead, like Davenport, to communicate a no-nonsense fascination with his medium.

The pervasiveness of light, essential to Batchelor’s aesthetic proposition, undermines any apprehension of his work as sculpture. Reference to its dimensions, discrete measurements of height, width and depth, for example, is misleading in that it fails to take into account the nature of its most significant quality which, incidentally, in this respect, is not unlike the transparency of Duchamp’s Large Glass. Many works in this exhibition point up the problem of exactly where a work of art stops. Is Margaret Barron’s work, for example, embodied just in a piece of tape, or that of Cornelia Parker just in a firework container?  In the case of David Batchelor’s light-boxes, they actually create a kind of visual interference, here most particularly with Jim Lambie's expansive, concentrically, striped floor. Sharing its gallery space and, to a significant extent, sharing its kind of abstraction, making light reflected in it, Batchelor’s work thus becomes inextricably fused with that of another artist.

The question of spatial dimensions of course is even more absurd when applied to work involving sound. David Cunningham’s ongoing project, The Listening Room 1993-, an electronic circuit consisting of a microphone, amplifier, "noise-gate" and speakers, is an installation that implicates its audience. A wave of ambient sound builds up through feedback only to break as soon as a certain volume is reached, and then it subsides to a quietness only to begin the whole process again, ad infinitum. Sounds that are introduced to the space, such as walking and talking, are echoed distinctly at first and then absorbed into an accumulating symphony. The audience in this "listening room" hears itself integrated into the sensitive and constantly changing soundscape in contradistinction to the party scenario Ceal Floyer describes.

The inclusiveness (and pervasiveness) of his sound installation is consonant with the nature of Cunningham’s other musical activities. These include Top 40 hits such as Money 1979 with The Flying Lizards, numerous collaborations with other musicians, such as Michael Nyman, and with visual artists such as Hayley Newman and Martin Creed.  Creed’s famous equation "the whole world + the work = the whole world"  equally might have been arrived at by Cunningham. Essentially an experimental musician, Cunningham makes work which is about engagement with the "whole" world. His interest in popular music in particular reflects its relevance for current visual arts practice, evident in the work of other artists selected for this exhibition, including Jim Lambie, Dexter Dalwood, Peter Doig, Susan Phillipsz, George Shaw and Richard Deacon. And amongst these, first of all, was Richard Hamilton.

George Shaw acknowledges Hamilton as a profoundly formative influence on his generation at the same time as paraphrasing the Smiths: "Hang the artist. [He] says nothing to me about my life".  Morrissey vs Francis Bacon 2000 is the title of one of Shaw’s self-published booklets - photocopied A4 sheets covered by his intense upper-case handwriting - which describes an overwhelming desire to go shopping for records instead of studying old masters in London’s National Gallery.  Unashamedly Shaw describes the pleasure he derives from popular music in terms not unlike those used by Dave Hickey on beauty. Pop (Shaw prefers this word to "rock" and current alternative nomenclature) - is the soundtrack for his paintings. It is the kind of music, much more often than not, which accompanies the lives lived in the suburban council estates and new-town semi-detached houses he depicts. It’s the kind of music he listens to in his studio.

Shaw also shares Hamilton’s literary interest, in particular the writing of James Joyce  for the thoughtfulness it draws from the everyday. There is a strong emphasis on domestic life, which in turn constitutes a major theme in this exhibition. Shaw effectively conveys a yearning melancholy through his unpopulated scenes and Hamilton, illustrating Joyce, superimposes a map of the universe onto the image of a sleeping couple (The heaventree of stars 1998-9). Likewise, through her ostensibly simple gesture of casting void spaces, Rachel Whiteread touches on enormous facts of life.

Whiteread’s work here, Untitled (Rooms) 2001 consists of the plaster casts of a five room flat and the staircases leading to it.  Still and massive, the work translates the trace of domestic habitation of a space in all its human flux and complexity into the Duveen Galleries. Not a single room, like Whiteread’s Ghost (1990), this is the fossilised interior of an entire home, like House (1994), and compartmentalised according to the various common needs - eating, sleeping, toilet etc - of its occupants. Much more than a symbol or a representation (artistic or otherwise), Untitled (Rooms) is like a three-dimensional photograph, a negative contact print of an indoors really and thoroughly lived in.

The directness in the relationship between its subject and object is an important key to the impact of Whiteread’s work. It has this in common with the Readymade and the "in-the can" realism David Batchelor describes, and the recent strength of photography, film and video (as unmanipulated as possible) as art forms is thus very consistent with an overall picture of contemporary art healthily sceptical with respect to itself.

Like Whiteread, Shizuka Yokomizu is concerned with the occupancy of domestic interiors. Each photograph in her series Stranger 1999, depicts an individual looking outwards through a window, a person the artist hasn’t met before who is able to be seen inside their house or flat from street level outside. Yokomizu writes them a letter simply asking them to stand at a particular window with the room lights on at an appointed (night) time. The resulting portraits are extraordinary, reflecting a mixture of confidence and uncertainty - due to the nature of the project and the kind of person who would be prepared to participate in it - enhanced by the silhouette of the window frame. From inside the strangers would be seeing their own reflection as much as anything.  In the photographs we see them clearly, alone, surrounded by various objects, bits of furniture and so on, which convey clues as to their identity and self-image. Yokomizu is aware of art historical precedents, such as those found in traditional portraiture, devotional pictures of saints (likewise surrounded by attributes) and imagery arising out of nineteenth century flânerie, but her choice of medium means that she 'takes' pictures that somebody else has 'made'. What we see - is it the art work? - the poses struck and the mises-en-scène, is determined by strangers, undirected by the artist beyond her instructions concerning time and place.

Mike Marshall’s videos similarly have a compelling artlessness. They are extremely economical in terms of technology involved, editing or other production techniques and presentation. Sunlight 2000-1, seen here on monitor, for example, is the result of the artist’s camera being focused on patches of ground during a cloudy day. The only action involved is that of a cloud moving off the face of the sun, thereby throwing shadows onto the ground of objects, like trees, out of the frame. Another work, Days Like These 2002, depicts close-up views of a garden being watered by a sprinkler. At intervals, water hits the plants, like an invisible force, and their leaves and stems quiver violently as they get what they need to survive. Marshall is communicating an epiphany in the Joycean sense, with the lightest touch, an unexpected moment when something profound or beautiful occurs. His videos, paradoxically, celebrate the fact that we don’t need art for this.

Jonathan Watkins

Text from DAYS LIKE THESE: TATE TRIENNIAL OF CONTEMPORARY BRITISH ART 2003 edited by Judith Nesbitt and Jonathan Watkins (Tate Publishing, Copyright © Tate 2003. Texts are not to be reproduced without the permission of the publishers.

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