Friday, 14 August 2009

The Tate Britain – on the way to Richard Long

Oddly, many of the articles I write turn out to be about things that attract me while I’m on the way to something else, serendipitous delights in art exhibitions. While the Tate Modern is the museum to go to in London these days, I found Tate Britain to be the one with the exciting exhibitions. As usual, on the way to an exhibition on my “must see” list, I found another one that was intriguing. And fun.

At the basement entrance to the Tate Britain, there’s a BP-sponsored exhibition titled Classified. One of a series of exhibitions drawn from the permanent collection, it presents art by British artists that addresses various ideas of category. Like most thematic exhibitions, it was not completely consistent with its premise, but enough of the works fit easily and imaginatively, and the labels so clearly addressed both what the works were about and how the artists thought about categories, that the entire enterprise was great fun. When I returned the next day with Tom, we found a couple of rooms I hadn’t noticed the first time, and they really added to the exhibition’s impact to the degree that we’re still talking about them

It begins in a room filled with clicking sounds. It took me a few seconds to see that they came from metronomes set around the walls, each ticking at a different rhythm, categories of time, a work by Martin Creed, Work No. 112, 1995-2004. Toward the side was a huge beautifully constructed cabinet in which Mark Dion had carefully organized and stored artifacts (really “stuff”) he excavated (dug up) from each side of the Thames at low tide, Tate Thames Dig, 1999. Each side of the cabinet represented one side of the Thames. You could pull out the drawers and open the doors to find stones, soles of shoes, glasses frames, pipes, bricks, whatever, all carefully laid out as in a natural history storage area.

In a second room Simon Starling had categorized the process of making the aluminum of the frame for the bicycle with which he had traveled to gather the bauxite to make the aluminum.

A later room contained nothing but Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy, 1992, a very large installation of mostly shelves containing a huge variety of drug containers. While the label suggested that the work addresses issues of contemporary society and our relation to health care, I got to wondering how the Tate installs and stores the work. Are there instructions as to which boxes go where when the work is being installed, are the objects numbered or color coded, or what? Since this is part of the Tate’s permanent collection, how do they store it? Are the shelves part of it, and are they stored separately from the drug boxes? I asked the guard, but he had no idea.

The best room, though was the last, which housed The Chapman Family Collection, 2002. It looks like a typical museum installation of a collection of ethnographic masks and sculpture, each object on its own pedestal and individually lighted in a darkened room, all apparently owned by artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. It reminded me of the collection New Guinea objects that occupies much of the second floor of the new De Young Museum in San Francisco. However, each of these objects includes, or completely depicts, a McDonald’s symbol – the golden arches, Ronald McDonald, a bag of fries – all incorporated into masks or other human-based sculptures. It was amusing just to find how the symbols had been used in each object, but it was also very telling about the exploitation of other cultures by modern artists, the commodification of objects from other cultures in art museums, the appropriation of other people’s ritual objects for personal aggrandizement, the way museums recontextualize objects in their exhibits and installations, and the pervasiveness of McDonalds throughout the world. The ramifications are extensive at the same time the objects are cruelly amusing. This show had the first work by the Chapmans that really engaged my mind and my eyes.

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