This is Tomorrow
We went to Whitechapel gallery as I wanted to catch a retrospective of their seminal 1956 proto-pop multimedia event “This is Tomorrow”. I was over optomistically hoping for a recreation of the whole thing, but that was pie in the sky – what we got was accounts of how the event was put together, with plans, promotional material etc. I had to readjust, but even so I was still a little in awe of even the residue from an iconic exhibition. Next time I should read more carefully (I won’t!)
T.I.T is what I went for, but the first and best thing we encountered at Whitechapel was the strange photo manipulations of John Stezaker. There are cut ups and combines which often result in surreal humour or disconcerting multi-portraits. A typical disarmingly simple strategy is the placement of a vintage postcard over a photograph, for instance scenic cliff faces obscure a couple’s faces, and become a visual metaphor for communication seizure. But that’s just one of the more obvious ones. Better viewed quickly in all their quantity and variety than described in words..
A Hot Ass & others
We saw plenty else at Whitechapel, of varying engagingness. A couple of my highlights: A film (by Huang Xiaopeng, I think) of two boys blowing up balloons, in eerie slow motion, has you on the edge of your seat waiting for the obvious release of tension when balloons do what balloons have to do – the result touching and funny in the aftermath.
Bethan Huws subtle alterations of a basically empty room seemed easy to misunderstand and dismiss,which I promptly did, but more intriguing were her wall texts about the witty punning of works by the potentially unfathomable Marcel Duchamp. His “L.H.O.O.Q.” is a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with added beard & moustache. LHOOQ can be pronounced “Elle a chaud au cul” which translates as “She has a hot ass”. Huws leads us to a connection with the incident of the arrest of Duchamp’s friend, poet Apollinaire, on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa – having a “hot ass” as in a criminal having a “hot tail”. (He didn’t and was released a week later). Apparently Apollinaire once called for the Louvre to be burnt down, so adding another twist. Whether any of this transcends mere cerebral hoop-la, one could apply a similar process of speculation and detective work in teasing out levels of interpretation whenever engaging with a work of art.
Kicking Sue Hiller
We headed off across the river to the old Tate, mainly to catch some Susan Hiller – an artist who piqued my interest a few years back with her combinations of mementos and relics “From the Freud Museum”. I got off to a bad start when I headed for one of the enticing sofas in the installation “Belshazzar’s Feast, The Writing on your Wall” accidentally kicking a floor-light, and disturbing the ambience of reverie with my “Jeezus!” I swiftly bottled my embarrassment and concentrated on the TV’s flickering flames and snatches of voice. This reminded me of a coal or wood-fire’s role as the pre-television focal point of the hearth, and various fainter connotations, but the notes relate a more imaginative prompting for the work – newspaper reports of apparations appearing on screens at the end of transmission (in the 80s before non-stop teli). The Freud Museum piece was there much as I remembered it, but I was distracted from it by blood curdling shrieking and screaming from a video room hard by. This turned out to be giant projections of Punch and Judy shows , with the violence of that never-innocent entertainment viscerally emphasised by scale, volume, fragmentation, repetition and four wall immersion, often leaving you in the dark. Punch seems like an extreme case of the domestics, eternally shunned by social services, instead visited upon by the hangman and the devil – although I think Mr P proves too much for them in the end. All good fun for the kids, naturally! But to regain a sense of perspective, here’s a little piece entitled What’s so funny about Punch and Judy. Picture also from Punchandjudy.com
By now getting art-weary, we left the rest of Sue Hiller for another time, and bathed in the more conventional seas of the Watercolour exhibition. For those with any notions of watercolour being a homely pastime for amateurs, the show purports to challenge preconceptions, by showing a jumbled wealth of descriptive, expressive and abstract works from the 17th century up to present day practioners, including Emin and Kapoor (who underwhelm and midwhelm respectively). I’m sure watercolour used to be low down in the pecking order for me, with oils the ultimate painterly ambition, but as an artist I now feel a lot more democratic about it (and equally at a loss with either). I did get the message that there are many approaches to using the medium, and some works didn’t look at all like watercolour (well, some weren’t actually). I quite enjoyed the diversity, but am hard-pressed to remember individual highlights, over and above old favourites like Nash, Sutherland, Ravilious, Peter Lanyon – all from about 40s-50s. I did like a couple of more traditional transcriptions of nature – the many beans of Rachel Pedder-Smith, which looked older than it was (2004), and a genuinely 17th Century pollarded oak by John Dunstall. There was something surreal and impressive by Burra, and an eye-smacking vivid abstract from Patrick Heron, and a pouring by Andy Goldsworthy involving more water than colour.
I read a few reviews and comments about this show, and there seemed to be a lot of disappointed reaction. For me, I had no expectations, apart from “hmm watercolours – is that going to be all old stuff” so I didn’t feel let down. I understand the lack of a few key artists, not least David Hockney, so it wasn’t comprehensive in the roster of names – but so many styles were presented that I felt some inspiration filtering in now and again.