Part 4: The Part About Me, Me, Me
Nell mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... This here is the twenty-fifth piece I’ve posted about a week at Fig-2, the curatorial ultramarathon that’s putting on a new art show at the ICA every single week for fifty weeks and which I am in my own special way documenting on wordpress, aiming to do all fifty.
As I write, it’s week 34/50, so you see I have some catching up to do before the end. It’s not easy. I have a slightly academic bent as well as a fundamentally artistic temperament, so each piece tends to go way beyond the minimum required to just tick the week off. I’m also permanently zoned out because the openings are on Zombie Mondays. I used to just go to bed with a bottle of cava and Jazz on 3 but now I have to talk to people.
By Week 29 I realized I hadn’t got beyond an ever-lengthening Borgesian short story about libraries for Week 19, and that I would have to reboot the blog. I’d have to work in two directions at once to fill the hole in the middle, while also trying to keep up with the present. Basically, in order to get through the rest of this year (or the rest of my life, whichever comes first) I’m going to have to learn to eat breakfast.
Since I re-upped the blog I’ve been posting out of chronological sequence — and hey! that’s art (loftily invoking Matthew Barney’s five Cremaster films made in the order 4, 1, 5, 2, 3). There are still gaps, but this very late 25th post (not counting curatorial seminars) neatly coincides with Fig-2 Week 25. Half way! It’s almost as if this were not a completely random coincidence after all.
It might yet all turn out okay, but at the time it was terrible. I drafted a kind of interim mission statement that I didn’t show you before.
Part 1: Fig-2 loyalty card [Reboot at Week 29]
Flann O’Brien’s classic comic anti-novel At Swim-Two-Birds opens with “CHAPTER ONE” and rattles through until it stops. There is no Chapter Two. This makes me laugh. I’m sure it has irritated many readers, which is probably part of the joke. What’s the joke? I’m not sure. Life doesn’t seem to have clearly defined chapters. Except it does. This year it has fifty.
I’ve been writing about each week of Fig-2, the project at the ICA studio curating a new art show each week for fifty weeks in 2015, but I’ve fallen behind. Every week is a chapter and the book is burning up faster than I can write it. At the moment, in Week 29 of Fig-2, having posted a piece for each week up to Week 18, I’m looking at a great burning hole in the middle of the book. There is no book, is part of the joke. Just fifty holes – 18 written and burned, 11 burning, and 21 unknown and yet to burn. Naturally it’s the ones we haven’t burned yet that burn the brightest.
This fifty-week project isn’t a book, it’s a movie. It has a three act structure. The ‘Three Act Structure’ has dominated screenwriting ever since Aristotle shot his first features on 8mm. In Act One you establish your characters and principles and set up the big dramatic question that demands action. Act Two is where it gets dark. Act Two finds our hero (usually a hero, I’m afraid) trying to resolve the big problem, but everything is turning to shit. Hamlet loses his mind (or pretends to), Luke Skywalker loses his hand OR PRETENDS TO, and everything is hopeless.
How have I got so far behind?
I’m rebooting this damn blog.
Part 5: Oh, oh, we’re half way there. Whoa-oh.
Sculptor and installation artist Prem Sahib has generated a lot of art-world buzz. He has a major solo show coming up at the ICA. An article in London’s Evening Standard reveals that he is about to become a new entry in their “Progress 1000” list of London’s “most influential people”. He nonetheless somewhat rebuts a notion that he and his chums like Eddie Peake, George Henry Longly, and fig-2 collaborator Celia Hempton, are “his generation’s YBAs”. Where the YBAs fixated on shock and solipsism, if this bunch shares a special area of interest you might say it is in mixed media encounters between the eroticised human body and our public and personal spaces.
For Week 25 of Fig-2 Prem Sahib and Celia Hempton worked together with choreographer Cecilia Bengolea. Influenced by construction sites, the ICA studio space was fitted out with coloured perspex screens and floor lamps and a layout of plywood floorboards, cheap underlay and industrial rubber, with an industrial ambient soundtrack. Two dance performances took place involving three dancers (one naked, one semi-naked, one leotarded). They pulled some hard moves, and were on point most of the time. Their feet must look like mincemeat. It’s not just an interaction between harsh human-made environments and human notions of beauty (dance, dancers) but sets up each realm against itself, so there is beauty in the strange studio environment, and harshness in the body struggling against itself to create beauty in motion.
Part 2: Fig-2: fifty shows in fifty weeks
Twenty five weeks into the fifty, the Fig-2 team had put on 25 Monday night openings, held 54 events, and Sipsmith’s had served 5000 Gin & Tonics. Each week the ICA studio space has been completely reimagined. There have been all kinds of installations, films, sculpture, debates, dance, rock, roll, sex and death.
To mark these heady achievements and the half-way point the Fig-2 team appeared on George Lionel Barker’s Make Your Own Damn Music radio show. Curator Fatoş Üstek was particularly good with bons mots that memorably describe the project, describing it as being about “Improvisation. Experimentation. Unleashing Desires.”
“Theoretically it is a whole big house that has fifty rooms, and each room opens to another with a door with different characteristics, features, sizes, colours, tonalities, sensualities.”
One of the contradictions of Fig-2 being composed of fifty projects is that it naturally coalesces in the mind into one large project. It’s inevitable. This is not a criticism. On the contrary, Fatoş Üstek conceives of a “Giant Picture — not one thing — it’s squares with intersection points, trying to capture the critical and aesthetic currency of our times. With source information from different disciplines and positions.”
A house, a giant picture! I think of it that way too. My project for this year is writing fifty pieces, one for each week of Fig-2. These have varying degrees of engagement with each week’s work, and varying levels of digressive interest in themes that I draw out of the work. I’m teasing out themes and exploring my own obsessions on the way toward Act Three, building my own ‘whole big house’ — in my Week 18 room there’s the music room, Week 10 the dining room, Week 19 is the exquisitely furnished (but so far unfinished) library. A kind of meta-art.
I’m not an art critic, obviously, but sometimes writing conventional criticism is not the best way to engage with art. Sometimes more art is the most appropriate response. This is why I’ve written short stories for Week 10 and Week 23, a set of minutes for Week 12, used symphonic structure for Week 18, turned myself into an internet for Week 29 and back into a human for Week 30. But all of the fig-2 loyalty card nonetheless fulfils the function of ‘criticism’ and is therefore totally dispensable: since modern art is typically already a comment on itself, subsequent criticism, and especially my fifty week blogging project, is completely redundant. Like art itself, it is quite useless.
Part 3: The critical and aesthetic currency of our times
Experiencing as much art as I am this year inevitably makes you think about the classic and totally trite question: What is art?
The word ‘Art’ to you might mean the pictures and things in the big galleries (National, Tate, Whitechapel, Saatchi) but artists don’t tend to use the word art. Instead they talk about their ‘practice’ and ‘the work’. This reflects the diversity of approaches and makes it much easier to talk about what it is that artists do, particularly when the ‘work’ shades into sociology – for example, Leah Capaldi doused herself in strong perfumes and took herself onto the tube at rush hour, purposing to record the reactions of the other people to the whiff. Is this art, or just annoying?
Fig-2 naturally reflects ‘practice’ rather than ‘art’, and I can feel this hair splitting so finely I can barely see what I’m getting at. I’m kind of used to this stuff and forget that to most people it’s total bullshit, though I’m aware of it enough to want to address it here. If Prem Sahib’s forthcoming ICA show means he’s going to become more known outside of the ‘art world’ he could even become popular? One school of thought states that people love going to art museums but the art itself has become irrelevant, even as it seems more popular than ever. But what does ‘popular’ mean?
Last weekend I went to Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk show at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Perry’s work is increasingly conscious of and concerned with his popularity and celebrity status with regard to being an art world insider now, but as a reflection or expression of the social marginalisation of “ordinary” people in the provinces, and how we live among brands and trends that we buy into but don’t control. Is he popular because he makes mainstream TV programmes, or because he won the Turner Prize in 2001, or because he wears dresses, or because he takes an old-fashioned level of solid craft, filling his pots with contemporary concerns (ie. swearing, celebrity culture, brands)?
Popular art needn’t be populist, though it is often accused of being so. In the run-up to the latest blockbuster show at Tate Modern, the BBC is battering us with a season about pop art. The BBC programmes are pretty nostalgic, and it remains to see whether the Tate show will be the same, though the Tate looks as if it might draw a bit of attention to overlooked international pop artists. Whether it be nostalgia or historical reclamation, either way we can conclude that whatever art is saturating the media and big galleries is in this case not ‘current’ at all except as a demonstration of the fact that we will never be free of the Sixties.
Popular art, populist art, pop art, these are three discrete things, though obviously they are connected. Classic pop art, not to mention personal concern with celebrity and blockbuster economics, seems removed from the areas that Fig-2 has been exploring. In China Xu Zhen prefers to think of his studio as a business venture as much an artistic practice. His and pop art’s concept that “Good art is the best business” is the kind of idea that Fig-2 artists have not pursued. The Warholian Paradigm is exhausted, perhaps because Money and Economics has so permeated everything that we are completely blind to it. Today money is everything. The cheeky frisson in Warhol of applying dollar values to a realm traditionally thought to be concerned with higher things is not shocking any more.
Look at Thierry Guetta (aka Mr Brainwash) in Exit Through The Gift Shop and you really see how pop art’s time has gone. Or have a yawn at the economics of the original YBAs especially Damien Hirst for a demonstration of the the artistic exhaustion of the interesting ‘business as art’ idea that was genuinely interesting when Warhol was interesting.
Fig-2 has so far largely had a fiercely mandarin interest in higher things, where it aims to capture the “critical and aesthetic currency of the times” while the Warhols and Hirsts just capture the literal dollar currency. So is Fig-2 the barometer of the times? Or the laboratory? The barometer of the laboratory sounds right. Many of the weeks are playful, but some are extremely cerebral, which I feel reflects certain curatorial predilections as much as what goes on in the art world. I mean, Fig-2 would make you wonder if anyone still painted (an accusation usually leveled at the Turner Prize). But then, painting is perennially dead, so fuck it, and fuck all forms of pop art, popular, populist, pointillist, pacifist, pugilist.
In pop art’s defence regarding intellectual art practice, we note that the important proto-pop-art bunch the Independent Group, who put on a famous show at Whitechapel in 1955, were more interested in exchanging ideas than in art. The group included Eduardo Paolozzi, whose public sculptures and murals seem to be disappearing from Oligarchal London, and Richard Hamilton, whose popularity and importance are said to be have been diminished by his being ‘too clever by half’. The group met in 1952 at the ICA, so here we are again. [Fanfare]
Art is intellectual though, niche, even when ‘popular’, and it’s also implicated in business. You might or might not find it contradictory when the popular artist Grayson Perry says “Contemporary art is the research and development department for capitalism. We come up with new ideas that the rest of the culture will kind of latch onto and sell. That’s our job, deal with it.”
I also wrote a piece at a quarter way through for the Art Fund: http://www.artfund.org/news/2015/04/01/blogging-fig-2-from-start-to-finish
Someone else wrote a half way review as well: https://www.ica.org.uk/blog/embracing-the-unpredictable
And this: http://www.artfund.org/news/2015/06/22/five-things-you-need-to-know-halfway-through-fig-2