Attention

I went to the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol yesterday. I’ve known about the place for years, but the last time I was in Bristol, in autumn 1975, I was looking for a job and don’t remember even considering the notion of a visit to an avant-garde arts space. What I remember most vividly from that visit was, first, getting involved in a brawl while looking for somewhere to sleep, something that had never happened to me before and has never happened to me since, and sweating against the plastic lining the owner of the bed and breakfast I was staying in had slipped between the bottom sheet and the mattress of my single bed. At that time,art played second fiddle to concerns as immediate as work and a place to live, however much these concerns might have fuelled my own art later. But it’s a place I’ve been aware of, and been intrigued by, for years, so I was keen to visit. We were there just before ten, when it opens, so we sat and looked at the water in that state of contemplative alertness to small shifts in the environment that water produces. An immensely elegant, unbearably malodorous, tramp, tall, long-boned, with the bearing of a medieval hermit, approached us and asked, in passable Italian, for a cigarette – he’d presumably heard us talking between ourselves – then thanked Giuseppe for the half packet of MS he was given with a smile of great sweetness and a lilting Grazie. And then it was time to go in, and so we did.


The current exhibition is called Sequelism. This is what the site has to say about it:

Sequelism, Part 3: Possible, Probable or Preferable Futures is an ambitious, multi-faceted project that looks into the future and at that which is yet to happen. It will consider how the inexact arena of futurology is used as a means to better comprehend the present and the past.

Well, that’s what it says, and I don’t want to argue with people who have far more invested in all this than I do. But what I saw was a series of objects arranged in certain ways – venetian and other sorts of blind hanging in the centre of a gallery, a fox’s stuffed head on a steel pole, a row of whirring painted discs, a sheet of what looked like rubber thrown diagonally onto the floor – and it struck me how incommensurate these two things were: the aim and the artifice. I don’t want to sound snippy, but even the language of the blurb betrays a certain anxiety, or woolliness, of thought. The distinction between, for example, ‘the future’ and ‘that which is yet to happen’ may be too fine for my small brain; alternatively, it may not exist. But what really struck me was the effort expended, which seemed considerable, and the effect, or value of the reward, which seemed far smaller, banal and even irrelevant.

The array of hanging blinds of various kinds, for example, could be inviting us to think about the way space is defined, is closed, is opened, is made visible and then concealed; its variability, its arbitrariness, our imposition of order upon it, and so on. The fact that some of the blinds in the installation are western and mass-produced while others are, or appear to be, the work of Asian artisans might be important. It’s important if I choose to notice it, I suppose, and that’s my problem with this kind of fag-end avant-gardism. It lends itself to observation as pure subjectivity in a way, say, that the Duchamp urinal didn’t. Duchamp’s admonishing ghost walks dolefully behind all this work but the urinal, or the bottle rack, or the defaced Mona Lisa, didn’t provide the audience with a chance to prove how clever they were at reading the new significance of the artefact. Duchamp’s work, where the effort was minimal and the effect enormous, was too busy telling the audience something. The wonder of that work is just how no-nonsense and didactic its aims were. You couldn’t not get it, unless you were wilfully obtuse. The stuff in the Arnolfini seemed vague and smug and, well, decorative in its effort to be cutting-edge and challenging and thought-provoking. The kind of attention it asked of me was worth less than the attention the medieval tramp had given us, because in his case it had a specific aim, or the attention we gave to the water beneath our feet. It was institutionalised and up its own arse. And this was exemplified by one of the exhibits: a portrait photograph of the artist, or a good-looking model, wearing not one but three or four padded masks over his eyes. It could say such a lot, but really says very little. Oh, it’s about all kinds of things, but what isn’t? Finally, it says whatever you want it to say.

But maybe it’s just me.
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7 Responses to Attention

  1. I'd like to go to a gallery with you Charles, then I wouldn't have to mutter all on my lonesome ownsome.

  2. What's interesting is that I spoke to two friends of mine, one of whom is an artist and neither of whom has issues with experimentalism, and they both felt exactly the same, and not only about the Arnolfini. It's easy to lay into the Hirsts and Emins and Banksies of this world for being brash and what have you, but they do at least pack a bit of emotional punch and force some sort of dialogue on you.Try muttering louder next time, Nathalie! Who knows, the person next to you may agree!

  3. Oh you know perfectly well it's not just you!To quote Duane Michals, one of my favorite artists/bitchy queens/curmudgeons (here he's talking about photography, but not only): “The bar keeps getting lower and lower and lower. All these kids are spewing out of art school photographing their dinner and then making it a 20-foot photograph. I was at an opening years ago, and this woman wasn’t even looking through the lens. She was just waving her hand taking pictures and kept saying, ‘Oh look, everything’s art! Everything’s art!’ and I said, ‘No no, everything is not art.’” That’s the problem: Everything has become art."I think you laid your finger on it, though: smugness. It's just about the most unattractive quality a work of art can have, IMHO. Of course, you and Giuseppe and much more worldly than we are. At our house, we just go on pretending that "contemporary art" is a contradiction in terms.

  4. I love Duane Michaels too, Wendell. Where did you read this?

  5. Rob Spence says:

    Couldn't agree more. There's an unbearable triteness and banality about so much that passes for art these days. The best I can usually muster in the way of response is a shrugged "so what?"

  6. The Duane Michals quote posted by Wendell is from here: http://www.queso-fresco.com/articles/16921/news Maybe the reason so much contemporary art seems crap when compared with art from the past is because what survives has been so heavily edited. What remains is more likely to 'mean' something. There's also the issue of the cold war skewing western art post WWII and, in recent years, Charles Saatchi single-handedly making (and unmaking) art stars.When my friend had her MA show, students were fighting dirty to have their work displayed in the rooms where they calculated Saatchi would go.

  7. Thanks, Nathalie. I'm a little swamped today – meant to get the link to CL but obviously didn't get A Round Toit. Intriguing point that you make, and one I want to let simmer a bit, but it makes perfect sense to me that there's been an historical "sorting" of what we see. I know much less about art than about literature (and may not know much about that), but on a couple of occasions when I've done historical bibliographic research, I've been amazed to find how many novels and short story collections, e.g., were published during various periods that we think of as strongly "marked" by one book or a particular group of "movement" writers (the pre-Civil War abolitionist era, e.g. or women writers during the Harlem Renaissance). And, in fact, all that's happened is that what has come down to us has been "chosen" in a sense. Of course it must happen with the visual arts. (All you need to do is take a tour of churches in Rome to see how many Renaissance-era "also rans" there were!)

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