Monday, January 08, 2007

Pondering Modern Art

I popped into the Tate Modern today after a job interview in London and was delighted by an installation called "Test Site" by sculptor Carsten Höller. It's a series of steep, space-agey curving tubes that span several stories situated in the main gallery of the museum. And, best part, (in fact, the whole point) you can slide down them!

According to the program, the artist is fascinated by "the visual spectacle of watching people sliding and the 'inner spectacle' experienced by the sliders themselves, the state of simultaneous delight and anxiety that you enter as you descend."

I spent about ten minutes at the bottom watching people of all ages, sizes and demeanors shoot out of the tubes with silly grins on their faces. Unfortunately, I did not get to experience the 'inner spectacle' because I was wearing my interview suit (which is the most expensive item of clothing I've ever owned) and all I could envision was a trip through the slide causing a nasty tear in the lovely plaid wool. Bummer, I know. But I'm going to go back in more casual clothes and give it a whirl very soon.


Over the last year my interest has veered so far away from things "modern" -- all the history I've read, the art, architecture, and historical sites I've gone to see, even the things I've sought out while on vacation. So it was interesting to spend an afternoon with such modern stuff. And you know what? I hated almost all of it.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it. Maybe it was too abrupt a change of pace. But after immersing myself in the way painters like Hans Holbein lovingly rendered hawk feathers and ermine collars and luxurious brocades:

or sculptors like Bernini transformed cold marble into sensuous, living flesh:

I felt empty, cheated, even outright angry looking at so much of the Tate Modern's collection. I was surprised by how strongly the irritation welled up in me as I moved from room to room. I know that sounds ridiculously closed minded and unimaginative. And of course there were exceptions; I found several pieces genuinely moving/inspiring/engaging: a group of Cindy Sherman photos, graceful Calder mobiles, an entrancing Mark Rothko painting:

and a sublime and satisfying sculpture by Anish Kapoor, which from one side is a pregnant, weighty egg, expanding like bread dough into the gallery, and from the other is as empty, weightless and cold as outer space.

But I couldn't shake the feeling that other works were outright fraudulent. Take this piece by Man Ray (L'Enigme d'Isidore Ducasse -- a sewing machine wrapped in burlap and tied with twine):

I spent more time pondering the explanatory note than I did looking at the piece:

"The title of this work, which can be translated as ‘The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse’, refers to a nineteenth-century author better known by his pseudonym, the Comte de Lautréamont. The work was inspired by Ducasse’s famous phrase ‘Beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. The Surrealists saw this simile, describing the surprising conjunction of disparate elements, as a model for Surrealist images in art and poetry."

My immediate thought: Oh, get off it!


There was a certain lazy slob in my first year printmaking class in college. We lived in the same dorm and, for some reason God only knows, he was popular with the ladies. More than a few times I caught him strolling, stoned and towel-clad at midnight, from the bathroom back to his fetid love nest, presumably for a few more rounds with some stupid girl willing to overlook the fact that his mother forgot to pack him toenail clippers at the semester's start.

I have no doubt that these frequent nocturnal love-a-thons contributed to his general ill-preparedness for critiques. On those days, one by one, we'd tack our work up at the front of the studio to receive constructive feedback from our peers. His stuff was always ill conceived and poorly executed. But could he talk, and his ego was royal. He'd go on and on about some piece of shit intaglio proof that he'd done at 4 am that morning, telling us what it was supposed to evoke for us.

My feeling was then, and still is, if you have to explain it, intellectualize it, then you've failed as an artist. I should be able to walk up to any piece of art and have my own experience with it. Yes, having context about the piece can often enhance the viewing experience. And I like learning about the artist's thoughts on his/her own work. But it's gotta do something to me before I even read the label.

So that's why, upon seeing the Man Ray piece, all I could think about was this guy in my printmaking class. I tried to picture Man Ray in his studio when he put this thing together. Did he do sketches beforehand? Did he spend a day or two shopping for just the right burlap? Did he re-tie the twine a few times before he got it right? How could anyone take this seriously???

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