Friday, 22 May 2015

The Production Line of Happiness. Christopher Williams at the Whitechapel Gallery, London

Christopher Williams at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.

Well, this is one for the arterarty, and gets the heart of everything I hate about what we are told is 'art'. This is a significant exhibition - not in and of itself, but as an archetype of art that you need to have explained to you because you are not clever enough to get it without being told what you should be thinking.

I went to this exhibition with a good friend, not an artist, but someone who is interested in art and creativity in general. So to describe the experience, lets start at the beginning. You enter the Whitechapel Gallery, and see in front of you what is perhaps the entrance to the show, but where whatever signage you can perceive is half covered by green wallpaper, or some such similar material. But you are reassured by the sight of other people beyond the threshold, and on entering are handed a piece of paper by a gallery attendant, which is little aide to understanding what world of art you have walked into ( - is it perhaps just part of the exhibition?).

Now, I will admit to being something of an art extremist - a fundamentalist even - when it comes to the experience of art. I expect, no, demand! that art explain itself to me, that it communicates its ideas - as far as I'm concerned, that is the very nature of what art is: a form of communication. So when art is supplied with all kinds of explanatory cards and leaflets, boards with mini-theses on them to help explain to the poor observer what the hell it is all about, I am at once suspicious that the 'art' on show will in fact be nothing of the kind since it has failed in its only true task which is to communicate.

Thankfully, neither the piece of paper I and my friend were handed, nor the half covered words of titles and descriptions throughout the exhibition seemed to offer any explanation at all, so that was a relief. Instead, we were left with confusing half eaten reminiscences of the previous exhibition (presumably), in order to confuse us (again, presumably as I cannot fathom why else it would be done). What one might call the actual works of art are photographs. But what they are of, their significance or relevance to each other is not obvious, other than the occasional appearance of the same people, or of the same subject every now and then. I should say that as you go around, witnessing the half covered words of exhibition past, the walls are also unfinished, as if the partly torn down previous exhibit had left the gallery space in a curatorial/decorating limbo. There are walls with masking tape still attached, paint, pencil/pen marks, as well as some of the moveable walls themselves with one end left open so you can see inside these portable voids that have the photographs hanging on them.

All very arty; very deep; profound ;-)

So, now we are in. We look at the first photograph to our right, behind us as we enter, a young woman sitting on some kind of (outside?) covered swinging couch kinda thing - at least that's the impression I'm left with - with her breasts out, laughing heartily at... something. You turn round to face the portable wall behind you and there is a photograph of a tyre, what looks like a motorbike tyre to me, a quarter view of a large black rubber hole, on an indistinct whitish background. Behind and to the left of that, and also opposite the laughing girl, is another wall, but this time with a photograph of a large good looking chicken, or cock as my friend would have it. There were no title cards or anything to elucidate any understanding of what we were seeing, but my friend nevertheless quickly provided his own, combining the half naked woman, the hole, and the cock, into a suitable associative narrative.

We moved on a little further and my friend was entranced by one photograph of a yellow bowl held by its rim and immersed halfway into water - I could describe more details but I feel there is little point. It held an interest for my friend since it reminded him of patterns he enjoyed watching in his washing up bowl at home when the washing machine was on - a personal association which I was glad for him to have, bringing another little glimpse of content into the exhibition.

Up until this point, I have to say I was unimpressed. Much as I regard as laudable the lack of explanation at any point in the show, what you are left with is, I'm afraid, a bunch of not particularly interesting photographs hung in an unfinished exhibition space. I put this to my friend who started talking about the laughing girl/hole/cock thing, the washing machine, the photographs of other photographic equipment, quickly making up some narrative that was peppered with question marks as in: "Maybe it's about... or perhaps...?", and then grabbing hold of the photo's of a bunch of apples and a chestnut leaf, trying to shoehorn them into an explanation to make it make sense; and this is the nub of the problem. My friend was busy making up reasons for the works we were seeing, because there was no reason to be seen. He was trying to provide an explanation himself so as to not feel that his investment in coming to the exhibition had been wasted. This is an understandable response since one has faith in what one has learnt to call art. And much like tribal peoples in times gone by, all over the world, when something you have no explanation for - a hurricane, an erupting volcano, failed harvests - one makes up an explanation in order that one can feel safe again in a world where your assumptions of what is or is not have been turned upside-down. I pointed out to my friend that he was clearly trying to come up with his own reasons for what he was seeing, and once the point was put to him, he accepted that all the 'art' he was seeing was of his own creation, that the show wasn't actually telling him anything at all. I on the other hand, as I have said, am an extremist, a fundamentalist (artamentalist?). I do not believe something is art either because it is in a gallery or because someone tells me it is. I make up my own mind.

The exhibition started on the ground floor, and then continued upstairs in another two smaller rooms. My perception of what I was seeing was this: a lot of photographs, none of which were particularly special, some of which were more interesting than others, but not by much. Certainly, most were skilfully taken. A lot of the images of camera equipment were reminiscent of stock photography, ie. characterless, but descriptive, as were the tyres. There were two or three interesting images of camera lenses that had been cut through to reveal their inner workings. But of course, what is interesting about them is the subject and its complex engineering, not the image of it; the photograph itself holding no meaning whatsoever.

The subject matter in these photos was varied, and seemingly unconnected. There would be little point in me trying to engender them all with a theme or single idea, since there is none perceptible, unless, like my friend attempted before I stopped him, you create your own. Suffice it to say, as my friend an I descended the stairs at the end of the exhibition (the cast iron supports to the handrails being much more impressive than anything we had yet seen inside the gallery), we were both a little disappointed, though in truth I was far less impressed as my friend did at least 'like' some of the photographs. We got to the bottom of the stairs, and there on the wall was a small tv screen, with a video running - the explanation!

Now, this annoyed me almost instantly! Having gone through an unimpressive series of not very interesting photographs that purported to be art, we were now to be told why it was art. I watched for about 10 seconds before I could take it no more after the words left the lips of the presenter: "...which makes us think of..." HA! GOTCHA! That is the whole thing with this kind of 'art'. Here, after going through the whole show, we are now being TOLD WHAT WE SHOULD BE THINKING ABOUT IT, HOW IT SHOULD MAKE US FEEL... if that isn't our reaction it is we who are wrong! This made me furious so I quickly left for the bookshop so I didn't start ranting at my friend who was more interested than I and was watching it. But 30 seconds later he joined me in the bookshop, visibly annoyed. He was upset that the video, the explanation, had put him in a position whereby everything he had thought and felt about what he had seen, was in fact wrong. I am used to this, but I think perhaps he is not so. The result, upset. Whatever your reaction, if it is not the reaction we state it should be, you have became somehow inadequate, ill-arterate, ignorant, because you got it wrong.

This exhibition exhibited the worst example of conceptual art. It was so up its own fundament in terms of its reasons for being, and the reaction you 'should' have towards it, that it has become completely irrelevant to any normal person, anyone who isn't, not only versed in modern art concepts, but who completely buys into the fa├žade, willingly leading themselves to the alter for sacrifice. And on top of all that, I found the photographs themselves dull.

Not a good show.



POSCRIPT

As an aside to my previously described hatred at being told what I should be thinking about art, I wish to relate to you a further experience we had in the gallery. As we left the exhibition, and found ourselves at the top of the stairs, I noticed another exhibition was on, a single room with a bunch of paintings inside. We went in to have a look. I described to my friend how this painting, painted in 1910, didn't impress me because it was actually painted quite badly, whatever else its limited merits were. And how this massive 'painting' was simply a waste of canvas - why? Because its depiction of some kind of bamboo and flower combination, childishly trying to confuse the eye into seeing figures, was simply a demonstration of an idea (as lots of contemporary art is) without actually trying to say anything at all, and on top of that it was painted extremely badly, executed as if the artist had only minutes to make it before they had to rush out to talk about art somewhere instead of actually making any. Perhaps a little weary of my refusal to accept something as art because I was being told it was, we briefly looked at everything else, a few quick words, including a video piece, which I had seen before, of a man dancing wildly on a grave to Jimi Hendrix - (both juvenile and another example of 'hey look at this - isn't it great?!', but not actually saying anything at all other than the artist has time on their hands), but there was one piece, a painting, that my friend had walked past having not really noticed it.

It wasn't that it was small, because it wasn't. It wasn't as big as the bamboo monstrosity, but you would need a large house with a large wall if you were going to have the space to hang it. It was a painting of sunflowers, in vases, on a table. So here's the thing. Not only are we told that we have to believe something is art because we are told that it is, that we shouldn't think for ourselves unless we are bad at arguing our own pint and so therefore can be easily beaten down and forced to agree to the arterarties perceptions (even if in our hearts we still don't), but the same thing happens with artist's names. A work by a given artist is 'good' or 'amazing', or 'powerful', or 'extraordinary', etc. etc. becuase it has that name attached to it - like magic! But then, take a famous name, an artist who my friend mentioned to me earlier in the day, so not someone he had never heard of; take one of their paintings and put it in a room. The result: it was ignored. I myself didn't recognise it for what it was immediately because, although I can now see its style is one I perhaps would have recognised had I paid it more immediate attention amongst the other bad, and some not so badly created art in that room, it actually looked a little... amateurish. People rave about this painter, but honestly, I don't think he's very good; I have never thought he was very good; I have always been left a little disappointed by his paintings. His images, their composition and colours (if you like something of a fauvist palette), are usually good, though not always interesting. But it's his ability with paint that always lets the work down. Sure, he's better than most out there today, but when your competition is so poor, and includes the likes of the exhibition we had gone to the gallery to see, it is little surprise that he is regarded as the UK's greatest living painter. Have you guessed who it is yet? This is the thing: once you know, you'll argue, because you know how good he really is, or at least you'll think you know, or maybe you'll know what other people have told you they think you should know. Step back. Step back from the name and look at what's in front of you. Does it work? Is is executed with due skill and diligence in order to amplify its expression? Is it, in short, any good, regardless of whether you actually like it or not? If you don't ask yourself these questions every time you look at ANY work of art, then you might as well listen to me as anyone else.

Who is the artist? I'll be awarding points for the correct answer. And what do points mean? Well, that depends on your definition of a point, the way you spell it, its context, the environment it was brought up in, the person who uttered the words and/or invented the concept of pointing or prizes or applying an abstract notion of reward for the sake of personal gratification...

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