Category Archives: Tate Modern

Gauguin – Tate Modern – Winter 2010

Though ephemeral events, exhibitions can have powerful effect in redressing the reputation of an artist, uncovering previously hidden gems or revealing new aspects of a known master, perhaps. In the case of the current Gauguin show at the Tate, it has utterly destroyed his reputation as an artist of the first rank. In his poor sense of composition, complete mishandling of colour and his inability to develop a sense of narrative, Gauguin has revealed himself to be, at best, a brave decorational painter, and at worse, an over zealous amateur.

The Tate exhibition parades numerous chapters of his incompetence. Take a picture such as Te Poi Poi. From a distance, a vibrant splash of colour. But up close the painting falls apart; a mad rainbow in a blender.

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Te Poi Poi, 1892, private collection

The woman in stark red (whom I presume is cleaning clothes in the river, but her unfortunate posture makes it seem as if she is relieving her bowels) provides some focus in the foreground, but all around her is a maelstrom of confused colour. The blurry morass of black, blue, green and white in front of the woman makes it unclear what is land, stone or water; where does she actually exist? Above her head, daubs of livid green form a tree, painted in a manner of a ten year old copying Howard Hodgkin. The river is a bizarre colour – a creamy white giving way to an unforgiving dark blue. Further back, nothing much happens – just more application of bright colours, with an ill painted stick figure on the other riverbank. What is this picture about?

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Te Pape Nave Nave, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Gauguin’s insistence on using as many colours as possible detract from the paintings. There is no articulate use of the palette to encourage a particular emotional environment. Rather, he is like the primary school pupil let loose on the colouring set, a meaningless melange of reds, oranges, purples, yellows etc etc. Sometimes, the colours coalesce in a blackening mess. In Te Pape Nave Nave, the characters become lost; to work as as a painting, the characters need to be bigger and dominate the canvas; instead they are overwhelmed as the kaleidoscopic landscape prevails over them, reducing their presence to bystanders.

Of course it wasn’t Gauguin’s aim to create realistic or perspectivally true images. As contemporaries such as Cezanne and successors like Picasso would explore with far greater rigour, there was a lot painterly mileage in such investigations. And perhaps I am being unfair to him in criticising him for his obvious weaknesses as a figurative painter, when his oeuvre is part of the pathway to abstraction. You can see Gauguin in this exhibition (which really emphasises the experimental nature of his art, his constant dallying with different media and styles of depiction) trying to explore the ramifications of the flatness of the canvas he is painting on. But it becomes sloppy. So instead of the landscape spitting up and then reforming itself in renewed and different dimensions, the landscape itself just falls apart, leaving its unhappy combination of colour.

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Arearea No Varua Ino, 1894, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Arearea No Varua Ino is perhaps beguiling at first glance, but quickly becomes ludicrous. The woman leaning downwards has no facial features; she is a just a chunk of body, seeming to wash her hair in the inexplicable pink flames. The other woman, on the left of the canvas, is surly in expression, possibly under the malign influence of the totem behind. But it’s difficult to unpack why. Two figures in the background gesticulate aimlessly. As happens elsewhere, his characters lack in an emotional narrative – they become passive, shorn of activity and Gauguin ends up not painting individuals but cyphers. It is difficult to read, empathise or admire Gauguin’s paintings; any sense of drama evaporates in the coloured fuzz of Gauguin’s own view of paradise.

Overall, his treatment of women is ludicrous, reducing them to mutes with a squashed inner life (although, at least they appear – apparently men hardly exist in Gauguin’s world). They are sometimes sensuous, sometimes brooding, occasionally anxious, but nearly always one-dimensional. There are no clues as to why such characters are acting in a particular way. Do any of the women in Gauguin’s visual universe actually talk or interact? Or are they simply vehicles for Gauguin’s own narrow binary views about the innate goodness and badness of women, tarted up by some cliched myths? Despite the nudity and the presumed sensuality, his females lack much trace of tenderness. Closer inspection indeed reveals something a little more interesting, a touch more ambiguous – their eyes are often askance, hinting at a kind of suspicion of the world around them. The figure at the very left of The Bathers glances out of the canvas – as if berating Gauguin or the viewer for invading their territory. At least Gauguin had the gumption to include a degree of self reflection.

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Ondine, 1889, Cleveland Museum of Art

Or perhaps it was simply the fact that Gauguin could not paint faces very well; providing the nuance of tone that would allow for the nuance of emotional expression was just beyond him. Have a look at the lumpen, boiled down profiles in the late paintings, Two Women and The Escape. He even resorted to turning females around to avoid painting their faces, such as in Ondine / In the Waves and The Bathing Place.

And yet Gauguin continues to be popular. His myth embodies the industrial dream of escaping to a personal and geographical Eden. The inclusion of text (always a handy anchor for those uncomfortable with the strangeness of the image) provide a faux philosophy to underpin such a myth, easy reference points for the cliched mind. The question “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are we Going?” is not very original.

The exhibition does an intelligent job of deconstructing all this. Not only did Gauguin cultivate his own myth (Gauguin calls himself seduced by Tahiti’s “virgin land and its primitive and simple race .. the Eve of my choice is almost an animal”), but it blossomed after his death, Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and the Sixpence being only of many cultural productions that allowed the romantic notions of Gauguin to spin out of control.

Equally, Gauguin suits the age of reproduction. His paintings and his colours often appear in print, on television. The actual paintings are so flat, with the paint to thinly applied on the canvas (Braque is another painting in this mode), that one actually loses little when the painting are printed in miniature – the bright colours fluoresce and attract the roving eye. Compare this to Van Gogh whose shares a richness of palette but whose fecund, passionate impasto becomes lifeless when printed in a book.

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Te Faaturuma, 1891, Worcester Art Museum

Is there anything to save him? Occasionally, Gauguin achieves success when he reduces the complexity of his paintings – fewer figures, fewer colours, a more confined space. Te Faaturuma sticks out. By ditching the coloured foilage that pollutes most of his paintings, replacing it with solid planes of colour, Gauguin attains a must greater psychological impact – this is one of the exhibition’s paintings where the characters inner selves have much greater resonance – it’s interesting to note that Gauguin’s paintings set inside are almost always more powerful than those set out of doors. There is a closer link with abstraction, and the destination of Gauguin’s oeuvre becomes clearer. More broadly, the colours themselves are superficially attractive, and his experiments in colour are a part of the link between the Impressions and the Cubists. I can see an argument that says every gallery in the world should have a Gauguin. But I think one is enough.

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Exposed – Tate Modern – Summer 2010

I suppose it is inevitable in a show with multiple artists, but Tate Modern’s Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera had plenty of artworks it seemed to easy just to idle past, without them making much of an impression. But, equally, there were enough photographs of stunning quality, chiming with the theme of the exhibition, to ensure this was a memorable visit.

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Philip-Lorca diCorcia, From the Heads Series, 2001

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s chiaroscuro Heads were arresting images, not least because of their manner of capture. While artists through time have worked in the studio trying to create images that resemble real life, diCorcia has done the opposite, using hidden cameras and lighting to take secretive photographs on streets and pavements, then polishing the final versions until they look like studio portraits. But the images’ real strength is in the ambiguous emotional territory they open up, rendering the American adolescent as strong, yet confused and possibly dangerous.

It is also worth noting the influence of Hopper on DiCorcia, and indeed on a significant number of photographers, often American, in the exhibition. The long raking, wintry sunlight, picking out isolated individuals, lost in their own confused world, features in the work of more than one artist. One of the images in the exhibition created by the Swiss artist Jules Spinatsch, of Yassar Arafat’s chaffeur waiting in a car, is a tremendous example.

The exhibition ringfenced the photographs along related conceptual lines. For me the rooms on ‘Violence’ and ‘Survelliance’ were the most effective.

The section on violence was particularly good, where the moral position of the photographer, as someone witnessing the event but refusing to engage in altering it is magnified. You sense it was this effect that the curators were wanting to flow through the exhibition as a whole.

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Letizia Battaglia, Dead Man Lying on a Garage Ramp

Letizia Battaglia’s Dead Man Lying on a Garage Ramp was particularly striking. Despite the bloody drama of the scene, there is a formal rigour to the design, the slope, tall walls and the position of the body having a precise geometry. All this serves to give the eye a clear sense of direction.

But it is the photograph’s narrative intrigue that raises more questions (although given that the photograph was taken in Sicilian Mafia heartlands, perhaps these are rhetorical questions). Who has been killed? Who are the murderers? Why is there fresh blood under the man’s head, and yet a stream of dried blood from much further up the incline? What is restricting the figures at the top from walking down the slope? How did the photographer gain access when others appear unable to? Who is the almost invisible figure on the right, shiny shoes upsetting the symmetry of the images?

The quality of the body itself has a grim fascination. The bullet mark appears to be a single shot in the back, yet the blood seems to flow and congeal from the head (and why does it not run down the slope like the other trace of blood?) The recently dead victim is already reduced to solely a corpse, as if the murderers had succeeded in erasing not just the man’s life, but his identity. One might also say that the photographer colludes in this, avoiding recording his face or any distinctive features. His body displays the none of the subjective emotion of death; the legs are lifeless, and arms tucked underneath the body. His posture, which becomes more unrealistic the more you look at it, seems like a dark reflection of an earlier Italian work of art.

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Andrea Mantegna, Dead Christ, c.1490, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The surveillance section continued the juxtaposition of aesthetic appeal with testing subject matter – an approach that, when successful, fuels much good photography. So we see Jonathan Olley’s documents of the grim monolithic fortresses developed by the police and military in Northern Ireland, and Sophie Ristelheuber’s record of the dark but sometimes beautiful scars left on the Kuwaiti landscape after the first gulf war. The pockmarked soil and bright flares of burning oil stand as a realist’s riposte to the ubiquitous environmental pictures by the French photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

Golf Five Zero, copyright of Jonathan Olley
Jonathan Olley, Golf Five Zero watchtower, 1999

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Sophie Ristelheuber, one image from FAIT, 1992

One of the last images in the surveillance section is particularly effective. Shai Kramer’s wide panorama begins as an Arab town in barren scrubland. A colourless, concrete town of compact, featureless apartments blocks, punctuated only by green neon lights on the (somewhat phallic?) mosques.

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Shai Kramer, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Panorama, Tze’elim 2007

But closer inspections reveals something different. The buildings are just concrete shells, with no window panes, no decoration, no furniture, indeed no trace of people actually living there. There are no shops, houses, offices, hotels, restaurants. There are no cars parked against walls, no dogs curled up in doorways, no stalls of fruit, trees, no flowers, very few signs, and only the occasional Arab word pasted on a wall.

The only figures seen are troops, sometimes as units milling around, sometimes as individuals.

Obviously, the city is meant as a training ground for military. The title, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Panorama, Tze’elim 2007, tells of its Israeli heritage. Visual context provides some more information – an ugly corrugated fence surrounds the town, in the distance, an airbase.

Given this background, it is easy to see why the city has been built like this, with an emphasis on how a soldier might negotiate stairways, doorways, broken walls (are the holes in the walls six-sided stars?) , dark alleyways, sudden open spaces. Why should a military training ground include details like shops, colour, decoration, citizens? But it’s hard not to see this realist photograph as a larger allegory of how Israel sees Palestine (or perhaps how any military considers its rival) – simply a territory with a faceless population, who do not engage in the everyday activities of sleeping, eating and living and where the only defining architectural feature is the mosque. Within Tze’elim, the whole of Arab culture is signified by the mosque, as if religion were the single point of indentity and difference, to the exclusion of any thing else.

And was it my imagination or had the tiny figures of the troops, massing in nonsensical groups, been airbrushed? Reduced to figures in dark, heavy military gear? Were there identities being protected? Or were indeed they being homogenised just as the ‘Arab town’ around them had been reduced to a cipher of an enemy’s territory? As with all the interesting works of art in Exposed, Shai Kramer’s image raised more questions than it asked.

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Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons – Tate Modern – Winter 2008

Cycles and Seasons

Any proselyter for modernism will face their biggest challenge with Cy Twombly. The rough scribbles, messy blobs of impasto, uncontrolled drips of paint, simplistic representations of the world and smudged fingerprints are all strongly redolent of the nursery; Twombly seems to embody that disdainful phrase of the anti-aesthete: “My child of four could do that”.

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Ferragosto V, 1961, Private Collection

And, indeed, I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Twombly’s most iconic paintings were something of a rip-off. Even where there are astonishing bursts of colour as in the blood-red Ferragosto, it all seems too random and uncontrolled to really merit serious praise. There is so little apparent meaning in them and so little painterly depth … great stretches of the paintings are merely just primed or lightly washed canvas, and then there are areas of random splurges and curved scribbles. Meaning drifts in and out, but it again seems too superficial – rather than being visual retellings, the references to Greek or Roman myth seem like lazy gestures to add pathos, a kind of intellectual name-dropping.

A contrast with Jackson Pollock is useful. Whereas Pollock’s greatest paintings are full of tactile warmth, glistening like a phosphorescent cave and seem to possess their own pulsing, inner life, Twombly’s paintings just don’t reach that same transcendence – the artist’s hand is too transparent, the lack of coherence too jarring. The build up of paint, the construction of layers that gives any painting its richness does exist in Twombly but in a superficial way, with everything reduced to raw, jagged gestures.

Given all that there is something that still draws me to Twombly’s work. The sheer freedom with which he paints and expresses himself is a classic statement of artistic (and emotional) liberation. But I’m not sure that’s quite enough to create great art – it too easily ends up as the indulgent outpourings of the patient on the couch.

Indeed, there a plenty of connections between the exhibition and the art of psychoanalysis. The presence of forced deletions corresponds with the patient’s conflicting desire to both repress and recall a traumatic incident; the return to primordial sexual matters, and of course, the rough, ghostly outlines of genitalia in Twombly’s work represent the As in the work of De Kooning, primordial symbols float around like Jungian archetypes. Painting as a grand spiritual express of some cosmic essentialism.

And yet, as the exhibition progressed, a different Twombly began to emerge, one that was perhaps more comic, more ironic, more referential; an artist more suited for postmodernity, even if trapped amongst the frame of the modernist canvas.

Take for example, the suite of four paintings entitled Nini’s Paintings. At first glance, they seem modernist monoliths – fully abstract paintings, working to their own sealed logic. But in actual fact, not only do the canvases seem to take a naturalistic life of their own, depicting a flotilla of shimmering waves, there are echoes and references to earlier styles and artworks. Maybe, Twombly is not such a hardcore modernist after all.

Monet seems to be a particular reference point. Firstly, they recall series of paintings such as the Haystacks or Rouen Cathedral where the same subject is painted under changing light over time.

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Nini’s Painting, 1971, Kunstmuseum Basel

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Claude Monet, Water Lillies, 1916, Tate Modern

But they also reference Monet’s late paintings, those splurges of colour that form the lilies drifting on the ponds at Giverny. Not only is there the same engagement with paint, hovering close to the no-man’s land where abstraction and representation blur, but there is the same insistence on thrusting the viewer into the middle of the space. At the bottom of the canvas there is no platform, dias or fence to block the viewer’s line of sight and so she becomes embedded in the painting, immersed in the encircling waters.

But there is also something faintly comic as to how the serpentine forms, traced in childish pencil, can build up to some misty melancholic state. Look closely at the badly drawn sine curves and the painting seems a like a childish stab at repetition; stand further back and the waves coalesce with the sombre background colours to give off a rather haunting glow. The low-brow and the high-brow blend together.

In other places, the references are more reverential. The triple set of paintings that Twombly based on the story of Hero and Leandro have strong echoes of late Turner; again, that deep painterly immersion in fluid brushstrokes, providing a strong sense of aquatic movement.

The series of water paintings (Untitled (A Painting in Nine Parts) throw up other visual echoes, most noticeably in the elaborate shapes of frames that mimic those used by extravagant rococo painters. The reference starts off as comic; the level of abstraction in Twombly’s work and the chromatic reduction to just two colours – his favoured white and a mossy green – seem to mock his the many-hued palates of his antecedents. But the intensity with which he homes in on the details of, say, a fast stream by a bank (again, close-up and immersed like Nina’s paintings), reveal a passion for his subject matter, for the simple fact of moving water.

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Quattro Stagioni (A Painting in Four Parts), 1993-5, Tate Modern

This is not to say that Twombly was some crypto old-style Romantic. The towering Quattro Stagioni follow on from the mossy green water paintings, emphasise his modernist credentials and remind us of the overarching thrust of his oeuvre. Some critics love them. I remain to be convinced that the deliberate of use, conjuring up a world of angrily beautiful but failed articulation is the great moment of American modernism.

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Louise Bourgeois, Tate Modern

The logic of the Tate Modern’s recent exhibition divides Louise Bourgeois’ significant works into two convenient categories – objects and cells. Both categories of artwork are laden with allusions and enigmas; chock-a-block with references to distant half-remembered sensations and memories. They spark off a parade of associations, providing enough frisson to keep an battalion of psychoanalysts occupied. Bourgeois is one of those artists that gets scholars salivating – clambering to theorise her art will require a surfeit of monographs, articles and conferences.


Louise Bourgeois, Cumul1

After a detour through her earlier work, the sixth and seventh rooms at the Tate exhibition revealed her objects – glistening blocks of latex, rough-hewn slabs of wood and sensual, polished lumps of marble, all looking like inexplicable alien objects with the seductive power of succubae. The marble Cumul1 is perhaps the most evocative. What starts off as a polished moonscape then proceeds to conjure up some of the suggestive parts of the body. Sleepy eyelids awakening? An army of breasts? Erect phalli being unveiled? And are these body parts hostile in mood or something more playful? The extreme polishing, the perfected roundness suggest a fetishist’s love for playing with the object; but there is something aggressive about such works, like anatomical parts breaking off from the human body and forming their own independent union.


Louise Bourgeois, SleepII

Each of these hard objects are threaded with confusing ambiguities, tracing a line between the feminine and the masculine, the figurative and the representational, the pleasurable and the painful – issues any old school therapist will come back to time and time again. It is these psychoanalytic issues that trouble Bourgeois’ human subject and her sculptures represent this magnificently. Bourgeois’ work touch upon areas of the psychological spectrum that few sculptors had thought to explore before; earlier sculptural forms with organic tendencies, say work by a Hepworth or a Moore, are reduced to decorational ornaments when placed next to the canny intelligence of Bourgeois’ work. The pleasing but unchallenging forms of early modernist sculptors (and you could include Arp, Brancusi or many others) create a distance between art object and appreciative spectator; there is none of this cold-eyed connoisseural distance in Bourgeois. Here is what the human enjoys but also what the human fears.

For the spectator, Bourgeois’ objects are the perfect playthings for nudging strange long-vanished sensations back into focus. These are objects you want to touch and caress, bringing you back to some old object of desire or some blissful state of mind that exists as nothing more than a tiny bubble of memory. But, of course, it’s a little difficult to test out such fantasies. Adults visiting galleries are well aware that giving into such desire might seem rather odd and will invoke a telling off from the security guards spying for the merest hint of tactile transgression. Never has art so well delineated the line between childish desires and adult repressions.

Whereas the objects are little psychological renderings portraits in stone, the cells are recreations of the chiaroscuro stage sets of her (and maybe our) dreams.

Bourgeois draws heavily on her own history here, her overbearing father and his work in textiles, the English nanny taken as mistress, the assortment of family traumas, but her special skill is neither to demand the viewer responds to the particular narrative of her childhood nor expose the viewer to a set of objects so ambiguous that they could mean anything. The rich set of interpretative possibilities give a living vibrancy to Bourgeois’ work which others dealing with dreams, notably the surrealists, fail to attain.


Louise Bourgeois, Red Room (Parents)

Taken together, the suite of cells in rooms eight and nine of the exhibition demonstrate a tangled pattern of motifs and techniques that evoke a range of emotions relating to the dream state. Often the initial emotion is a negative one, of terror just passed, or terror awaiting. The sense of uneasy expectation as one witnesses the dormant giant spider hovering above its prey in Spider; the claustrophobia of the metal cage trapping the people and objects of Dangerous Passage; the obvious symbolism of blood red, seeping into objects and clothes in more than one of the cells. Elsewhere, there is sense of comfort lost and destroyed – the shards of shattered mirrors, the luxurious chairs fallen into disuse, spilling teardrops of gray stuffing or the patterned rugs worn threadbare. And while the profusion of glass bottles in the cells may suggest the presence of the softer, less roughened feminine form their thin fragility and, even more tellingly, their similarity in form to the ventouse cups (once used to invoke blisters in infected hospital patients, but also used in childbirth) invoke something much less comforting.


Louise Bourgeois, Ventouse

Above all, Bourgeois seems to be conjuring up the child like sense of frightened wonder caused by the stolen observation of a bedroom episode that makes no immediate sense. Red Room (Parents), in which the viewer has to enter a bedroom through a wooden spiral and only gets a restricted view of the bed via a mirror, in particular seems to be trying to conjure up memories of that Oedipal (or Electra-ian?) moment when the young child pulls open the bedroom door to be confronted by the confusing parental entanglement.

However, one should not let the Freudian weight of Bourgeois’ work obscure the artfulness of her oeuvre. She may be a thoroughly modern artist but she shares a love of materials that even the most churlish traditionalist could not deny her. Some good curatorial imagination meant that room seven demonstrated this beautifully; no two of the visible artworks exploited the same materials. There was the contrast of polished bronze sheen of Arch of Hysteria, located next to the solid granite of Ventouse; or alternatively the refined marble of Sleep II sitting on two rough wooden railway sleepers of outsized proportions. Equally, the creation of her cells has a baroque flourish of theatricality. Striking lighting, staged openings, an abundance of richly textured props. Just as the objects have a tactile beauty, so the visual beauty is cells revealed to the visitor with an array of dramatic gestures.

For all the Oedipal fear lurking in her cells, there is defiant pleasure-seeking in her manipulation of objects and materials. Her artworks may focus on mental terrors or psychological ambiguities but such passions are accompanied by an artistic delight in their form of expression. It is almost as if the aesthetic power of the Bourgeois oeuvre is the method for resolving, or at least attempting to resolve, the troublesome ideas which bubble furiously underneath – the pleasure of style overcoming the trauma of content.

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Albers and Moholy-Nagy, From the Bauhaus to the New World, Tate Modern

Exhibition held in Spring 2006

Inspired by the Bauhaus and by the relentless development of the early twentieth century, Joseph Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy were extraordinary visual innovators, continually rearranging abstract forms through a bewildering range of media. The wide variety of material on which these artists depicted their generous family of shapes – shapes such as circles, twists, blocks and orbs – document not only modernist invention, but stand as a virtual timeline of industrial innovation; as each material was developed – aluminium, perspex, sandblasted glass – so Albers and Moholy-Nagy jumped on it and turned it towards their own visual needs.

Josef Albers, Structural Constellation, Transformation of a Scheme No.12, 1950, Tate Modern.

But innovation is not quite a guarantee of artistic quality. Many of the modernist branches they followed may have initially appeared interesting but soon appeared to be dead ends. To an extent, Albers’ experimentation counted against him – he tried so many different routes that it is hardly a surprise that some of them would turn out to be false paths. For example, the works done with sandblasted glass or the later Structural Constellations created from engraved Vinylite. Initially impressive, above all because of their smooth jet-like finish, they soon become lifeless objects, rearranged according to the same formula. The initial idea is appealing but there is little to sustain the variations – you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. As visual designs they are interesting (like many of Albers’ works they would make for affecting album covers) but as artworks their sustained repetition brings little beyond the original conception.

In actual fact, it was Albers’ stated desire to move art and design closer together, so maybe we should be praising him for executing this strategy within his works. One can see the enormous influence that Albers, vigorously inventive in its geometric concepts, has had on later design styles. For example the illusory set of rectangles in To Monte Alban which anticipates the op-art inspired designs of the sixties and seventies; or the nervous but excited lines on the blue background of in open air which seem closer to reflecting the hedonism of the sixties than its actual year of creation of 1936.
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Fischli and Weiss, Flowers and Questions, Tate Modern

A tyre progresses along a dirty floor. It knocks another tyre, sitting on a ladder tilted slightly upwards. Amazingly enough, the bulky rubber tyre rolls up the ladder (courtesy of some cunningly positioned weights taped to the inside of the tyre) and bumps into another tyre, which does the same. This tyre hops over a couple more rungs and then knocks over a plastic bottle of water sitting at the top of the ladder. The water spills over and into a bucket sitting underneath. After a brief delay, a miasma of steam, in the form of dry ice, erupts from the bucket and begins, in billowing clouds, to traipse along the floor. One fluffy cloud of dry ice finally arrives at a bar of soap, which rests under a chair leg. The soap is gradually eaten away and the chair falls over, setting in motion a tray of ballbearings … and so the contraption continues, incorporating more marvellous forms of rockets, inflating balloons, miniature fireworks, see-saws and whatever else you may wish to include.

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986, T and C Film, Zurich

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986/7, T and C Film, Zurich

Part schoolboy physics, part spectacular marvel, this motion machine is documented in Fischli and Weiss’s The Way Things Go, a grainy video shot over roughly 30 minutes in an otherwise abandoned warehouse, and, for the sheer childish interest it generates, is the star of the show at the Tate’s eponymous exhibition.

Next to The Way Things Go runs a complementary video (Making Things Go), showing the artist’s experiments, failures and tests while building the machine. Though not nearly as interesting as the machine projected on the left hand side of the wall, the inclusion of this secondary video reveals one of Fischli and Weiss’s ‘concerns’ as artists (and one of their strengths). Rather than glorifying the artists it shows them simply trying to solve the technical problems they have set themselves. At a more conceptual level, the secondary video, rather than showing the production of art as something, secret, fantastical and touched by invisible genius, shows art being made, and the ‘everydayness’ of this task so often shrouded in the mystical glow of creation. One sees Fischli and Weiss (plus colleagues) approaching all these difficulties of engineering the motion machine in exactly the same way anybody else would. The artists have no special gift to bring to the occasion but their own hard work. Failure, confusion, the comedy of errors (e.g. the errant rocket, the recalcitrant rubber tyre) are just as much a part of Fischli and Weiss’s creative output as the motion machine. And juxtaposed with the video of the motion machine, the title ‘The Way Things Are’ seems very apposite – talking not just about the final product, but the creative process too.

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986, T and C Film, Zurich

Fischli and Weiss, Still shot from The Way Things Go, 1986/7, T and C Film, Zurich,

The other work I found particular engaging is one already owned by the Tate, and remarkably, a work of tenor almost directly opposite to that of the motion machine. Contemplative, silent, opaque in meaning, Visible World is a set of three high-definition television screens, slowly looping through an astonishing number of travel photographs, full of bright forceful colours. Without any kind of sound or commentary, there is a Zen-like feel to this piece, aided by an extremely slick method of moving between the photos. At a slow, almost imperceptible pace, one photograph morphs into another, a process that lasts for around fifteen seconds; for the majority of this period it is difficult to tell which photo is which. I found it tremendously hypnotic (although others are free to point out the similarities between hypnotism and somnolence).

While one should not forget this slickness of presentation (Fischli and Weiss are never quite as honest as they seem), one also needs to note that Visible World has a truthfulness about it that recalls The Ways Things Go. Fischli and Weiss do not have a story to bring to the table – they are simply showing photographs they have taken round the world (i.e. the way things are)

Often a distinct set of photos (say ten or fifteen in a row) would be of the same place, but would reveal not a logical progression that one would expect to see in a professional documentary. Rather, they are redolent of the work of an amateur snapper, who attempts to record the majestic quality of a place by the sheer quantity of photos, e.g. the mountaintop vista from eight points that are only fractionally different. Neither is the type of content too unfamiliar; nothing different from the photos you or I might take. Broad landscapes of impressive rural views, panoramic cityscapes, bright colours, atmospheric alpine shots, but nothing abstract, eccentric or (initially) ambiguous.

More generally, there was little in the way of a relationship between the photos in any one screen, or the three screens as a whole. While not random, there was little concern about framing some kind of narrative or message; the photos just were. Any time I tried to make an interpretation about the photos another set would arrive and would puncture the idea I was formulating. The absence of central characters also contributes to this lack of narrative. Any persons appearing tended to do so as incidental characters. Fischli and Weiss’s work is rather remarkable in insistence of avoiding both abstraction and figurative narrative.

Other parts of the exhibition I found less engaging. Sketches, preparatory works, props from performances are more documents than works of art. But in their approach towards revealing the artist and the world in the two works I have mentioned above, Fischli and Weiss provide a refreshing tonic to the cod-confessionalism or faux high-level art games played by some other contemporary artists.

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Filed under Contemporary Art, Fischli and Weiss, Tate Modern