Turner Prize winner mixes art and science in the East End’s Parasol unit while Thomas Heatherwick shows Extrusions
Among the many regrettable consequences of the art world’s huge recent fiscal success has been the setting-in of a leisurely approach to work issues. Put crudely: what a lazy bunch. Here we are, three-quarters of the way through September, and the feeling persists that most of the art world is still sipping Chianti in that little trattoria in Siena. Where have all the shows gone? Instead of beavering away in August to ensure the nation’s aesthetics hit the ground running once the holiday season is spent, this spoilt offspring of Luxuria is spending early September in bed, like a teenager on a Saturday morning.
So, while the soft and pampered big boys of the art world – the Tates, the Serpentines, the Haywards – yawn into action at a state-sponsored siesta pace, it is left to the determined and the independent to give us something to look at. Congratulations are definitely due to that outstandingly beautiful gallery on the outskirts of the East End, the Parasol unit. Not content with presenting its offerings in one of the most elegant spaces in London, this mildly mysterious institution seeks also to follow an unfathomable programme in its exhibition plans. Nothing for sale. Nothing on a plate. Some mixed shows. Some one-man tributes. Its agenda is weirdly elusive.
Their first effort of the autumn is a solo display by the winner of the 2002 Turner Prize, Keith Tyson. Tyson is not one of the obviously important Turner winners. He’s no Kapoor, no Gormley, no Hirst. Then again, neither is he one of the prize’s recurrent casualties, whose reward for succeeding at the Oscars is never being heard of again. Instead, he belongs to a category in the middle, for artists of substance who have failed to take the final step into true significance. And probably never will. But just might.
Tyson’s shtick is to confront us with what appear to be complicated marriages of art and science. A typical picture will look, at first sight, to have solved some difficult cosmic equation with the aid of graphs, tables, formulae, square roots and theorems. These impressive-looking signs and cosines are usually added to prosaic illustrations of the sort you might find in a child’s encyclopedia. For instance, the new show includes a painted diagram of an enlarged pigeon, Columba livia domestica, beneath which a handwritten calculation has attempted to work out “the random integers within the limits (0<n>5) (1<r>9)”.
For a science dud such as me, these daunting signage systems have an innate authority to them. How Einsteinian they look. How clever. Initially, then, you assume you are in the presence of a genuine investigator of true quantum quandaries. Soon enough, though, you begin to suspect that you are not.
A couple of pictures along from the diagrammatic probing of the universal significance of the Trafalgar Square pigeon, a sheep has been added to the departures board of a busy international airport, then divided by handmade squiggles and loops, giving us the global Pythagorasic total of ((X2 +Y3+sin4z=2) (-A SEASHELL)). Which doesn’t add up, does it?
In fact, it’s total nonsense. Then there’s a nude pin-up sitting on a bucket, whose sleek counter-mechanics are being clunkily equated to a chair. What you took to be a display of maths and quantum physics is actually a pictorial job lot of scientific balderdash.
Even from the few examples I have cited so far, it must be clear to you that Tyson’s work is characterised by an alarming randomness. One painting deals brusquely with snatches of porn. Another maps the international power dynamics of the water industry. And the show’s most rousing images actually manage to resemble those huge rock formations painted by de Loutherbourg in the 1790s, in his tumultuous, room-sized visions of Armageddon. They turn out to be random bits of XXL abstraction, achieved accidentally with chemical reactions on aluminium.
It’s all very confusing. I have no way of knowing whether Tyson subscribes to the popular suppositions of the Gaia hypothesis, about everything being interconnected on a cosmic level and the whole earth being a single organism, but something like the random rhythms of Gaia have allowed him to present all these busy fragments of disparate information as if they were, in fact, dependent on each other.
I suspect Tyson understands just enough of the actual language of science to bluff his way through any art exhibition. What he’s really after here is that shamanistic aura of omniscience that you get in a Leonardo drawing, or the pseudo-scientific ramblings of Joseph Beuys. The difference being that with Leonardo, and even Beuys, you feel you are in the presence of an intellect that has studied and proved and explored. With Tyson, you are in the hands of someone who has googled and surfed and pasted. Something about the trashiness of modern information supply is being inadvertently conveyed here.
The show contains sculptures as well as paintings, and these, too, are crazily varied. Fractal Dice features huddles of primary-coloured rect angles spread messily across the floor in 10ft clusters. The accompanying diagram explains that the idea here is to capture the movement across the floor of a randomly thrown dice. Theoretically, that sounds quite exciting, but the actual sculpture is a tedious thing. It’s Tyson’s recurrent problem: his ideas soar, but his artworks do not.
Over at the former Museum of Mankind, transformed temporarily but gloriously into the Haunch of Venison gallery, another multivalent artist, Thomas Heatherwick, has found a way to make state-of-the-art engineering appear blobby and primitive. Heatherwick is either an artist who designs or a designer who makes art. He cannot decide, so why should we?
His new show, Extrusions, consists of half a dozen twists of polished aluminium presented on large plinths painted an earthy brown. To understand “extrusion”, think, perhaps, of a toothpaste tube. Now substitute several tons of raw aluminium for the toothpaste. The stuff on show here has been squeezed out by force from the world’s largest extrusion machine in China.
Seeing huge amounts of polished aluminium behaving like the dregs in a Colgate tube is unexpected, for sure. I quite like the results. But the real drama was surely in that Chinese factory. Watching these huge aluminium ghosts plopping out of a machine must have been quite a sight.