No touching at the Serpentine’s sculpture show. In fact, no audience participation of any kind. What a relief, says Waldemar Januszczak
Yanked heartlessly into the Serpentine Gallery before me last week was a trio of noisy five-year-olds whose mothers had obviously not journeyed here in search of complex spatial investigation. So, what had they come for? As the noisy gang prepared to touch every exhibit, a frightened gallery attendant appeared out of the mists and asked them not to touch the exhibits. And for the next five minutes or so, mothers and offspring wrestled their way around the Serpentine, trying not to break the Phyllida Barlows and the Nairy Baghramians.
It was like watching a tornado manoeuvre its way through a shop full of Meissen. Then they cascaded out, having broken only the record for completing the fastest circuit of a Phyllida Barlow display.
I stood there watching their noisy departure and thought, what did any of them get out of that? Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti children in galleries. I am entirely for it. My own babes must be among the most art-exposed youngsters in history. They were even allowed into the Chapman brothers’ display at the notorious Sensation exhibition. That is how dangerously art-full their childhoods have been. Yet, ever since Tate Modern proudly announced that it was celebrating its 10th anniversary and the attempts began to sum up Bankside’s impact on our gallery-going, I have found myself using children as my yardstick.
The fact is, Tate Modern’s impact on British art has been negligible. Zero. Not one aesthetic development on these shores in the past decade owes a wren’s feather to the antics of Tate Modern. Beyond the baselines of aesthetics, however, there is one important territory in which the Tate’s influence has, unfortunately, been huge. I am thinking of audience participation. When it comes to turning galleries into amusement parks and Dodgem rides, the Tate has, indeed, led the way.
Having previously marched up and down outside the V&A demanding an end to admission charges and insisting on the citizen’s right to free access to our museums, I have watched the impact of free entry on Tate Modern with growing amazement. The Guardian recently ran a photo competition for pictures of people enjoying themselves in the Tate’s Turbine Hall. The results were hilarious.
One chap and his son, employing a clever switch of angles, pretended they were dangling from a deadly canyon wall that was actually Doris Salcedo’s famous crack in the Tate floor. And under Olafur Eliasson’s eternally setting sun, there were people soaking up the vibes, man, in foldaway sunset chairs. When it comes to audience participation, Tate Modern has been a spectacular success.
Back at the Serpentine, however, as I watched the gang of noisy kids and mums exiting the Phyllida Barlow show, it was just as obvious that great audience participation comes at a great cost. These days, people go to galleries not searching for civilisational milestones or profound aesthetic experience, but hoping, instead, for fun and explosions. Free art galleries have become free amusement parks and free crèches.
In terms of culture and meaning, Tate Modern’s influence has probably been a disaster. Not because there is anything wrong with having fun looking at art — there isn’t — but because the greatest art is only rarely fun to look at. The Sistine ceiling is not fun. Guernica is not fun. Rembrandt’s Blinding of Samson is not fun. When you begin judging art by its participatory efficacy and its ability to keep your kids happy, you are judging it by the standards of the circus.
That said, I did not last much longer in front of Barlow’s sculptures than the departing child gang did. And the possibility remains that the five-year-olds were actually exercising superior aesthetic judgment when they left in such a hurry. The fact is, Barlow is a bore. Her work is so deeply enmeshed in knots of aesthetic theory that it has lost sight of its own appearance. Joyless, graceless, inelegant, awkward, messy and pretentious — this is the kind of art you can make only when you are cemented so firmly into the art system that you can no longer see beyond it.
Barlow is 66, yet this is her first big show in a public gallery. She is here because the Serpentine has taken to re-examining venerable British artists whose work has been unfairly forgotten.
It is a fine initiative, a much-needed corrective to the student-worship that drives most modern-art spaces today. But the cruel truth of the matter in this case is that Barlow has managed to survive for 4½ decades as an unappreciated artist because her teaching positions and the guru status that I read she holds within the art world have successfully isolated her from public demands and commercial pressures.
If this particularly dreary art had ever needed to succeed in the marketplace, its production would have ceased decades ago. All of Barlow’s art is hopelessly indulgent, and some of it is simply silly. Let’s start with the titles. This show includes the following sculptures: Untitled: Wall Blob 1; Untitled: Balcony; Untitled: Columns; Untitled: Wall Blob 2. So, are they all untitled, or are they not? Can you simultaneously remain Untitled and be Wall Blob 2?
Barlow is not alone in this silly titular practice. Others started it before her. But only in the commonsensically challenged basements of the art world might it not be considered idiotic to be both untitled and titled. If I, for instance, began signing my articles “Anonymous: Waldemar Januszczak”, would it not be clear as daylight that I was a twit?
All the sculptures described by this daft nomenclature have a hurried, home-made clumsiness to them. Untitled: Hive looks like a giant Oblatentorte, or wafer cake, in the rough shape of a beehive, but instead of delicate layers of chocolate mousse and honey wafer, you get crude slaps of plywood, plaster, cardboard and polystyrene. Untitled: Fences appears to be a section of fence, roughly painted, leaning against a wedge, while Untitled: Wall Blob 2 shows, alas, what it simultaneously promises to show and denies that it is showing — a large lump of cement and plaster, shapeless and crudely coloured, slapped onto the wall as if a giant has flicked away his bogey.
There are artists who manage to conjure up restless poetry from these sorts of unpromising urban materials. Bruce Nauman springs to mind. Or the young Richard Deacon. With Barlow, though, her surface sloppiness defines the entire experience. She is like a bad cook who uses kitchen leftovers to create some kitchen leftovers. The results are unusually disheartening. Only in the case of a pale green ramp topped by two drums of hardboard — Untitled: Ramp/Drums — does a sudden splash of colour lift the sensation of encountering a Barlow within touching distance of the realm
Nairy Baghramian, who shares the show with Barlow and was born in Iran in 1971, is another matter. She also makes sculptures that are scattered about the gallery and seek to interact with the spaces in which they find themselves. But, whereas Barlow has the cluttered spatial awareness of a messy teenager who never cleans her bedroom, Baghramian is utterly, almost scarily precise. She works with sheets of polished aluminium, held in place by neat casts of precision rubber, and her delicate assemblages seem to cut into the Serpentine’s spaces with a surgeon’s accuracy.
Some of the works are positioned in doorways, where they both block and frame your access to the gallery beyond; others lean neatly against the wall. The biggest piece, Class Reunion, consists of a group of 18 minimalist figurettes clustered at the centre of the gallery like a leggy flock of flamingos. Some remind you of Zimmer frames, others of crutches. All are strange, slight, suggestive and thoroughly original in their presence.
Interestingly, the gallery blackshirts shush you away from Baghramian’s work if you stray too close. There is no real possibility here of audience participation. You cannot sit on the sculpture, slide down it or photograph yourself hanging from it. The creativity being examined here is the artist’s alone, not yours. And it is all the better for it.