At last its finally over. The latest blockbuster exhibition (containing the grand total of six paintings) at the National Gallery, Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, has ended. It is with us no more, deceased, kaput, and I, for one, am glad. I am sure that my feelings over this event are not shared by the curators, the critics and many of those who went to see it (are they really ‘art lovers’ or ‘scene’ lovers?), people with a vested interest in these things, but I don’t care (or, I care negatively) because I felt the disruption to the National Gallery as a whole was too much. I spent a week in London in early January, went to the NG on a Wednesday and was lucky to get my small bag into the cloakroom, what with there being a large queue of dusty and shifty people snaking from outside the Sainsbury’s wing entrance to the ticket desk. OK, this is fine, I thought, I’ll soon be upstairs enjoying the delights of the Renaissance rooms. Except that not all of the rooms were open and not for the reason of maintaining the collection but because there weren’t enough room monitors available to secure every room. The staff who monitor the rooms have been in dispute with the gallery management because their numbers are to be cut leaving each monitor to keep watch over two rooms at a time. They naturally point out the problems this would cause, endangering the collection: they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, after all. Not being able to see the Florence and Netherlandish rooms was upsetting for me so I asked a monitor in another room about this. I was told that the Leonardo exhibition had taken resources away from the main collection. Thankfully I was staying until the Saturday and was able to go back to the NG late on the Friday when the gallery stays open later and has enough staff on hand so all the rooms were open. I could feast my eyes on Piero Della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ and Hans Memling’s The Donne Triptych. When an exhibition, by a master, I’ll admit – but who I don’t appreciate, I’m a Michelangelo fan – containing a pitiful amount of paintings, disrupts the overall running of the whole gallery, then something is not right.
The last blockbuster exhibition I went to at the National Gallery was the Velázquez event back in 2007/8, it was great, it was a show with many, many paintings and well worth it. But the space that they were shown in is just not right. The NG show these exhibitions in their basement galleries, they are small, dark and increasingly cramped rooms, and when with a crowd the viewing of paintings becomes ridiculous (for what its worth, what I did in that situation was to move to the later rooms in the exhibition and work backwards, that way I saw much of the art without having to shove aside some old person!). The National Gallery is not up to showing blockbuster exhibitions, that’s obvious, but are any places suitable or are such events just bad for art?
Tate Modern is based in an old industrial power generating building, it has large, bright rooms within which to showcase the modernist art of the early 20th Century, a great place for blockbuster exhibitions, surely? As it happens, no. Its perfectly suited to showing its themed gallery artworks based around Flux, Energy, and Poetry and Dreams, but any blockbuster exhibition, like the Gauguin one they did in early 2011, is mobbed out with the hoards making the viewing almost impossible. It was the same with this winter’s Gerhard Richter exhibition, though to a lesser extent; just too many people (like me, yes) crowding the place. We all know about the difficulties people had at the Gauguin exhibition, so with that in mind I proclaim that blockbuster exhibitions are not for art lovers but for the ‘cool people’, those out to show themselves as though they were the exhibition. Art is cool now and Damien Hirst is to blame, its because of him that everyone is interested in the old masters, because of him (and her, though I like her, she is, at least, authentic) that people want to be seen to be seeing traditional oil paintings. Again. End these blockbuster exhibitions, they’re bad for art.
I was going to write about two contemporary exhibitions I had been to recently, The Social Lives of Objects and POI: Moving, Mapping, Memory from Castlefield Gallery and Cornerhouse respectively, I had made some notes and was ready to start writing, but I couldn’t do any: why? I was completely uninspired and underwhelmed by the two shows I had seen. This conclusion was initially hidden from me because I was caught up in the two exhibition’s theorising, walking around the shows with a mind full of the intentions of the artists, and worse, the expectations of the curators. My aesthetic values are clearly different from the artists on show because I found no beauty in these exhibitions, I found the experiences akin more to an educational seminar than an aesthetic experience, one shouldn’t have to think too much in order to appreciate, never mind enjoy, a piece of art. It seems that today’s art privileges theory over artistic craftsmanship.Yes, I am criticising the ‘artistic skills’ of these artists: one of the exhibitions resembled a car boot sale with random objects dotted about the place as though your grandparent’s house had been ransacked, indeed one of the exhibits consisted of an old Penguin book with the last page reconstructed from itself – trash. The other show was too earnest, trying to make the usual liberal political points, and for the second exhibition in a row the top floor gallery was given over (partially) to a animal den. Much of contemporary art is conceptual art now, the boundaries between the two are no more, and I’m sure its because of our modern sensibilities. As times pass humanity gets heavier with explanation, it occupies us more and our culture will reflect this fact.
And yet, for me, I find that the more I explain, look into, theorise, try to understand visual art, the further I find I am from the aesthetic experience. This, of course, was the first lesson I learnt in the Philosophical Aesthetics class I took when at university. There is always this tension between the theory and the art that comes from it, but a gallery should never make you feel like you are in a classroom.
Sometimes I come away from ‘contemporary exhibitions’ asking myself ‘was that art?’, ‘what is art, anyway?’, and so on, often to escape the empty response generated by the exhibition just viewed, but here these questions, and a few more, are central to this exhibition by Manuel Saiz. It makes for a strange experience, of repetitive suggestions brought on by various short film installations, a plaque and a flow chart. Questions, suggestions, this is an exhibition of first principals, it asks a question of art itself.
What is art? The piece What is Art Flowchart is literal being what it says it is, and by asking the question it demands a response. What is art? that’s easy to know, isn’t it? Naturally, though, there are many answers, almost as many as there are people who would answer the question. We are confronted with one question, three possible answers and many different consequences to your own definition of art depending on the choices you make. So what is art? Objects? People? or maybe circumstances? Already I’m not happy: why am I restricted? couldn’t ‘art’ be whatever ‘the artist’ says it is? Find me someone self-declared as an artist, let them point to art, then all we have to do is ask ourselves: is this art any good? But that’s not a question of first principals, it asks a value judgement. It is much more difficult to be forced to decide not only what art is but who the artist is too.
Who is the artist? A self-declared one, as Joseph Beuys may or may not have said. Anyone can be an artist, and I have no problem with such a proposition, but there are some institutions that do care who the artist is, who do want to demarcate the lines between those inside art and those outside it, self-perpetuating institutions who suffocate………..our fundamental needs? Maybe we can accept that everyone has a potential to be an artist, that its part of the human condition, a fundamental need, but who opens the door and lets the artist in? In a way the title of this exhibition prompts that last question, pointing to those self-perpetuating institutions that define ‘art’ for us, telling us to ‘come in’ or to ‘go away’. As the exhibition brochure says in relation to the piece Pride: “The phrase on the plaque (Manuel Saiz proudly supports Galeria Moriarty) refers to an economic relationship and social structure encouraging us to reflect upon the context in which contemporary art is produced and consumed.”
There are aesthetic moments too. The video installations Social Sculptures (everybody is an artist) and The Two Teams Team are contrived enough for the viewer to see that an artist’s hand has been at work. Indeed with Social Sculptures we get from the three actors involved something akin to performance art, and that because of the repetitive nature of the video we enter into surreal moments that are quite funny: absurd moments brought on by the nonsensical repetitions of various statements: ‘everybody is an artist’; ‘anyone can be an artist’; ‘no one is an artist’; and so on, accompanied by happy/sad, fearful/angry, emotions. Repeating anything over and over, either visual or literal, muddies the comprehensible waters, but it also brings in the thought that memory is essential for knowledge, to know what you are doing means that you remember. Related is the ancient Greek word mimesis, which means ‘to represent’, one copies, and one remembers in order to copy: if anyone can be an artist then they must remember to be one.
Surely the ‘aesthetic moments’ are aroused by their contrived and conceited nature? All ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ art must be artificial, it must be seen as obviously planned that is how one enjoys the ‘craft’ of the artist. Trickery is involved, no doubt, a certain trompe l’oeil, which becomes evident in the piece The Two Teams Team, a short film where two actors take a break on set and discuss the merits of video art and the movies. Are these unguarded moments we are witnessing? The film begins and ends with the director saying ‘cut’ and the scene opening to reveal a working set. We are left questioning ‘truth and reality’, but any astute observer will understand the artificial hand of the artist, Manuel Saiz, subtly directing the film revealing the onion-like layers of meaning and interpretation, all very considered. And that’s it: this ‘made-up’ element is essential to defining what art is.
I come away from this exhibition in a conceptual loop, brought on from the video installations (videos shown in a loop for the casual visitor) and the questions revolving around my head. But I have come away with some ‘certainties’ reinforced: that art is a fundamental need, that art has to be made and that an artist must declare themselves. I believe Manuel Saiz is an artist and that he shows art, so, is it any good? Its OK, and that’s my private view, you may disagree.