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Dick Averns
London, UK
May 20, 2010

With a cloud of volcanic ash spreading across the British Isles, many travelers (including myself) have been wondering whether air travel will enable access to desired destinations or instead herald the cancelation of plans. For my part, I have imagined the spread of floating lava dust and ash as a giant airborne Earth Art installation, a creative act of monumental proportions that brings colour and form to cloud formations while simultaneously rendering agency. This may be fanciful, but not far-fetched, particularly when thinking of relationships between power and nature, politics and culture. So with this in mind, it felt both fortuitous and apposite that I made it to the Tate Modern’s now famous Turbine Hall to see the in-progress installation of their most current project.

No Soul For Sale (K48 & Artspeak spaces) at the Tate Modern

No Soul for Sale is a tenth anniversary Turbine Hall event marking the Tate Modern’s opening in 2000. But instead of the trademark large-scale solo installations that have dominated the space, this incarnation saw the floor split up into dozens of squares for more than seventy artist groups, collectives, and non-profits to set out their wares. The subtitle, A Festival of Independents, indicates that this is both an acknowledgement and celebration of pluralistic artistry: a relaxing of the hierarchy (or art star pre-requisite) that is normally evident in this space. Participants included Vancouver’s Artspeak with an installation of Blind Spot by Lucy Pullen; New York’s K48 Kontinuum, who plastered the floor with a giant image of a slice of pepperoni pizza; and the 98weeks research project from Beirut.

David Smith, Agricola IX, 1952, steel

Upstairs, the Tate Modern has several excellent exhibits drawn from their collection, revealing both the breadth of masterpieces that can be assembled and the strength of curation. Material Gestures trades in a curatorial narrative that commences with Francis Bacon and Anish Kapoor, continuing through New Painting and Sculpture from 1945 to 1960, Viennese Actionism, Expressionism, Miro, Moore, Hepworth, Braques, Matisse, then onto Monet and Abstract Expressionism, followed by Cy Twombley, and concluding with Joan Jonas.  The overarching thesis is to highlight how artists have deployed materials to create meaning and convey emotion, regardless of the source: the show includes painting, sculpture, and documentation from performance art.

Rudolf Schwarzkogler, 1st Action Wedding, 1965, printed 1972-3, photograph on paper

Among this “collection” exhibition is a loaned David Smith welded steel sculpture, Agricola IX, made from old machine part and tools. Although heavy on formalism, the Latin title translates as farmer, invoking a sense of content and value beyond abstraction. Other eye-catching inclusions are Lee Krasner’s Gothic Landscape and a film of Meat Joy by Carolee Schneemann. My personal highlight, however, is the room dedicated to Viennese Actionism, not because of the way in which the human body is activated beyond the constraints of paint and metal, but because of the invasive Action images by Rudolf Shwarzkogler. Seeing these photos at a size and quality that book reproductions or the internet can’t match adds to the experience; it also points the way to another of the Tate’s series from the collection: Energy and Process.

Fischli & Weiss, Untitled (Tate), 1992-2000, polythene foam, acrylic paint

Here, the emphasis is directed toward institutional critique and political practices, mostly from the 1960s onwards, but not without some spare works by artists including Linda Bengalis, Giuseppe Penoni, and Richard Serra, all of whom deliver beguiling forms. But in terms of fun, the Fischli & Weiss installation has many visitors indulging in eavesdropping, self-revelation, or both, as people articulate their thoughts and feelings around what looks like a room in the midst of renovation - with the exception that everything is made from sculpted polythene foam blocks that are then painted to resemble functional reality. Another more moving form of poetic process is found in Lucia Nogueira’s lyrical film Smoke. Her work was new to me and had a melancholy energy, but one to search out for sure.

Lucia Nogueira, Smoke, 1996, 16mm film transferred to video

In sum, whether for academic, pedagogical, or purely pleasurable purposes, both these shows are worth the trip, not just for the spectra of art history, theory, and form, but also the quality of works. Admittedly, the term quality (used mostly freely by dealers and auction houses) is itself often problematic but when one sees artworks such as these, in such numbers and so well contextualized, the notion of quality most certainly takes on a validating form of its own.

Marc Quinn, Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas (installation detail), 2010, bronze, marble & silver sculptures & paintings (photo: Ben Westoby)

Turning to a more contemporary form of value, that of celebrity, Marc Quinn has a new body of work at the commercial White Cube in Hoxton Square. With the lengthy title Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas, it soon becomes apparent as one looks around that the exhibition name is an accumulation of the individuals represented in the show, including Michael Jackson, Pamela Anderson, and the porn star Allanah Starr. Quinn, perhaps best known for a self-portrait comprised of a cast of his head made from his own frozen blood and exhibited in a climate controlled vitrine (collector Charles Saatchi lost the original when a tradesperson doing work at his home unplugged it), still engages with relationships addressing aspects of self. This new series exemplifies connections between bodily form and inner make-up. When looking at enlarged breasts and modified sexuality, one wonders if the human soul could be as easily modified - a Botox injection for soul would be marvel indeed.

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country (detail), 2003-2009, artist stamps

This theme of re-routing self is personified in a venue that is undeniably a national treasure: The National Portrait Gallery. Tucked to the east side of the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square, there is always a wealth of identity packed in here. Aside from major exhibitions (currently photographer Irving Penn), there are an amazing range of works that go beyond any semblance of the old class system and highlight how far Britain has come in terms of pluralism and diversity. On that note, Queen and Country, Steve McQueen’s multiple portrait of British soldiers killed in the War on Terrorism features more than a hundred dead troops with their faces displayed on proposed postage stamps.

As a monument to the fallen, and perhaps a counter-monument to war and conquest, McQueen’s project has reached national prominence. The series arose from his being selected as an official war artist for which he traveled to Iraq and has since worked with the families of dead troops to collaborate on stamping their faces for posterity. However, attempts to have this work enter “the bloodstream of the county” by having the Royal Mail adopt the stamps as the currency of the realm have thus far failed, but the project brings a new conceptual twist to notions of mail art, as well as a hugely critical component to contemporary war art. Having toured nationally and been bought for the Imperial War Museum with support from the Art Fund for £60,000, Queen and Country makes a fitting argument for the importance of portraiture, particularly as the work is still contingent on a gallery for circulation. In conclusion, this venue and McQueen’s work may be correlated with countries like Canada, a nation noted both for its own official war art program and the recent cancellation of a national portrait gallery, to vaunt the faces that shape a nation. The value of McQueen’s project most certainly breaks down borders far and wide.

Dick Averns is an interdisciplinary artist and writer living in Calgary whose exhibitions and performances have been presented internationally. He has written for catalogues, journals and magazines, including Canadian Art, Front and Artichoke, and was part of the 2008-9 Canadian Forces Artists Program. Dick also teaches sculpture, performance and installation, liberal studies and first year studies at the Alberta College of Art + Design.

Tate Modern:
Material Gestures, and Energy and Process: ongoing exhibitions from the collection

White Cube:
Marc Quinn continues until June 27

National Portrait Gallery:
Steve McQueen continues until July 18



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