Tuesday, 9 May 2006

Is it Art?

"Am I being a bit too cynical?", I puzzled to myself as I stared incredulously at the sculpture in front of me. The work of modern art insulting my gaze seemed comprehensively devoid of any merit whatsoever. And yet, I reflected, underapreciation of art has been an unhealthy characteristic of mankind for centuries. Perhaps if the rowdy regiments of The Holy Roman Emporer Charles V had taken a course in art history they might have been a little less eager to sack Rome in 1547. If the merciless hordes of Attila the Hun had held more of an interest in fine art and less of a facination with the contents of their trousers, the Dark Ages might well have been a little brighter. In view of this, one must always endevour to place the work of art within its proper context, to see things from the artists perspective and to shed ones stuffy traditional perspective. This proved decidedly difficult. The artist in question had apparently attempted to replicate Tracey Island from Thunderbirds, and yet its most commendable features such as the sliding swimming pool and the avenue of collapsing palm trees were conspiciously absent.
I decided to delve into the art gallery brochure to discover what the artist had intended; this is what I read.

'Sioban Hapaska's sculptures often hover between abstraction and hyper-real figuration. Her installation 'beach of the restless' presents all the clich├ęs of paradise. However, the glow of sunshine on a white sandy beach, palm trees and the sound of waves gently breaking on the shore construct an Eden that is not as it seems. Her simulation of a tropical island is a synthetic anti paradise. In the centre a fibreglass monstrosity with an LCD screen for a face stands sentinel over a glass cube filled with sand and coconuts. The coconuts gaze warily at the screen, which depicts their kin being violently smashed open on an endless production line of destruction, like victims of state terror.’

In the Baroque period, works of art were enormous oil paintings depicting epic encounters between armour plated Trojan warriors and scantily clad, swooning maidens; all with a sinister Turk lurking in the background for good measure.


Now one can simply throw together a bunch of dirty socks, a used condom and a collection of empty Pritt-sticks and claim this sordid collection "challenges the flawed but alluring tabula rasa of modernism and creates an atmosphere of pathos". Art has ceased to be about the work itself and more about the waffle that accompanies it. Take this rubbish by way of illustration

'Marcus Coates’s work documents his attempts to connect with - or even become- an animal. In 'Finfolk' he emerges out of the freezing north sea in ill fitting Adidas sportswear and clip on shades, his idea of what a seal would be like if it were human'

Surely becoming a seal involves substantially more effort than this, living off a diet of raw fish for example or balancing a toy ball on the end of your whiskered nose. In any case it is highly unwise to imitate seals as you are liable to be clubbed to death by a group of passing Norwegians. In this country clubbing involves donning a shirt, consuming large quantities of alcohol and stumbling around a poorly lit cellar full of scantily clad women for the duration of the evening. In Norway clubbing means sauntering down to the rocks with your buddies and chewing tobacco while you mercilessly whack seals over the head with a sturdy wooden bat. As the HSBC advert says ‘Local knowledge is important’; although in my experience, the only local knowledge HSBC actually possesses is 'Indians callcentres will work for peanuts'.

I couldn’t help reflecting as I paced this dreadful collection of exhibits that the majority of these artists would have failed GCSE art have they submitted them as their final piece. I got an ill deserved B grade in art but I struggled throughout my short-lived artistic career due to a chronic lack of talent. For a while I enrolled in an after school activity group and for long hours at weekends I would sit in pottery class churning out clay sculptures which were then placed all over the family home by my dutiful parents as mantelpiece ornaments. For some reason it is commonly seen as one of the responsibilities of parenthood to highlight the achievements of ones offspring, no matter how dreadful. As I discovered when I was packed off to boarding school, this mantra only goes so far.

The one ‘work’ of mine I remember the best was a clay model I sculpted of the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. Inspired by the class nativity play, I spent a good couple of hours marking out the bricks and then arranging them into a miniature dwelling complete with a flat middle eastern roof, tiny windows and rustic doorway. When I proudly brought this home my father dubbed it ‘Saddam Hussein’s Mud Hut’ and it was quietly relegated from the Annex Bedroom mantelpiece to the electricity cupboard when I wasn’t looking. Every time I returned for the holidays I would find that another of my clay sculptures had been accidentally ‘destroyed’ by my parents. Some were dropped when mother was dusting, some disappeared without a trace during spring-cleaning; Saddam Hussein’s mud-hut finally met its maker when it was stepped on during a power cut.

As I was leaving the gallery with Katie I pointed to an electrical powerpoint on the wall and jokily asked “Is this an exhibit”. To my horror one of the exhibition staff thought I was being serious and interjected saying ‘No sir, I’m afraid that isn’t an exhibit, the installations are all clearly labelled’. I failed to take this in and stammered something as my face went an unhealthy shade of pink. Instead of cheerily informing her that I was joking I had succeeded in making myself look completely stupid. I had mocked modern art and modern art had wreaked a terrible vengeance.