Napoleon is reported to have once quipped that from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step. The observation is particularly apt when it comes to contemporary art. A few steps and a turn of the head, a mood, a sound, or even the mildest of predilections can render the abstract profound or the conceptual trite. Genius not only stands up to multiple visits, it welcomes us back.
I will not be making another trip to Tracy Emin’s Southbank show, Love is What You Want. A retrospective of more than two decades of work, the show includes quilts, drawings, video, film, neon, sculpture, drawings and paintings. Emin is a fearless artist, perhaps best known for her early tent/sculpture/work, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. She is extraordinarily up front about her losses, her fears, her difficult histories and her pain. There has been much pain. In recent years she has moved farther away from creating art in its “newer” traditional forms and has instead become something of a public provocateur. Her “work” is often fabricated by assistants and the media ranges from video to fabric, neon to bronze. The recurring theme through all of it is Tracy Emin, and that is both its strength and its limitation. The passion and pain of any individual artists can take an audience only so far without something else, something transcendent, to pull the viewer along.
This does not minimize the emotion that suffuses Emin’s output, but instead questions the relationship between creator and viewer. Emin’s work veers between a foundational urge to express – “here it is” – and a calculating process that leads to aphorisms in neon (“You Forgot To Kiss My Soul” or “Anal Sex Legal”). Why, exactly, should we care? The contemporary art establishment embraces Emin and that, alone, counts for something. But on whole, her writing and her persona seem much more interesting than her “art.” She has much to say, but I left the show thinking that art may not the best media for her to communicate it.
The personalities and histories of Jake and/or Dinos Chapman are irrelevant to their current installation in London’s White Cube gallery. Instead, the work speaks for itself. In the larger of the two rooms approximately two-dozen manikins – black plastic bodies are arranged interacting with flat art on the walls, a few large abstract sculptures in the middle of the room, each other and the audience. The figures have brilliant white teeth, shiny clear life-like blue eyes, and the little exposed “flesh” is shiny black plasticened musculature. It is though their “skin” has been stripped.
They are tall male figures – over six feet – and if brought to life would be extremely athletic. Identically clad in neo-Nazi uniforms, with black boots, stylized small swords, arm bands with happy faces, and paramilitary SS-type caps, they are laughing, jeering and menacing Sambos. Truly terrifying, truly fascinating and extraordinarily interesting. The artists ridicule while personalizing the menace, especially through the staging of the figures. In one vignette one is buggering another while others cheer on; in another setting, a mechanical pigeon shits white wax over the back of a different figure. It is haunting and humorous, and above all, memorable.
The other part of the gallery basement is a small setting. One similar manikin, this one clad in a Ku Klux Klan outfit along with fuzzy socks and Birkenstocks, faces a brightly lit Holbein-like oil painting of a some large peasant hell, replete with demons. The figure sports an enormous, priapic erection – and the then tent of white sheet points towards the picture. Creepy, creepy, creepy. And funny.
Both installations are able to bring together powerful antipathies and hold them in balanced tension. I would return.
I would also return to the Saatchi Gallery. Perhaps one of the most attract venues ever in which to view art, the former Duke of York’s Headquarters at Sloane Square is stunningly attractive. Superbly lit, thoughtfully arranged and designed with extraordinary restraint, the gallery could make any object appear interesting. Even the wide plank floor boards are tasteful.
The current exhibit, “The Shape of Things To Come – New Sculptures” highlight twenty international artists. All are good, but the Baldessari figures are especially strong. One room contains four of his pieces: a large ear trumpet emerging from an enormous ear, two separate horse figures, each without features and stitched together from horse-hides, and an inside-out humanoid figure that is both recognizable and impossible. The truly powerful piece in Saatchi, however, is the one permanent exhibit in the collection, Richard Wilson’s 20:50.
One enters the room on a platform with a glass railing, looking out into a larger, well-lit space with white walls, white square columns, and what appears to be a triangular trench cut into a mirrored floor. Industrial steel rings the floor and there space is suffused with a calming aura. Light reflects and the only jarring note is this illusory internal Eden is the increasingly pungent smell of oil. Slowly one looks at the floor more closely, searches out the artist’s note, and then the realization hits – the shiny floor is, in fact, oil. Wilson has filled the space with 20:50 engine oil, thick, viscous, shiny and poisonous. It is beautiful and awful, all at once, and truly wonderful.