Thursday, 30 December 2010

ALTERMODERN: The Tate Triennial 2009

First published @ Hit&Miss E-Zine, March 2009

Like all periodic surveys of contemporary art, The Tate’s fourth Triennial is accompanied by extravagant claims from the curator, ample press coverage, increasingly amplified by the web. Such shows set bold themes against a careful balanced roster of current favourites and promising newcomers. The hope is to strike a happy compromise between revealing a thorough change since the last survey and confirming its findings. Reception is inevitably mixed, experts unhappy with too many favourites, not enough discoveries, or vice versa, the casual observer baffled by regularity of discoveries or lack of them.

Three years is either too small a slice of history to find enough change in, or too long a slice of the present to be adequately sampled for a longer perspective. Elsewhere, biennales attempt as much in two-thirds of the time, while in Kassel, Germany, five years allows a more measured pacing, although hardly more rewarding results. History, as historians never tire of reminding us, is best written in retrospect, the longer the better. But the sheer profusion of such surveys around the world has steadily defused any conclusion to be drawn from them. Very little actually rides on any one survey or criteria, beyond a conspicuous compliance with international consensus, a marketing punctuation for an institutional calendar. This devaluation should eventually see institutions turn to more specialised surveys, less frequent history. But unquestionably, provocation remains a large part of their appeal.

For this Triennial, curator Nicolas Bourriaud concentrates on his specialty, installations, while granting an international scope to chosen artists. He invokes themes of exploration, assimilation and translation, bundled here as ‘Altermodern’. How much installations represent contemporary practice, how well they illustrate ‘Altermodern’ and how well ‘Altermodern’ captures a recent trend, are obviously the first issues to an evaluation. Predictably, responses have been mixed. Critics are quickly divided between the converted and sceptical. Bourriaud‘s reputation is built mainly upon his book Relational Aesthetics on which a preference for installations and interactivity rests, together with previous curatorial assignments in Paris and Bordeaux, illustrating his taste. His writing is a useful starting point.

Two issues are immediately clear. Firstly, Bourriaud takes a social rather than art historical approach, so that art is dealt with only vaguely in his little lists and desultory jottings. There is neither effort nor aptitude to nail down any stylistic distinctions that might anchor talk of Modernism, as a period style, for instance, rather than modernism as general doctrine or ideology. This in turn creates problems for locating Post Modernism in art. Tellingly, in a recent interview he dates post-modernism from the oil crisis of 1973, rather than earlier use for a period by art critics or historians. So the first point is that as a curator he tends to engage work at the level of social agendas and struggles for stylistic distinctions within works. For Altermodern, Bourriaud is content to define formal aspects as an exploration of ‘the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves’. The expansiveness of these terms clearly can do little to distinguish selections.

The second issue is that an aesthetic that gives prominence to relations between parts, fails to spell out how these collections and connections must then be contained within suitably robust frameworks, or wholes, and that parts are not arbitrary or given, nor any assembly guaranteed. Importantly, installations remain related and relative to practices in painting, sculpture and prints; derive parts accordingly. This is really where content to an installation resides, in relation to preceding and adjacent categories. To loosen or ignore these relations is to empty an assembly of all but the most superficial formality, to ultimately confuse the work and its context or surroundings, to eventually conflate the roles of artist and curator.

Indeed, a persistent criticism of the preference for installation, particularly in international surveys, has been that as installations acquire greater licence over surroundings, greater commission of parts, greater power and prestige is accorded administering bodies, not least the curator, favoured artists or pet tools. The work effectively advertises just this authority. For, where the work is firstly the sum of its parts, the curator would seem to be the artist of artists, the institution a work of its works. Advocates of the aesthetic of course welcome this inflation and the endorsement it brings broader matters of design. Above all, it is an institution-friendly aesthetic and much of its acceptance lies in its reinforcement of an imposing sector of the cultural economy.

These are fundamental considerations. Turning to the particular concerns of Altermodern, ‘the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave’ and the themes of travel and change, the question is how well these fit the work, how works illustrate such features. Eleven of the twenty-eight artists use motion pictures of one kind or another, for convenience here termed video. These obviously introduce a temporal dimension to work. Most combine them with spatial concerns to the viewing arrangement. Multiple screens, furniture and other objects often interrupt or prompt repositioning by the viewer, so that the contents of the screen depend on and determine some travel, some adjustment or change to relations between parts of the work.

Again, it is not hard to accommodate the works within the curator’s generous brief, but it can hardly be counted as topical or timely development for video. For quite some time video artists have been concerned with the spatial circumstances of viewing, with the impact upon décor and mood of screen content and the impact of décor and mood upon screen content. Video art typically records performances (often involving the artist) or durations of a fixed scene or object, occasionally using found material. These tend to be shared or varied between screens or suitable surfaces for projection, their scales, sound tracks, positioned angles and resolution. Many of these options rely upon recent technology and signal privileged access and resources. More elaborate performance, production values and settings for viewing has been the staple throughout the last ten years or more. But as noted, these subtleties are largely lost on Bourriaud, where the concern is with more direct or naïve content, marshalled only by a designer’s eye for decorum. Hence the guiding principle becomes the ripping yarn, the lively anecdote or intriguing snippet carefully collected, like so many curios. But as some critics have noted, these quickly prove wearing, unrelated.

Hence too the popularity of Relational Aesthetics, where parts remain the comfortable, pre-digested meanings of the social historian rather than challenges to interpretation more familiar to art history and criticism. For all the eccentricity and apparent provocation to Altermodern, the work is essentially simplistic and undemanding.

Apart from videos, there are soundtracks in works by Tris Vonna Michell, Olivia Plender or Mike Nelson where stories or anecdotes are again foremost, situation or installation curiously dulled for the exercise. Whether these recitals quite count as translations or texts is uncertain. However, the emphasis on illustration in work such as Charles Avery’s installation, underlines the priority assigned literature, an indifference to less direct or literal pictorial reference. In one of the few works not to engage with time or text, the suite of machined wall panels by Seth Price, an elementary reversal of figure and ground is achieved between panel and wall to generate silhouettes between panels. This is presumably enough to qualify as ‘mobile’ parts, in temporary alignment. But it is hard to see how such a feeble gimmick could appeal to anyone other than the most dedicated Relational Aesthete.

Other works assemble more sculpturally, such as Subodh Gupta’s massive Line of Control or Rachel Harrison’s work across three rooms and while assuredly site-specific and temporary, never quite engage text, time or travel as prominent features. More technological works, such as Loris Greaud’s white room pulsing to a record of his brainwaves, Gustav Metzer’s slow motion light show and Katie Paterson’s star chart updates all translate and transfer, but again hardly announce text or travel, hybrids or assimilation. There are nods to commissioned fabrication by Simon Starling, although this is curiously insular when set against the curator’s sweeping ambit. Remote fabrication (or the readily-made) has been something of a regular in such surveys for at least fifteen years; its many exponents include Wim Delvoye and Tobias Rehberger. So the show does not quite capture the theme in many instances or the theme simply lacks substance.

But such works are essentially place-holders. They stress the continuity of Bourriaud’s approach with preceding efforts. Altermodern attempts to direct Relational Aesthetics to new, cosmopolitan opportunities for artists, to demonstrate the scope and vigour available there. Yet the preference for installation, the commitment to an aesthetic of assembly and administration, in the end pre-empts findings. Relations become rigid or dull and parts or works babble at each other, denied greater formal resources, less evident content. Bourriaud’s approach has been popular, but after ten years or so looks tired. The show is one of half measures, like the title, a clumsy portmanteau for the social historian on the run.

Altermodern Reviews

Rachel Campbell-Johnston – Timesonline
Laura Cumming - The Observer
Charles Darwent – The Independent
Richard Dorment – Daily Telegraph
Waldemar Januszczak – Timesonline
Ben Lewis – Evening Standard
Adrian Searle – The Guardian
Ossian Ward – Time Out
Jonathan Jones – The Guardian