Sunday, 21 December 2014

ALISTAIR HICKS - The Global Art Compass


The book is a general introduction to contemporary art, organizing works geographically as well as according to social and political issues, offering an international or global perspective. It is interesting because the author, Alistair Hicks is the senior curator of the Deutsche Bank collection for contemporary art, perhaps the largest corporate collection in the world. Since corporate collections are such a powerful segment of the market for contemporary art it is an opportunity to glimpse the thinking behind such patronage, for example, how much of the surrounding curatorial and critical rhetoric to market favourites is absorbed, just what method or motives lie behind the vast array of acquisitions. That said, Hicks is at pains to avoid ‘art-speak’, is intent upon providing readers with the means to situate themselves within the world of contemporary art and navigate amongst their likes and dislikes, artist by artist, rather than theory by theory or curator by curator . Unfortunately the conflicting demands of a simple yet comprehensive guide quickly prove fatal.

Befitting the model of a compass, Hicks divides his world into North, South, East and West and assigns Europe (and the U.K.) to North, Africa and the Middle East to South, The Americas to West and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Pakistan, and Singapore to East. Geography is thus rendered nonsensical, where South America earns no distinction from Central and North America, where Central Asia is completely ignored, while Russia – extending almost halfway around the globe – is somehow appended to Europe! The length and breadth of Africa similarly earns no further distinction, Australia, acknowledged but not strictly accommodated, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, The Philippines, New Zealand and the island nations of the South Pacific also ignored, as is the Caribbean, with the exception of Cuba; as are Iceland and Greenland, amongst others. Some qualification may have been available in the form of division, a North East say, or North, North East or indeed an East North East, but this would only complicate an inherently flawed arrangement – four directions are always going to become circular on a globe. In attempting to drastically simplify the world, geography becomes hopelessly impoverished and confused. Moreover, Hicks is quick to acknowledge the migratory nature of many of his chosen artists, so that examples such as Wangechi Mutu, Marcia Kure, Julie Mehretu, Aleksandra Mir, Eduardo Sarabia, Allan de Souza and Kamrooz Aram, variously from North and South are nevertheless also mentioned under West, since most currently reside in the U.S. Nor is it clear that these are merely exceptions that prove the rule, since North, South and East also have their immigrants and artists amongst them, further diffusing any real point to an arrangement built on geography. The compass arrow here can only spin aimlessly.

It hardly comes as a surprise in the final chapter to find the author admitting that his compass occasionally fails him (pp 205-208). The real disappointment is that he has persisted with it. It is all very well to urge that we attend to individual artists and their works firstly, but which ones? Excluded nations surely have their artists and traditions, after all, tempered by exchange with those of others. Their absence from the map only begs the question of a supposedly global art compass. Tacitly, the answer is that they go unrecognised because they have not been included in a convenient art fair or international survey by a suitable curator, events the author frequently attends, or because other political and economic factors presently weight against them. Implicit in all of Hick’s judgements and the examples drawn from the Deutsche Bank’s collection is a subtle but stifling conformity with larger powers. Hicks maintains that ‘we should not let any single curator, critic or dealer monopolise our view of what is happening (in art)’ (p.13) but this is not to say that he and his chosen artists do not yield to an insidious consensus. In essence, the role of a corporate collection is precisely this: to play the percentages.

Beyond flaws in the geography of contemporary art lies problems in describing or interpreting selected works. Hicks is eager to relate his meetings with favourite artists and to provide biographical detail as context to works, but crucially he is a good deal less forthcoming in explaining how a given work expresses or refers to issues he elicits from biography , especially statements. In fact why such means should be of value to the assumed ends? For example, concerning Shirin Neshat’s video Passage (2007), a mixed media collage of Wangechi Mutu, Me, Myself and Shy (2010) and a digital montage of Marcia Kure, Dressed Up #8 (2010) Hicks asserts that ‘Their work records the death of the concept as a single moment of genius, in order to present thinking as continuous open-ended process in line with the French poetical philosopher Jeanne Hyvrard’ (p.63) Yet each of the works cited has a unitary identity, a single maker and distinct concepts, whether women digging a grave (Neshat) a dreamy woman’s head (Mutu) or elaborate historical decorum and finery (Kure). In none of these works is there reference to Hyvrard, to continuous re-evaluation or mutation of task, or renunciation of identity for maker or subject(s). Nor, for that matter, is a concern with mutability to task, exclusively the concern of Hyvrard. Such reckless interpretation simply fails to observe the particulars of the respective works, cannot point to how they might refer to such matters, and so fails as valid interpretation.

The tendency pervades the book, exacerbated by captions to illustrations that, again, only highlight the gulf between what we can see and what it supposedly means. Thus, on Kadar Attia’s Untitled (Skyline) (2008) an installation of thirty-two fridges with tiled fronts in an edition of three; the caption runs ‘Attia warns us about the emptiness of our aspirations (p.69).’ But aspirations to what? The title suggests we treat the assembly as a highrise skyline or skyscrapers, and of their standardised, possibly abraded facades, but why should we regard these as our aspirations, anymore than achievements, necessities or threats? On a still from Yto Barrada’s video Hand-Me-Downs (2011) the captions describes the close-up of a flower on a black ground as ‘… It is her family’s story made from other people’s family videos.’ (p.71) Strictly, it is from other people’s home movies (8 and 16mm) transferred to video, but more to the point, how we are to interpret the flower as the story of her family goes unexplained, why video should be especially vivid as a record of family life, is similarly omitted. On Cai Guo-Qing’s Footprints of History (2008) the author adds “Cai used fireworks, one of China’s oldest art forms to make new art’ (p.96) without explaining why the fireworks were art in the first place or what it is about Cai’s efforts that is so new.

In this, Hicks is of course by no means alone, since much writing on contemporary art also hurries to social and political issues in order to justify the work’s importance. This, in lieu of formal analysis, often deemed as discredited. But without convincing interpretation not only do we fail to properly understand works but we cannot then argue for their importance. Hicks has some background in art history and so more might have been expected from him on this score. Indeed, he quotes with approval E. H. Gombrich’s famous axiom; ‘There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists’ (p.13) in advocating a non-essential or elastic definition of art, but unfortunately ignores Gombrich’s equally celebrated insistence upon ‘making and matching’ to tradition, upon ‘schema and correction’ to innovation (in Art and Illusion rather than The Story of Art). Each artist starts from precedents (making) modifies them to new ends (matching). Form lies in norms (to play upon another of Gombrich’s titles).

Hicks’ indifference to formal issues not only robs his interpretations of conviction but denies his criticism any impact. For example, early in his survey of West (p.17) his dismisses the New York-based painters John Currin, George Condo and Cecily Brown as market-led folly that does no more than ‘re-dress up old models in vintage clothes’ (p.17) a clumsy metaphor at best. Actually recycling is a big part of tradition; old models and vintage clothes can find new mileage in the hands of the inventive dresser. Gabriel Orozco’s assemblage of car parts and modified billiard table, for example, owe just as much to precedents, no matter how much Hicks might like to favourably compare him to New York contemporaries. More telling is Hick’s careless dismissal of Currin as ‘derivative’ since ‘he does not even attempt to disguise his sad rip-offs of Cranach’ (p.17). Yet none of the poses, faces, make-up, hairstyles or sundry props, to this one small series of works by the artist, is drawn in any way from the work of Lucas Cranach. While Currin unquestionably adopts the curious bodily proportions and the even, frontal light or modelling, severe outlines and intricate detail of Cranach, they are used to quite different ends. In Currin, they render volumes and anatomy as hopelessly stylised or rule-based even as we ‘intuitively’ understand the space they inhabit. They recover an historical style as a perverse mannerism for today’s tastes. For better or worse, they are part of a broader argument about genre and realism that preoccupies many painters from the nineties on. The cases of Condo and Brown are slightly different, even from each other, but are equally bungled by Hicks.

It is not just that the author skips over vital explanation of the way selected works work or not, but that he really has little patience with the spadework, with looking closely at works, considering their art historical context as much as their social and political correctness. At times this dabbling cannot even be bothered with the simplest of background details. For instance, in describing the nationalistic allegories of Russian painter Egor Koshelev, Hicks supposes for a moment he is looking at the work of Neo Rauch in the early nineties (p. 161). Now this may be a simple mistake, where he meant to say the early noughties or perhaps the turn of the century, although even then Koshelev’s Socialist Realism, with its dry academic and allegorical leanings is surely closer to someone like Odd Nerdum or Carlo Mariani. But to invoke Rauch’s work from the early nineties is to nominate work before the artist had found his signature style. Back then Rauch still worked in a more gestural, abstract mode, in works such as Der Strom – The River (1992) and Rast – Rust(1993). These are about as far from Koshelev’s allegories as painting can get. Furthermore, this is before Rauch gained wider recognition (which came in the late 90s) and showed only in small galleries around Germany, places Hicks is unlikely to have visited in any case. Such background information on the artist is freely available on the web and for the author not to have bothered to check his facts on a major figure like Rauch rather confirms an impression of laziness. For the editing and research staff at Thames and Hudson, he warmly acknowledges (p.222) it is a small but embarrassing blot on their diligence.

Since the book delivers neither an adequate global framework nor interpretative rigour, it is hardly surprising that the prospect for personal or individual engagement with the full range of global art fares no better. For Hicks it amounts to not much more than brief acquaintance with favoured artists, the opportunity to add details of their biography to the supposed content to their works, for a diverting anecdote or two. The author can ‘personalise’ the works in this way, but the exercise does nothing to personalise the author. He remains a roving talent scout, his talent spread a little too thinly for his roving, unable to conceive of talent beyond broad social agendas, unable to rove beyond the advice of prominent curators and theories, deploring a ‘market-driven’ art world yet happily attending art fairs from Dubai to London and New York, urging the value of artists from outside First World centres, but doing so from within them. It is a deeply compromised, ultimately futile position.

The book ignores so much art from the First World that it hopelessly distorts the value and currency of the very forms it seeks to apply globally. It can find no room for the performances and installations of a Santiago Sierra, for example, whether in respect to Spain or Mexico (North or West). Astonishingly, it does not even mention the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, despite it ticking all the boxes, in many cases inventing the boxes. It simply has no means or agenda with which to grasp the sculpture and installations of a David Altmejd, Matthew Ritchie, Sterling Ruby or even a Stella Hamberg, the abstractions of a Thomas Scheibitz or Frank Nitsche, the figuration of a Jules de Balincourt, Valerie Favre or Nigel Cooke, to name only a few. Navigation of the art world here is not just narrow and doctrinaire but focus upon political correctness ultimately leaves the author blinded to the banality of many of his examples, as drawing, painting, collage, photography, performance or video. Hicks is anxious to remind us that he has read his Deleuze, Bourriaud, Said, Enwezor and so on, in spite of initial assurances, but it hardly compensates for the fact that he simply cannot trust his eye. On the evidence of the book, he has none.

It is the sheer awfulness of Marcia Kure’s Dressed Up #8 (p.65) as a photo montage, the flatfooted shifts in scale, angle and style that make this no more than a distant and dismal echo of Hannah Hoech or Romare Bearden and countless students in between; that make the play with period costume something Yinka Shonibare did so much better, just a little sooner. It is the feeble, grovelling illustration of fleeting or faded idols by Elizabeth Peyton (p.52) where Hicks regrettably finds his true level, hedged and hasty, late and distant. It is the crass caption of Laure Prouvost’s You Are Going in The Wrong Direction (2011) (p.152) with the kind of laboured play on signage that Ed Ruscha exhausted, endless Conceptual installations in the sixties and seventies relied upon and ultimately Duchamp did better, that instantly appals. It is the kitsch staging of classicist clichés rendered in extreme slow motion that leaves Bill Viola’s videos, such as The Greeting (1995) (p.33) tedious and vapid. All of these steadily condemn Hicks’ judgement. It is the cringingly sophomore pretension of Yan Pei-Ming’s Execution after Goya (2008) (p.99) with its dripping red glazes over the famous firing squad and victim that fail to be excused as mere Chinese arriviste ambition and instead remain just a dumb idea by a diligent craftsman. Time and again the book’s illustrations are a massive discouragement.

Poor work serves no cause well. It is hard to see how the author’s efforts further the aims of The Deutsche Bank in this regard. Elsewhere he states these as “…a continuation of the way we do business. We want to get involved in what is happening around us. We want to learn about and support the latest ideas”. If The Global Art Compass is any guide, the new ideas are all about a casual and cavalier approach, a superficial and meretricious investment in growing markets, shifting assets, subtle networks and shrewd favours. It is called a long-term business strategy or a bankster’s holiday. The ideas undeniably have resonance, but just as art markets expand in all sorts of directions, expectations on its history, criticism and presentation also grow more sophisticated and acute. It is not enough to glibly assign sociological meaning to a work, for the art lover. It must be more than advertising or reportage, its means more direct than appeals to fashionable theory or convenient experts. The work must work on the eye, be felt in our nerves or bones as much as our understanding of precedent and local variations. As a consequence, the meaning of a work is rarely reducible to a clear and simple message, without severe diminishment.

In closing it is worth expanding upon this last point slightly. We sense expressive qualities in ways quite different from merely attending to what is said or ostensible content, in ways distinct from formal or structural arrangements. We grasp a mood or attitude in complex ways we can rarely analyse into elements or supply with necessary and sufficient conditions. Often we grasp them in ways that defy exact names. But like language, it is something we pick up with practice, compare and adjust to the findings of others and cultivate through challenges. It comes from concentrated looking. The more subtle and elusive a work, the more it inspires scrutiny and if successful, rewards with illumination. The more adjustments we must make to our stylistic framework and bank of precedents, the more insight we gain into our powers of discernment. A great deal of art is concerned with these less obvious avenues of meaning, a slower, messier and more intimate engagement. Sadly, it is precisely this aspect to contemporary art that is absent from The Global Art Compass. Although there are plenty of artists mentioned, from El Anatsui to Shirin Neshat to Raymond Pettibon to Anish Kapoor; that would repay this kind of care. This only adds to the book's disappointments.

ALISTAIR HICKS - The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st Century Art. Thames & Hudson 2014
232 pages 150 illustrations 131 in colour
ISBN 978-0-500-23919-3

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