Once upon a time I worked as a media studies teacher at my local college. The course was run by the art department, for some reason, and it was very jolly and bohemian. Some of the lecturers had gone to the Chelsea School of Art or the Slade in the sixties and they all had beards and hippie skirts and smelt vaguely of patchouli. They were truly nice people and excellent teachers and living in revolutionary times had taught them to be open minded about other people’s ideas. Which meant, really, to me, that they were ready to accept any old rubbish if the person producing it was enthusiastic enough.
Take the guy with the vacuum cleaner. He arrived in the staff room one day with a pile of painted stuff on a tray. It looked like that mountain that Richard Dreyfuss sculpts out of mashed potato in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was in fact, the contents of a vacuum cleaner dust bag covered in grey gloss paint.
I think, ‘What the fuck is that?’ was my reaction.
But the art lecturers listened to him keenly and nodded in sympathy as he told them how he simply couldn’t get any sponsorship to make more dustbag mounds in order truly to explore his themes of rejection and redemption. I offered to give him the contents of my vacuum cleaner, but I have to say I was thanked gently and then ignored, possibly because it was obvious I was not taking him seriously.
And then, that same year, artist Chris Ofili won the £20,000 Turner Prize for his art, which was splattered with elephant dung. So what do I know?
I began thinking about this again when I went to London’s Tate Britain on Saturday. The gallery, in Pimlico, is a beautiful building with a huge central space. And at the moment it is filled with packing cases and cardboard all nailed together under the name of Dock by sculptor Phyllida Barlow.
The Tate website says:
Suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped or folded, the works of Phyllida Barlow spring from an interrogation of some of the most fundamental aspects of sculpture: its physical attributes and its presence in space.
That is the kind of sentence that you need to read if you are having trouble sleeping. It’s a sales pitch. And it makes me feel that if they have to sell it with fancy words, then it can’t sell itself. Why can’t they just say:
Phyllida Barlow’s works are suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped or folded. She is inspired by the basic idea of sculpture; what it looks like and how it affects its environment.
Which, when you think about it, means absolutely nothing.
It’s interesting that all the other pictures and sculptures in the gallery, the ones that have been executed with skilled draughtsmanship, and an eye for colour and balance, and that absorb you, have really simple descriptions. There’s no need to package them with cheap snake-oil sentences. They speak for themselves.
It doesn’t matter how smarmily Dock is described, it just reminds me of something I might see done by a sixth former at school.
The problem I have with this kind of art is that it is more an expression of its time, than of any particular artistic skill. If the gallery was (God forbid) set on fire, nobody afterwards could recreate a Turner or a painting by William Blake. However, it would be reasonably easy for anyone, given a hammer and some packing cases and bit of gaffer tape, to recreate Dock.
But why would anyone want to?
Pictures from Wikimedia, via Creative Commons: