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What makes the art of today different from the art of 1912? One answer is: the kinds of space in which it is shown. Since the 1960s, reclaimed industrial space has replaced traditional galleries as the chosen theatre of avant-garde art. It began with artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol taking over old factories in downtown Manhattan. It has gone on to mean sculptors working in steel yards , or museums converting old docks. Art students in Glasgow this summer showed degree work in a venue called the Glue Factory that is … an old glue factory.
Minimalist art, with its use of industrial materials and setting out of objects in potentially limitless arrays, started in the 1960s and was made for warehouses. This interaction between space and style has shaped the art of today.
Tate Modern, already one of the world’s most exciting reclaimed buildings, this summer moves into newly converted regions of its former power station. The Tanks will be a venue for live art, another form for which industrial spaces seem made. The opening season is about to start. It is certain to be spectacular.
Aged 82 and after more than 60 years as one of the world’s “most interesting, arresting and intriguing” artists, Yayoi Kusama may finally be about to break into the wider public consciousness with the first big retrospective of her work in the west.
Kusama left her native Japan – and the mental health hospital where she resides – for the first time in 12 years, arriving in London on Tuesday for an exhibition of her work at Tate Modern which takes in her entire career as a painter, sculptor, film-maker, novelist and more. It includes work featuring her signature dots, her liberal use of phalluses, her naked interventions and a spectacular new mirrored room installation conceived specially for the show.
The artist – red wig, vibrant lipstick, polka-dot dress – has proved a tricky interviewee in the past. She curtailed one interview with the New York Times after just one question (“Why do you smile so seldom?”). On Tuesday she was more than happy to answer questions about her art, her mental health and her attitudes to men.
The whole “sponsorship is evil” line is easy to trot out when you’re a penniless student with nothing to lose. Corporate sponsorship of the arts is vital. The counter-argument is, does it really “greenwash” them? I think a lot of the time the main motivation is to give their executives and clients a nice jolly and some privileged access. I don’t think that when people come out of an exhibition, they think: “Oh, wow, I’m going to buy BP petrol now.”
I haven’t really had sponsorship before, but for the show I’m working on now I’ve said right from the start that if we need a sponsor I’m going to play with it. I’m going to incorporate the sponsor into one of the pieces. I’m interested in medieval northern European altarpieces, where quite often the patron would be painted meeting the Virgin, or carved standing at the side of St Peter or whoever; that was part of the deal.
Part of my shtick is that I rebel against the rebels. I find that kneejerk, internet-paranoid-conspiracy thing a bit annoying, so I suppose my devil’s advocate side wants to poke them in the eye a bit. I’m understanding of the need for corporate sponsorship.
The Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin says somewhere, I believe, in his famous essay The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that people will accept a radicalism in popular art forms that they will never accept from the avant gardes of “high” art. Benjamin was writing in the era of Eisenstein. A lot of cut-ups have made it into the gallery since then. Audiences at Tate Modern seem pretty schooled to expect everything pre-deconstructed in the museum. The most interesting thing now about Benjamin’s argument is that it also works the other way around. It is conversely true that the idea of the classics, the greats, the old masters, is universally accepted in pop music when it is nowadays widely spat on in the sphere of contemporary high art.
I’ve been listening to some 1960s favourites. The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, a bit of The Incredible String Band. I hasten to add that I was only four when the 60s ended. I wasn’t at Altamont or anything. But when I was a teenager, much later, it was obvious that rock music had reached a peak of imagination and brilliance in the 1960s – and it’s still obvious. Does anyone dispute that? More crucially, does anyone think it trashes today’s music to say so? There is a maturity, a common sense about critics and consumers of popular music that is totally absent from the high arts. No one thinks it demeans Lady Gaga to admire Madonna.
Tate Modern is ten years old. The redundant Bankside Power Station — younger twin of Battersea — is a miracle of creative re-use by the Prada-clad, bullet-headed Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. If ever there were professional archetypes, here they are. Their countryman C. G. Jung could not have specified attributes more box-tickingly perfect. Still, they have done a wonderful job. A postwar romantic industrial building has been thrillingly reconceptualised into the most popular modern art venue in the world. It was designed for 1.8 million visitors a year, but gets 4.7 million. (Runners-up are the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with 3.5 million, and the New York Museum of Modern Art, with 2.8 million.) Only a very dull person would fail to gasp at the sublime space of the eviscerated turbine hall — the essential internal experience for the visitor. No matter how often I visit, I am always astonished. But in its cavernous emptiness there may be a metaphor struggling to be put into words. Despite its success — Tate Modern is one of the top three “attractions” in the country — is there something empty at the heart of the whole boggling project?
Tate Modern has become a temple of the international art “world”. This needs explaining. Certainly, temples have priests and belief systems, and Tate has these in spades. But anything with the word “world” suffixed — as in dog world — does not mean a mondain connection to the planet-at-large.
Since it began in 2000, the Unilever series of annual commissions in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has become the most significant long-term project instigated by any museum in the early 21st century. There are now similar installations in Paris and New York, and the series has developed its own cumulative energy. Let’s hope this is sustained through the current economic crisis.
Invitations to participate are increasingly daunting for artists. The Turbine Hall presents an enormous opportunity, but also a huge career risk. One doesn’t want overblown monstrosities, or for artists just to make grandiose versions of the kind of things they have done elsewhere. The space is too compromised for Richard Serra, for instance, who installed a great work in Paris’s Grand Palais in 2008.
What I’m always hungry for is artists who turn us back on ourselves, who provide an experience that refreshes the way we think. I want them not to perform according to type, but to queer the space and make us think about art and ourselves differently.
Adrian Searle, Jonathan Jones, Charlotte Higgins and Skye Sherwin
Ian McEwan’s novel Solar is an allegory of entropy and the death of the planet, an eco-comedy, a dark meditation on how human failings make it unlikely that we will act on global warming. But it also has some jokes about contemporary British art.
The most sustained and hilarious episode in Solar tells how its bad-scientist antihero goes on a fact-finding trip to the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen to see the melting of the Arctic for himself. This journey to the frozen north is brilliantly imagined, with all the hallucinatory visual conviction that made McEwan’s early short stories so shocking. You are there, and when an unfortunate incident results from the character’s attempt to pee in sub-zero conditions (don’t keep it out too long!), it’s as bizarrely gripping as anything he has ever written.
The art world thrives on the reactions of critics. Sensationalist work damned as “gratuitous” or “pretentious” is what makes the Turner prize so exciting. The most media-worthy pieces of the last 10 years have been the work of the YBAs: an unmade bed, a light flashing on and off, a black Mary. Opinions may differ on works such as these, but one thing remains constant: the views belong to white, middle-class (mostly) male critics. Certainly academics are seen as credible authorities, but what of those outside the artistic elite?
It seems like the Tate has realised the importance of having diverse voices to challenge and criticise the way art is seen. Over the next two Sundays, Tate Britain will be inviting urban acts, producers and poets to show the art world a new side to criticism. Each artist – including the current UK No 1 Tinie Tempah – will use the space to present individual responses to artwork by Chris Ofili (in this particular instance Tinie will be spitting 32 bars about one of Ofili’s paintings).
Think of Chris Ofili and you would be forgiven for imagining the following: elephant manure; the weeping profile of Doreen Lawrence; a black, dung-breasted Virgin Mary that enraged the mayor of New York.
But, when a major, mid-career retrospective opens on Wednesday at Tate Britain in London, visitors will see a new Chris Ofili.
His recent work may, frankly, come as a shock. There is no dung and no glitter. There are no richly-collaged, jangling surfaces. Instead, in the last room in the exhibition, unexpected swathes of colour lash down the canvases: imperial purple dissonant against citrus orange, saffron squealing against sea green.
With the exception of two paintings previously exhibited in New York, none of these eight works has ever been seen in public. They come fresh out of the artist’s studio. The exhibition is the first major survey since 1998 of the often controversial 41-year-old’s work. Almost a third of the 45 paintings on display have never been shown in the UK before.
Flight into Egypt 1996 . Photograph: Private Collection/Tate
It is rare for any major museum to play daring with a wild card of a show, still less during times of recession, but so it is with Per Kirkeby at Tate Modern. Ten galleries have been devoted to this unfamiliar painter. For although Kirkeby (born in 1938) is a household name in Denmark, and the nation’s most acclaimed artist since Vilhelm Hammershøi and Asger Jorn, he can hardly be well known to many people over here, since he has never had a full-dress show in Britain before, despite a career lasting more than 40 years.
It might have been longer had Kirkeby not started out as an Arctic geologist, a fact that becomes more significant the deeper one looks into his work. And depth is always at issue. For the first thing to say is that Kirkeby is a paradoxical painter, a neo-expressionist whose enormous canvases of flaring colour and passionate gesture might appear to be purely abstract were it not that there is some kind of realist in him, too. Look into his surfaces and you see figures and forms tangled up in the paint.
Take the very funny picture that the curators have shrewdly chosen to open this show. It is called The World’s Northernmost House. But where is this fabled place? The canvas is a maze of ice-cracking lines, rickety black slate and rock, drips, damp outcrops of claggy brown and grey, rising up to a threatening green sky (or so one perceives it). Is there a hint of roof, doorstep or track? It’s not clear. There is no obvious vantage point – indeed, one could as easily be looking at a map as a landscape. But either way there is a powerful sense of absurdity: a room at the top of the freezing world.
What is discernible in Kirkeby’s art is often foolish or extreme: a medieval knight, a horse so strangely angled it could tip out of the picture, sinister huts and doorless dwellings. One painting is named after the ship Nansen was forced to abandon in his attempt to reach the North Pole and certainly there is some sense of deadlock and of splintering horizons, though these seem equally bound up with the action of painting itself. Forge ahead, keep going, don’t stop trying.
Now there is scarcely anything less enticing one could say about a painter’s work than that it is concerned with painting itself, and that is not the case with Per Kirkeby. It is obvious that the mind’s meanderings are as susceptible to expression for him as for any poet (and Kirkeby is also a poet), also that the infinite variety of the world inspires in him an infinite variety of representational methods.
He paints Pop on hard Masonite in the 60s. He glues on, tears off, splits the canvas into four screens in the 70s. By the 80s, images are overlaid and interleaved, paint is scraped and coagulated, thinned, dripped and squeezed in lush smears. He goes against the grain – huge stabbing strokes of black and white in Crystal, making a cataclysm out of delicate refraction – and he walks out into the landscape like some latter-day romantic. In several works, a calligraphy of lines spread across the canvas, rather like the branches of trees latticing a beautiful vista.
If Kirkeby is prolific and uncommonly various, he is also up to his eyes in art history, seeing the world, and his art, through that of others. You get a hint of what is to come in the second room where his commentaries on fellow painters fill a whole wall of bookshelves. I freely confess that I don’t know quite what Kirkeby is doing in paintings that reprise other artists – Monet’s poplars and water lilies, Soutine’s flayed carcasses – other than to isolate and celebrate their motifs, though the overwhelming sense is of exploration.
Kirkeby wants to paint a version of The Flight into Egypt for modern times and his imagination turns to the heat, the route, the ankle-turning rocks of the terrain; the painting navigates an immense range of hazardous lines and hot colours. He wanders into the woods and the resulting pictures suggest elusive spaces, alternately airy and densely gnarled, the shadows breached by flashes of exultant colour.
Kirkeby’s colour – radiant violet, cobalt, glowing ochre – is like a gift, a compensation for the complexity of his art. For he never offers any easy statements. None of his paintings is sewn up, resolved, and very often you feel more certain of the mood than the subject matter. His early work has been compared to that of contemporaries such as Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz, but in its primitive and irreducible pleasures seems more connected to Cy Twombly.
Though there are, of course, those who just find it annoyingly resistant and obscure; which is the occupational hazard of the abstract artist. With abstraction, there has to be some kind of affinity, some vocabulary or tone of voice that the audience may recognise as it recognises the content of figurative art. In which respect, the relative unfamiliarity of Kirkeby’s work is a boon.
For it allows one to see the paintings clearly, uninflected by the judgments of others, to meet them like relative strangers. And this show is the ideal encounter, for it has been very subtly arranged to display the fullness of their character. Rich, earthy, spearing, dynamic, fiercely inquiring, solemn, droll, sceptical and yet abundantly romantic: perhaps a portrait of the artist as much as his art.