'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Altermodern: aka the Fourth Tate Triennial. It’s new alright. But it hasn’t come out of thin air. Think Einstein. Think Buddha. Think Lao Zi. It’s almost impossible to understand in words because what is being pointed to is beyond words. It’s more like a leap of faith. And if you’re not in the mood for a leap of faith you’re probably not going to be in the mood for Altermodern.

But what is life without faith? It is doubt. It is cynicism. It is victimhood. It’s everything that was summed up by postmodernity. And that’s so over guys. But actually, it’s not completely over because Altermodern grows out of the post-modern but does not exclude it. Altermodern includes everything. Altermodern is everything.

I like Altermodern. It’s brave. It’s fantastically audacious to be grappling with ideas as profound and all encompassing as this - to put them together in your own unique style, stick a name on them and attempt to describe them with a bold selection of very contemporary works by artists of all nationalities. That takes some serious bottle doesn’t it? Even with the backing of Tate, that takes guts. Probably in a forum as public as Tate, it takes even more guts. I’ve got to respect that. I know how difficult it is putting on even a four-person show of local artists in a small gallery in Ladbroke Grove. I know how tough it is juggling people’s fears; battling with egos and bureaucracy and politics and logistics and finances and press and all the other minutiae you probably wouldn’t even dream of. And I’m not at the same time coming up with what might prove to be the next great cultural and theoretical phenomenon. OK so it might not. But even if it doesn’t, Altermodern will still have been a mighty undertaking and I take my hat off to Nicolas Bourriaud. He’s a brave man. Far from being a ‘curatorial dunce’ (Januszczak, ‘The Sunday Times’), he is in fact, a voice of the zeitgeist. And the zeitgeist is on the move. Times are changing. If the credit crunch is a sign of anything, it is without a doubt, a sign that that is not a moment too soon.

I’m not sure I fully understand the specifics of half of what Bourriaud says in his by now famously impenetrable theory heavy texts. But in a way you don’t really need to. Just walking around the exhibition, I knew in my gut, that this was worth taking note of. Big time.

So what is it all about? I’m not that confident with academia and theory brings me out in a sweat. Neither am I entirely keen on the idea of a public attempt at translating these intellectual mega-concepts into the colloquial. But I’ll have a go. You’ll have to excuse me if I wander from the path of common sense. That’ll be nothing new anyway.

Altermodern makes room for a ‘multitude of possibilities, of alternatives to a single route’. (Nicolas Bourriaud). So far, so post-modern. But wait, because it isn’t.

To describe this plurality, this ‘multitude of possibilities’, Bourriaud uses the spatial / geographical metaphor of the archipelago. What he’s getting at with the archipelago reference is ‘the relationship between the one and the many’ (Bourriaud). We’re not talking about one or the other here. It’s way bigger than that. We’re talking about the whole shooting match. All in one go. All on a level playing field. No victim, no oppressor. Just what is.

This is the crux of it all and the point from which Altermodern takes off. As with the archipelago, it’s the relationship between the One and the many that underpins everything. Not just everything Altermodern: Everything. It is the relationship between the one and the many that underpins life and the human condition.

Now, I’m not sure I should be getting into this because it is a little ambitious for one such as I, without Bourriaud’s talent for the hugely aspiring. However, what I lack in smarts I make up for in enthusiasm. So here we go.

I nearly fell out of bed the other evening when, staggering through The Idiots Guide to Quantum Physics at nearly one in the morning, I came across Einstein’s theory of relativity. For an ‘idiot’s guide’ it made my brain disconcertingly achy! What seemed to be on the table was the notion that space and time are one and the same thing. (I can hear the ex-boyfriend getting impatient with my less than scientific understanding already - but I shall persevere!) It seems a moving clock marks time more slowly than a stationary clock. The order of events in time will be different for observers moving relative to one another. Simultaneity, it seems, is relative. It would further seem then that there is no absolute meaning to apparent time orderings. Fundamentally, there is no truth to the notion of universal time, there is only personal time. Linear time as we commonly understand it, as the clock appears to measure it, does not exist. This is not poetic, this is literal. Absolutely literal. There is no such thing as absolute time.

So this means we’re pretending. We’re imposing a linearity on life that does not exist.

For me this is what Altermodern is about. For me Altermodern is attempting to make the point that space and time are not the sequential, linear safe-houses we like to pretend them to be. There’s no use stuffing everything into a neat little box with a name on it, says Altermodern. That’s nonsense. That’s denial. Even space and time - it’s all nonsense. What we are really living in is a big fat jumble. But actually that’s fine. For me, Altermodern is saying, that’s fine, the jumble is fine, let’s explore that, let’s go with that, let’s celebrate the chaos. Let’s live the in-between. Forget binary. Forget you and me. Forget love and hate. Forget East and West. Let’s all just be. ‘A positive experience of disorientation,’ Bourriard calls it, ‘a positive vision of chaos and complexity’. How wonderful!

This is why to look at the exhibition Altermodern as though it were simply a roll call of individual works by individual artists is to miss the point. The chaos is the point. Any negative criticism of the exhibition that calls it ‘ill-thought-out’ (Wullschlager, ‘The FT’) or ‘art that makes its own completion impossible’ (Januszczak, ‘The Sunday Times’) is just missing the point or else being deliberately obtuse. This exhibition is not attempting a conventional linearity. Because as Einstein pointed out at the beginning of the last century (and Jung agreed) and as the Buddha pointed out two and a half thousand years ago, such a thing as conventional linearity just doesn’t exist outside the human mind. So, basically, get over it.

Despite saying that Altermodern is nothing to do with individual artists and all to do with nucleur-less arboriality, I really can’t pass up the chance to wax on about a few of my favourites. But then that’s ok, because this is Altermodern. It all exists within a wider context. And besides, many of the individual works engage on a local scale with the same ideas of nomadic interdependence that the whole exhibition is about.

I have to mention Charles Avery’s gynormous head. For ten years Avery has been cultivating ‘The Islanders’, a multi-media installation mapping the life of a man whose name is never revealed, who casts anchor on ‘The Island’. He becomes a hunter, with the ambition of capturing the Noumenon, a legendary indigenous creature that has never been seen but whose closest relative is believed to be the Aleph Nul. One day he kills an Aleph Nul causing its huge head to drop off. This vast sculpted head forms the centre piece of his installation. You don’t need me to point out the metaphorical references to the human condition. The infinite search for that which already is, the wilful destruction of all we had hoped would fill the absence, and the resulting inherent confusion and despair. What’s more, legend has it that Avery was kicked out of St Martin’s after six months - a story of academic tomfoolery come good that warms me even more to this whimsical Scottish artist.

Nathaniel Mellors’ ‘Giantbum’ is something else actually, something else entirely. One can’t simply tag ‘Giantbum’ onto the end of a sentence. Adrian Searle (‘The Guardian’) describes ‘Giantbum’ as a “somewhat alarming if not actually insanitary video installation with animatronic sculpture, entailing a journey through a felt-lined room, where a bunch of people are filmed rehearsing a play about being stuck inside God's bottom”. That’s true, but for my taste it’s undercooking it somewhat. On each of the three occasions that I’ve witnessed the spectacle that is ‘Giantbum’, I’ve been left with a deeply unsettled feeling that I’m not sure I’ve so far quite managed to shake off. Mellors is here squelching around in the deeper and less charming recesses of the human psyche, digging up stuff one would probably rather leave buried. I struggle to bring myself to warn you that human coprophagia features. Mellors’ drags us kicking and screaming into the heart of phobia territory. It really is beyond monstrous. Funny, revolting, stomach turning and profoundly nihilistic scenes of utter despair. I overheard a passerby whispering to her mate a question as to whether Irishman Mellors mightn’t be Roman Catholic. Yeiks. I feel guilty just repeating the words. I distance myself utterly. These are not my views. Then again ‘Brideshead’ isn’t exactly feel good. Hmmm. I seem to be swimming in shark infested waters. Time to head for the good news.

‘Tremors where Forever (Frequency of an Image, White Edit)’ by Frenchman Loris Greaud who lives in Ho Chi Minh City (Siagon) Vietnam was my favourite piece of work in the fourth Tate Triennial. It’s pointless to try and describe this work. It’s a visceral experience. It’s so beautiful you just have to go and experience it yourself.

If you can bare it, I must tell you one more thing I came across at Altermodern, and that is the International Necronautical Society. I have no idea what this is. Like so many things Altermodern, it seems to blur the boundaries between what we laughingly refer to as ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. Apparently “the INS is a group of rogue agents who have infiltrated the worlds of art, literary criticism and philosophy” (‘Art Monthly’). If that doesn’t help you out then I’m sorry there’s nothing more I can do. It gives me the goose bumps.

From the INS’ ‘Tate Declaration of Inauthenticity’:
“Delivered by INS Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley and INS General Secretary Tom McCarthy at Tate Britain, London, 17th January 2009.
…We begin with the experience of failed transcendence... Being is not full transcendence, the plenitude of the One or cosmic abundance, but rather an ellipsis, an absence, an incomprehensibly vast lack scattered with debris and detritus. Philosophy as the thinking of Being has to begin from the experience of disappointment that is at once religious (God id dead, the One is gone), epistemic (we know very little, almost nothing; all knowledge claims have to begin from the experience of limitation) and political (blood is being spilt in the streets as though it were champagne).

For us, art is the consequence and experience of failed transcendence….”

Again I’m afraid words elude me. In the light of this I may need to rethink the writing career.


A professor of mathematics sent an email to his wife. It read ‘Dear wife, you must realise that you’re 54 years old now, and I have certain needs which you just can’t satisfy anymore. Otherwise, I’m happy with you as a wife, so I sincerely hope you won’t be hurt or offended to learn that by the time you receive this letter, I’ll be at the Grand Hotel with my 18 year-old teaching assistant. I’ll be home before midnight.’

When he arrived at the hotel, there was an email awaiting him. It read, ‘Dear husband, you’re 54 years old yourself, and by the time you receive this, I’ll be at the Breakwater Hotel with the 18 year-old pool boy. Being the brilliant mathematician that you are, I’m sure you can easily appreciate the fact that 18 goes into 54 a lot more times than 54 goes into 18. Don’t wait up.’

Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009
Tate Britain
until 26 April 2009

1 comment:

Viviane B said...

Rare are the positive comments that went to Charles Avery's big nose head in the reviews of Altermodern - I rejoiced when I read yours because Avery's meticulous drawings, maps and other renderings of an out-of-here reality came top of my list too. I agree, there were a good few dollops of inspiring stuff in this show and I loved the way its archipelago set-up was completely disorientating - I got lost in there, retracing my steps and rewriting freshly-formed memories as I rediscovered enchanting rooms through corners unexplored. I do think, however, that Bourriaud's grand theory sucks and that being brave is hardly an excuse for making gruyere-holy assumptions about the next cultural ism we're in. At the end of the day, the artists won the show, not him.