Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Turner Prize, 2009 - The Independent, London 8 December 2009

All that glisters turns out to be gold after all. The least demonstrative, and the most unassuming, of this year’s Turner Prize nominees gets it for a painting-cum-drawing that covers one entire wall at Tate Britain – yes, that’s all there is, my friends (as Peggy Lee once sang), to Richard Wright’s show - and which is likely to disappear altogether when the show is over.

Those who thought that Enrico David might make it with all that noisily transgressive, slightly delinquent-feeling, vaudeville stuff were wrong. Those who thought that something ultra-cerebral by Roger Hiorns might do the trick were also wrong. No, the judges have once again opted for an art which pays homage to restrained, non-figurative patterning - as it did in 2006 when the prize was won by an interesting abstract painter called Tomma Abts.

Yes, Wright is into a kind of laboriously hand-crafted repetitive patterning that often makes for an almost invisible art – in a certain light over at Tate Britain, you can barely see it at all. Last time he had a show in London, I had to look hard to find the work at all. Why? Because there was nothing at all on the floor or the walls. The main piece was up on the ceiling, where I had forgotten to look, and another in a back room which you had to seek hard to find.

Where does it come from? You could say that its roots are in traditions of Islamic calligraphy; you could also say that its roots are in decorative fabrics – well, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, are they? How does Wright work? A little like Carl André, another man made famous by the Tate – in André’s case, it was for a configuration of bricks.

Like André. Wright goes into a space empty-handed, without finished works. He looks at it. He sizes it up. Then he draws, in situ, on its surfaces, responding to the shape of the space, its atmosphere, the context of what he has been invited to appropriate, engulf, characterize, re-define. But only temporarily. These drawings don’t go anywhere afterwards. Nobody tries to peel them off the walls. They remain for the duration, they are documented with photographs, and then they get destroyed.

Wright, like so many of his contemporaries, makes an art which comes and goes, and which perhaps is therefore making an allusion to the passing nature of life, and the necessary impermanence of art.

It’s not just that they come and go though. The whole enterprise, here on this wall, seems so tentative, as if it were a kind of effrontery to do more than he has done. And how exactly would you categorise this kind of art? Nodding again towards André, you could call it minimalist if you liked. But it is also, for all its thin and somewhat ethereal nature, quite luxurious in its way. But it’s a luxury that always threatens to pass away, and it does indeed pass away after a little while.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Design for Real Serpentine Gallery, London The Independent, London 30 November 2009

The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens exists to show off art. Art, as we all know, is perfectly useless. It exists to be admired. Now, all of a sudden, the Serpentine Gallery has had a change of heart. It has hired a curator with a mesmerisingly unpronounceable surname, Grcic, to assemble a show of forty-six objects which are useful. (I hear the man who is making the podcast for the Guardian newspaper first asking how the name’s pronounced, then taking several runs at it, falling back, and running again.) What is more, these particular objects are examples of their kind. There are variants upon them everywhere that we look. I am sitting on one of them now. Yes, everywhere we turn our heads these days there is a bed, a child’s bicycle, a plastic chair, the arm of a wind turbine flailing the air.

So what happens when we show off useful objects in an art gallery? We begin to relate them to the art experience. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We look for beauty, elegance, singularity. We check out the colours for evidence of harmonious relations between one hue and another. We wonder why this bed, for example, seems, in part, to resemble an abstract painting, and whether it is a better, a more pleasing bed, for doing so. Most of all, we pause, and stop regarding them solely as objects of utility. We begin to respect them a little more. We begin to scrutinise them with a little more delicacy. We ponder upon the relationship between beauty and usefulness, and we speculate upon the fact that when a good designer gets it right, our lives are perhaps improved a little.

And that is the purpose of this rather delightful show, to make us reflect upon the nature of objects that are designed for our use, to speculate upon whether they are good or bad, ergonomically sound or otherwise, good for the world or not. The objects are well spaced and well displayed, often humorously so. Look at this perfectly gorgeous copper fishing lure, with its brazen feathered tail, and how it is mounted for our pleasure, behind glass. And then there is a plastic chair – oh that blasted modernist ideal! – which seems to hang from the wall, half way up, like one of those balloons we used to rub and rub on our arms, and then stick onto the top of uncle’s bald head for the sheer hell of living.

The central area is good too. It consists of a circle of 25 kg sand bags, heaped four high, across which we are invited to sprawl. A circle of tv screens spews out random facts about injection moulding, the usefulness of robots, etc. Computers invite us to explore more fully all the objects we have just seen on the show’s website: So what do we find out about the design and fabrication of objects such as these raise? Bicycle production outstrips car production world-wide three to one, for example. And some not so evident ones too, verging on the metaphysical: the speculation that lightness may be a human objective. Hmmm.