It’s been quite a journey but last evening we (more or less) put the Kevin Coyne ‘Happy Little Fat Man’ project to bed with a wonderful evening of celebration and live music. Preparing for this has probably occasioned the largest hiatus in this blog for several years! Time for some reflection…not on that show, too fresh in the mind as yet.
But rather first some reflections on a really magical experience of a couple weeks back. The Chapter House at Southwell Cathedral in Notts. is an extraordinary piece of architecture and most artists might find it a daunting task to make work for it competing as it were against such stunning carvings from the past. But Derbyshire based Joan Ainley has risen to the task. She chose to work within a theme that has previously pre-occupied her, one which others might have shied away from (and incidentally one that has occasioned national comment recently), that of the Remembrance Poppy. Her series of drawings that occupy each of the Chapter House niches are a profound and meaningful commentary on the way in which this image was both originally chosen and how it has come to be used, both actually and symbolically. On top of which the series is an object lesson in how rich mark marking can be in the right hands. Each drawing seemed to provide ample opportunity for resonances to emerge, slowly and powerfully, bringing to mind all kinds of associations. Overall the setting and the works sensitively chosen as regards scale came together to provide a perfect context in which the viewer is not preached at nor to…but left to modulate their own thoughts and feelings in a richly arraigned environment. It was quite a treat.
Now..a recent conversation with Andy Parkinson focused on our desire not to write negatively about the various art events we have witnessed. On balance we evinced a desire to focus on those things that we had enjoyed and derived positive experiences from…and pass over those we weren’t fussed about. So far so good but…Im feeling a bit queasy…I recently watched the Imagine programme on the work of Anselm Kiefer. Now I’m no fan of Yentob’s sycophantic approach to these biopics anyway (I yearn for the days of Bragg who at least probed a little beyond the facade) but I remember my first encounters with Kiefer’s work in the 1980’s – at Venice in 1980 and then in the ‘New Spirit’ at the Academy in 81 – when his mournful and elegiac canvases seemed to speak to a exploration of self through reworking German history. They were powerful and dramatic, and (along with Markus Lupertz’s extraordinary ‘Schwarz-Rot-Gold dithyrambisch’) suggested exciting times ahead for German painting. Of course even then the commercial side of the enterprise was to the fore with the large German contingent in ‘New Spirit’ reflecting the German economic miracle going into full Imperial mode (and why not the USA had been doing to same for the previous decade or two!). But I was quite a fan and followed the development of the work though the 80’s with gathering enthusiasm. I can’t say that I focused on him as much in the nineties or noughties but those few things I did see suggested the work, though not pushing forward particularly, had matured nicely with the core themes being played around with with continued sensitivity. A few warning bells started sounding in around 2004/5 however when the works I saw seemed to be getting bigger…indeed much bigger…but not a lot better. An encounter in Berlin in 2008 with one of the enormous Lead Libraries left me impressed but not moved. Then he dropped off my radar again.
Now to the biopic that accompanies the ‘Kieferfest’ at the Royal Academy. Isn’t there just something a wee bit unsavoury going on here? We begin by tracking through (one of the several) pieces of the real estate…glorious landscape albeit dotted with bric-a-brac. Isn’t this simply a monument to bombast…indeed it may be bombast central…a monument to ego? If one was expecting a critique or a discussion around the actual artwork it simply wasn’t on offer. Yentob bandied about a few choice phrases about how well read our man was without saying exactly what it was being read or why, and how it might relate to the work. But we were treated to terms like lovely and nice which were often bandied about…and wonderful came up several times.
I felt for Tony…he had the shit job of organising and managing the hard and laborious and I suspect complex tasks of realising the ‘ideas’ and got barked at by Anselm chewing on his cigar. When he wasn’t doing that the ‘artist’ took to ‘sledging’ the workers…Alain, had the temerity to suggest he might go home in the evening…Anselm said he’d keep working…but then perhaps bossing about the staff that probably doesn’t take that much energy. Exactly how many workers are employed by ‘Kieferworld’ wasn’t revealed nor their terms and wage rates (but I’d hazard a guess that its all pretty tightly controlled…or how else can the company keep swallowing up such large chunks of real estate?). My feeling is that there’s a competition going on up there in the Global art market where the ‘greats’ are competing on acreage and staffing complements… How many does Anselm have, more or less than Olafur and Gerhard? I don’t buy into the argument that “artists have always done this” – yes there were studios in the far past but they were about painstakingly passing on craft skills rather than managing a global business brand. The rise of the massive international art market and the stratospheric prices in that place fuelled by the obscenely widening gap between the top 1% and the rest has much to answer for.
The bile rising in my gut was further fuelled by the intellectual weakness on blatant display. You like scale says Yentob…what a wank…first year fine art is about understanding the difference between size and scale… The clue was in the way the early 10x8s had been blown up to twenty foot, the image unchanged but the size…uummm and the cash price!…think of the cash price. There was an image towards the end where the artist walked through a sewer and dropped a carefully extracted fragment from his pocket into the water…the camera moved to a frame from below of clear water…a little later the great man is pushing an enormous piece of manky polystyrene through his swimming pool. Goodness knows why but I was powerfully reminded of Renton diving into the disgusting toilet in the pub in Trainspotting…! I’ll leave readers to fill in the gaps. As indeed ought to be the case with so many other images…the all powerful man commissioning musicians to play classical music in what resembles a detention camp interior… You probably get the picture.
And ultimately that’s what was so depressing and unsavoury – the way in which absolute control leads to utter indulgence and how meaning and nuance is blasted to smithereens by market considerations and ego. But then at the last I think, maybe, this is the ultimate global ‘epater le bourgeois’ – taking enormous sums of cash off Russian oligarchs, Saudi sheiks and first world governmental cultural agencies for near meaningless bombast, drained of real content and subtlety. Yes that’s it – this isn’t ego and self aggrandisement running away with itself…but a cunning plan. Sadly though such delicious irony has not crossed the mind of any of the participants in this ‘Kieferfest’. The truth is the juice ran out somewhere in the 90’s and the real energy the ‘Company’ has now goes to running the business.