Laura Gascoigne: Is It The Real World Or An Exercise? – November 2016

The Ukrainians have a lot of empty plinths where statues of Lenin once stood and last July, taking a leaf out of the Gormley Sutra, steps were erected around the one in Kiev’s Bessarabska Square so that people could climb up to admire the view and/or take selfies. The installation, Inhabiting Shadows, was the work of Mexican artist Cynthia Gutiérrez, apparently intended to prompt reflection on “imposed memory, system failure, emptiness, identity, and occupying space.”

You don’t have to be an artist to play this game. Elsewhere in the Ukraine, protestors have filled the vacuum: in Odessa, Lenin’s place has been taken by Darth Vader (right). Which of these gestures seems the more artistic? One has humour, the other a pretentious title, but both make similar points, the first more forcibly. When it comes to politics, protest has the advantage over art of single-point perspective: it doesn’t offer the viewer a range of potential meanings, and it often pips art to the post. The 2,500 used life jackets laid out by the International Rescue Committee in Parliament Square to coincide with the UN summit on the migrant crisis on September 19th took most of the wind out the inflatable lifeboats with which Ai Weiwei clad the facades of the Palazzo Strozzi for his retrospective opening four days later. The IRC’s installation was nameless, anonymous and free; Ai Weiwei’s was fashionably titled Reframe, stamped with the artist’s identity and priced accordingly.

As so often, it’s only money changing hands that distinguishes art from reality; outside the gallery context it’s becoming impossible to tell them apart. No sphere of life, however homely, is proof against artists who have appropriated gardening, cooking and even knitting as means of expression. Undeterred by the embarrassing flop of Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s Turbine Hall installation of planters titled Empty Lot in which nothing but a few straggly weeds came up – my plan of scattering dope seeds had to be abandoned when I couldn’t remember where I’d hidden them – the South London Gallery has got another Mexican artist, Gabriel Orozco (I’m beginning to understand Donald Trump’s concern there will soon be no Mexicans left south of the border) to design an accessible garden connecting the gallery with the adjoining housing estate. It opened in October. As Kew is involved, presumably this time plants will grow. As a community initiative it’s a sweet idea, but as a conceptual statement the Modern Slavery Garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower show – designed by Tanzanian-born Juliet Sargent and planted by slavery survivors – put it in the shade.

At this point, I have to confess to a guilty secret: I’m an avid consumer of ‘Metro Bites’ when on the Tube. This silly season, almost every story had the makings of an artwork. In the space of one week in July, there were items about a 96-year-old crack shot granny from Tilburg who since her first taste of a funfair shooting range aged 16 has preferred rifle shooting to sex; a husband in Dudley who murdered his wife for selling his Elvis tribute concert ticket; and two smuggler brothers caught at Plymouth Station with £24,000 of heroin in Kinder eggs up their bottoms – all of which seemed to have more to say on issues of feminism, identity and general abjection than anything in the current Turner Prize. Imagine the improvement to Anthea Hamilton’s strangely anus-free bottom if a Kinder egg could be seen popping out of it. But this summer’s prize-winning Metro artist manqué has to be the recovered drug addict from Halifax who had himself buried alive for three days in order to live-stream exhortations from beyond the grave discouraging other addicts from joining him. (Whether he rose again has not been reported.)

If you think these sorts of ‘true life’ stories are not material for art, Chinese artist Xu Bing would disagree. The plot of his new film, The Dragonfly Eyes, released in January, was based on the case of a husband who sued his cosmetically enhanced wife for tricking him into producing ugly children. In contemporary art, there is no silly season; it runs from January to December. Appropriately, it was the subs at Metro who came up with the inevitable Turner Prize headline ‘Butt Is It Art?’ So much is art these days that ‘But is it real?’ is a more pertinent question. As Gavin Haynes commented in his Guardian report on a hoax Corbyn talk staged by Lancaster University art student Lucie Carter in May: ‘The question “Is Jeremy Corbyn art?” hasn’t been asked very often. Most people are still trying to answer the deeper question: “Is Jeremy Corbyn politics?”’.

We live in an increasingly virtual world where a couple can divorce because of infidelities committed by their alter egos in Second Life and a bored schoolboy can shine a laser pen at a police helicopter when his PlayStation breaks down. It won’t be long before we’re all as thoroughly confused as the panicked security man recorded during the 9/11 attacks asking: “Is this ‘real world’ or an exercise?” No wonder most of us are way beyond caring whether art is imitating life or vice versa. The bored schoolboy was handed a six-month referral order with obligatory attendance on a ‘thinking course’, when what he – and the rest of us – could really do with is a dose of the ‘boundary training’ prescribed to Osborne’s psychiatrist brother with the wandering hands. Without it, the situation is becoming dangerous. When a woman was stabbed at last year’s Art Basel Miami, no one intervened because they thought it was an art performance. If it had been, they would have been ejected by security.

Leaving ‘real world’ problems to one side, has the loss of boundaries benefited art? Not in the opinion of Anselm Kiefer, who gave this analysis of the situation in a speech in 2008: “There is a special border, the border between art and life, which often shifts deceptively. Yet, without this border, there is no art. In the process of being produced, art borrows material from life, and the traces of life still shine through the completed work of art. But at the same time, the distance from life is the essence, the substance of art. The more scarred the work of art is by the battles waged on the borders between art and life, the more interesting it becomes.” His position is more nuanced than Nietzsche “Truth is ugly. We have art lest we perish from the truth.” But how could Nietzsche have foreseen the course of art? As it was, the great philosopher made the wrong call. It is falsehood that is ugly – without truth, we are in danger of perishing from art.

“Can you use real life as a subject?” was the question Gormley posed with his Fourth Plinth project. Which prompts another question: does a plinth make a more eloquent statement by remaining empty? I passed the Fourth Plinth between installations the other week, and it seemed to me that it did.

Laura Gascoigne
The Jackdaw Nov/Dec 2016