MATTHEW COLLINGS is an artist and writer whose has books included ‘Blimey!’ and ‘This Is Modern Art’. He has written and presented many TV programmes, including the series, ‘This Is Modern Art,’ which received several awards including a BAFTA. He contributes a weekly column, Put Downs and Suck Ups, to Saatchi Online’s magazine.
Heimo Zobernig at Tate St Ives
I really liked a show at Tate St Ives by the German multi-media artist Heimo Zobernig. He rearranged the gallery collection. He divided up the space in unconventional ways – obscuring the view out the window onto the bay, for example. Or making a room green instead of white. You suddenly had to think about the space instead of taking it for granted. You realised “space” was a theme – as were light, shape, texture, contour. Plus he mixed work by himself in with the historical works in the Tate collection, and also threw in bits and pieces that were not really “work” at all, or at least didn’t become so until they were juxtaposed with something else, making a kind of hybrid or collage. You saw a Duchamp next to a work of earnest constructivism, a Picasso nearby, a Paula Rego sculpture, a Lynn Chadwick, all sorts: certainly not always works that I would necessarily have liked individually, or under usual museum-like circumstances. But also you saw some Ikea book-shelves displayed straight and then another bit of the same type of shelving with the backs removed and coloured transparent material stuck there instead – on the wall some Patrick Heron stripes glowed, and the plastic material seemed to glow right back. What was going on? Something good for art, for the mind, for being alive. Usually this kind of artistic intervention in museums is ghastly; the same for when the curators at museums rearrange the hang according to “themes.” The former is just ephemeral attention-grabbing hi-jinx; you forget about it immediately. Having joined in as a kind of social ritual with everyone else stroking their chins and saying, Hmm, yes, gosh, hmm. The worst example of deluded curator-genius I can think of is when Tate Modern had a section devoted to “The Nude” for a few years – you got Lucian Frued next to Picasso, with Kirchner thrown in and maybe a bit of Otto Dix. The only connection was first-base literalness: pictures of nudes. No visual connection; no sympathy of forms. The eye feels exhausted. It’s a horrible experience. With Zobernig’s arrangement by contrast it was all eye-oriented. You saw grids, tracery, stagelike spaces, colour glazes, colour providing an analogue for light — and the works might have been by an obscure English surrealist from the inter-War period or it might have been a painting of nymphs from the eighteenth century. Your categorising impulse was diverted, or you could say you simply enjoyed a fresh kind of categorising, something much closer to the interior life of art than we’ve been used to for a long time, something new in a good way: distanced from literalness and obviousness or pretend-cleverness. He scrambled up the usual notions of meaning and context, so you started to see that form itself has a meaning, and a context can be visual not just intellectual. Of course it’s always the mind working whatever you’re seeing or thinking you’re seeing, but my feeling about this funny scrambled highly visual show was that he was giving the mind a good name at last, after years and years of so much depressing bullshit in art being offered up to us in the name of “the mind”.
Cold War Modern at the V&A, London
Another show I thought was good, from almost an opposite direction, was ‘Cold War Modern’ at the V & A in London. It was about how the big ideas of a historical period somehow permeate all style-production, whether it’s an astronaut’s space suit or a decorated plate by Picasso (both of which were featured in the show.) Seeing Kubrick’s 2001 projected silently opposite Tarkovsky’s Solaris was genuinely eerie and memorable.
Francis Bacon, Tate Britain, London
Ever since I first came across him in art books at about age 17 I always found Francis Bacon a bit dubious; I thought those screams and monsters were silly. For the first time in my life, going round the Tate Britain retrospective, I saw a Bacon as an abstract proposition: colour, melting shapes, enthusiasm for moments of art history. In fact almost the whole show was a revelation, only going a bit dried up in the last decade.
Mark Rothko, Tate Modern, London
The Rothko show at Tate Modern was great: the paintings were overwhelmingly thoughtful, playful, delicate and beautiful. We forget how released they are, so arbitrary and casual as well as controlled. There’s nothing like that now. The arrangement and lighting with their trivial populist ideas of darkness and seriousness were just insulting. But these works were so good they survived all that.