Friday, July 15, 2016

On The Electronic Superhighway…..Philip Willey June 2016

" Art, " according to Douglas Coupland, "seems to operate in a world that has calcified into a self-propagating MFA-ocracy as orthodox as any extremist religion." *

Doug may be right. His hypothesis was on my mind as I crossed the Millenium Bridge on a recent trip to London and approached the holy of holies. If art has replaced religion then the Tate Modern must be the new St. Paul’s cathedral. Here is the place to seek spiritual guidance. This is where the oracles reside. It’s an amazing space actually….used to be Bankside Power Station. I’d often see the chimney from the train and wonder what went on in there. Massive turbines once produced 300  mega-watts of electricity but they became uneconomical. In the spring of 1993 the building seemed doomed. In 2000 it metamorphosed into the Tate Modern. With the turbines gone what wonders now lie within? I’d heard tales of pickled sharks, dishevelled beds, shattered Ming vases and acres of ceramic sunflower seeds.

Don’t believe the stories about art being dead. The place was packed. Fortunately it’s big enough to absorb us all. I assume everybody is looking for enlightenment or perhaps a glimpse of the elusive Zeitgeist.  Admission is free except for special exhibitions. There’s a a faint smell of formaldehyde.

I join a group of pilgrims listening to a guide.  Some appear interested, some look knowledgeable, some bemused. Some may be having a religious experience.  It’s hard to tell. The guide tries to hit a middle ground. Something for everyone. “The Guerilla Girls,” she says, “are an anonymous group fighting sexism in the art world. We thought it would be interesting to show them alongside Andy Warhol who wasn’t too concerned with gender distinctions.”

I want to ask her if it’s true that Andy Warhol was a devout Catholic? Is art a religion? Where do you keep the Zeitgeist? But I decide to move on.

I look around. It’s a huge building. A fantastic place for art. A sign says “Photography is permitted for personal use”. There is a lot of selfie taking going on. 

Nam Jun Paik, who died in 2006, seems to have been comfortable with technology and the inevitability of progress. He was the first to make art out of TV/video. He had no problem with the electronic super highway. Everybody is familiar with his TV Buddha of 1974 where Buddha silently observes himself on a screen in an infinite temporal loop. Nam Jun Paik was a prophet and he appears to have been a happy man. What he saw is what you get. He had fun.

Nam Jun Paik, ‘Bakelite Robot’ 2002
I’m not sure we can say the same for Mark Rothko. The Tate Modern is home to some of his breathtaking paintings. These are the ones that were commissioned for an expensive restaurant and donated to the Tate by Rothko himself. It’s impossible not to be affected by them. To me they look like windows or portals, silent, brooding, magnificent but oppressive. 

Was Marcus Rothkovich religious? He certainly had a religious Jewish background. He was very serious about his art. He asked big questions. He took his own life. In ‘Writings on Art’ (Yale University Press 2006) he says….
 “Pictures must be miraculous: the instant one is completed, the intimacy between the creation and the creator is ended. He is an outsider. The picture must be for him, as for anyone experiencing it later, a revelation, an unexpected and unprecedented resolution of an eternally familiar need.”

Yes the Tate Modern is like a temple in many ways. There’s a lot to be said for art as absolute, art as metaphor, art as a gateway to the infinite. Even for art as religion for atheists. Do we create our own deities? Can art, as expression of ideals, be less authentic for having human origins? Or does inspiration itself bring us closer to divinity? What’s next for art? 3D printing according to Google’s artist in residence, Douglas Coupland.

These and other thoughts pass through my mind as I take the tube from Blackfriars to Aldgate East. L3.90, L2.90 with an Oyster Card. Watch out for card clash! This occurs when two or more contactless payment cards are kept in close proximity and it can seriously disrupt the system. It’s ages since I’ve been in London. When did public transport get so expensive? I used to go from London to Glasgow for less than a fiver. 

The England team lost 2-1 to Iceland. This comes on top of the Brexit referendum and it shows on the faces around me.What are people thinking? Hard to say. Most of them are texting and wearing earplugs. Keep calm and carry on is the order of the day. There may not be any bears or raccoons in the UK but a misplaced wheelie bin can threaten the social fabric.

Also I’m completely out of touch with the art scene. Where should I look for leading indicators? What is considered cutting edge these days? Are there any alternative spaces? Perhaps a visit to Whitechapel Gallery will help. It’s a choice between that and a mammoth display of Rolling Stones memorabilia at Saatchi called ‘Exhibitionism’. L19. Maybe next time. It’s only rock and roll.
By some curious synchronicity the show at the Whitechapel Gallery is called Electronic Superhighway and it looks at the effects of the internet on art. There are over 100 works of art by 70 leading artists. (L9.50 for seniors but you need to book.)

Mostly the Whitechapel show has a hands-off digital feel to it. Cory Arcangel uses a Java applet and a 70” flat-screen to create rippling Pop imagery. Hiroshi Kiwano digitizes Mondrian. Amalia Ulman uses fake Instagram profiles to explore the relationship between photography and performance.  Nancy Holt and Richard Serra’s 1974 video ’Boomerang’ is included as an example of how technological art has evolved from the 60s to the present. 

Evan Roth’s “Self Portrait’ is a waterfall of images representing one day’s web browsing. A striking piece of search-engine optimization.

Television, video, gaming, ecommerce, social media, photoshop, curator Omar Kholeif has brought it all together. Sound too…. a woman’s voice keeps telling us not to take liquids on board planes but there are only a few painters in the show….Celia Hempton paints couples she’s met on the net, Ulla Wiggen paints computer components. Nam Jun Paik provided the title. There are works by Nam Jun Paik and, you guessed it, Doug.

These are the times we live in. Times of so much information it’s hard to digest it all. Times of contradictions and cultural fragmentation when individual identities are sacrosanct but we’re all in the databank. We are quick to take offence if our rights are threatened but we have learned to tolerate surveillance. We’re told it’s for our own good. Google knows everything. Resistance is futile. Complaining gets you nowhere. 

There’s no doubt about the influence of the internet. Whether it is good or bad depends on your general outlook on life. Most of the artists in the Whitechapel show seem to regard the internet as more threatening than benign. They tell us to beware of a false reality. But they do it in a playful way for the most part by using the very technology they seem to doubt. These artists are very self-aware. If there is a dominant theme it’s irony. 

So has art replaced religion? Maybe it has for some art lovers. We may be retreating into digital experience but public galleries are packed. Perhaps art helps us make sense of life. Or perhaps it reminds us that life is a mystery. 

As for the Zeitgeist the internet seems like the best place to look for that. For better or worse IT does seem to be a major factor. Maybe it’s possible to live without IT.  Perhaps IT takes up too much of our time but look at the upside….if you can’t get to the galleries you can still read about them online.

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