TO the Tramway, to see this year’s Turner Prize nominees. The cab gets nearer the great brick shed, barrelling through the tinseltown rain of Glasgow: I feel calmer as I get closer.
There is almost nothing I don’t like about cutting-edge contemporary art, or contemporary artists. This will be a beautiful, puzzling, annoying, contemplative morning.
And so it proves. One white-cube room comprises of a few tubular chairs, draped with fur coats, and little else. Another looks like not much more than a pop-up shop for hand-crafted building materials.
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Yet another seems to be an entire radical bookshop reconstructed from about 1981 (plus some TV monitors showing interviews with conspiracy theorists).
The final experience is genuinely lovely: three female opera singers, vocalising a poem about physical pain, with yelps and howls bursting out of their elegant harmonies. However, they stand next to some font experiments, imprecisely stuck on the wall in A3 sheets. What? Why?
Yet Janice Kerbel, the American artist responsible for this last piece, puts it well in her video interview. Perhaps the point of art is not to complete the experience, but to prepare and sensitise you to have an even more interesting one to come. Art should be more like instructions, a toolbox, a score.
That’s one view, doubtless disputed by many. But it’s part of what I love about much contemporary art. We live in an age of capitalist-oriented design. Almost all of our everyday street-level experiences with objects and shapes – the shops, the brands, the mall, their contents – have been precisely calibrated to incite our desires, and thereby extract our cash.
Of course, there are huge amounts of art and sensibility in this. Probably the only other white-walled caves (apart from art galleries) in Glasgow and Edinburgh are the Apple stores. Here, flowers gently bloom on the fascia of techno-watches, and the salespersons are as earnest and informed as any gallery attendant.
And of course, art can be made with these devices. The aforementioned Kerbel sits before her big Mac in her promo video, drawling: “It basically all happens at the computer”.
But even the most artisan-encrusted retail chain outlet (and there are many out there) aims not to give you a singular, or open, or fractured experience, but a regular, repeatable and reliable experience.
When I’m having too comfortable a moment in these relentlessly fashioned places, David Byrne’s voice and jerky body crawls into my brain:
And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself—
My god! What have I done?
A cheeky Nando’s might be an unlikely place to do a version of Munch’s Scream. But sometimes, in the big city, you want to be in a physical place which isn’t straining every sinew to capture your mind and heart, for fun and profit. And in most big cities I go to, the art gallery – or the boho sector – is the zone where you can de-program, just for an hour or two, before going back into the hustle.
Does that make contemporary art galleries sound like churches or temples? No accident, in my mind. Religious interiors are all about a shaping of forms and symbols that points beyond mere utility. They seek to connect the devotee to a higher, broader, deeper, more historical order.
Modern art galleries grant the largely secular artist that same opportunity – to shape the spectator’s experience in order to refresh it, not to exploit it. But what I love about contemporary artists, at least over the last 10 years, is that their art forms have increasingly challenged the major order of our times – that is, neo-liberalism. And done so as best they can, in their endlessly diverse ways.
The artistic group Assembly in this year’s Turner Prize – a real contender – is a very tangible example. Its members are an architecture and construction collective who settle in communities – in this instance, a run-down Toxteth housing estate – and use arts, crafts and refurbishment to restore a sense of purpose and – an old-fashioned word – beauty.
William Morris (never mind William Blake) would recognise the spirit behind this. Waves of development may have turned the community’s buildings into shells. But what can re-enchant them is handicraft, the distribution of skills, and what seems like a wide open dialogue between locals and artists.
There is something moving about the sweet kids of Assembly in their interviews. They echo the hands-on immediacy and easy networking skills of the student and Occupy movements of the last few years.
This is what you imagine this generation might want to do when it grows up – to “be here, now”, rather than postpone their meaning-driven lives until they feel settled and secure. And how many of them think that security is coming, in these precarious times?
My other favourite to win is Bonnie Camplin’s Patterns. Again, this is contemporary art with its hands dug deep into the undergrowth of daily concerns. Nothing much carved on a plinth here: television monitors showing videos, books laid out, a photocopier free to use.
We can make sense of it by means of an excellent recent art book by Hal Foster. The Bad New Days identifies a few broad trends that have emerged since 9/11. Foster identifies the fall of the Twin Towers as the same kind of historical rupture that shaped earlier eras of art (eg, surrealism as a response to the First World War).
Our current times are typified by the lurch from extreme crisis to extreme crisis, and contemporary artists have been responding in a variety of ways, says Foster. They’ve tried to anchor us in the storm, with a hint of a different way of being. Or they’ve compelled us to remember the past, even the recent past, in ways the endless demands of consumerism want to obliterate – what Foster calls “archival” art. Or sometimes they aim to take the excess of our times to absurd extremes – what Foster calls “mimetic”.
Camplin’s Patterns triggers all of this. It’s as if the Mitchell Library had been taken over by a combination of mystics, leftists, UFOlogists and AI geeks. The credible (Buckminster Fuller) is promiscuously mixed in with the incredible (a guy who believes his backside has been “implanted” by aliens).
The place feels like it’s been set up in a day, could be disassembled into a van, and reassembled the next day, to make its alarming connections in some other town. The old sensibility that says: “Where’s the art in all this?” has to be wrestled down somewhat.
But we live in a world where the some of the most dangerous acts are fuelled by furious little cells of warriors and scholars. We may do well to sit in such a space for a while, and strain our sinews to understand such potent eccentricities.
Is all contemporary art so counter-cultural and critical? I’ve spent enough lush hours as an arts reviewer in the gallery spaces of London. I know how much contemporary art floats knowingly on the rivers of tax-exile cash, flooding through its streets and lobbies.
Decorative objects are still made to be bought by billionaire collectors, then displayed on mega-boats or corporate lobbies. (A recent show at London’s White Cube by contemporary of Damian Hirst, Marc Quinn, was a classic of the kind.)
But I’m with the fragile, bad-tempered, dogged, participatory, radically gentle ones of the contemporary art scene. I hope one of them wins next week. Go and see them in the battering rain of the south side of Glasgow, when they do.
The winner of the Turner Prize is announced live on Channel 4 on December 7, and the show at the Tramway runs until January 17.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).