Thursday, 21 May 2009

What makes art ART?

Yesterday I had a job interview and had some time to kill before my appointment so I drifted into the National Portrait gallery near Trafalgar Square. I'd already had my lunch, been to the bank, done some window shopping around Covent Garden and was getting a bit bored and wanted to find somewhere dump my portfolio and have a mooch around. I considered going up to the top floor to look at the Tudors because I haven't seen Henry VIII for really quite a while but chose to stick to the galleries on the first floor since I had my eye on the time.

Tucked away in two small galleries away from the corridor full of photos of famous people there is an exhibition entitled Fabiola. It consists of around 300 paintings, tapestries, and a collage made from beans and lentils of the same subject who was a fourth-century Christian saint known as Fabiola who evidently is the protector of abused women and patron saint of nurses. She is shown as a young woman in profile, facing left and wearing a crimson veil. Apparently all these images are based on a 19th century painting by an artist called Jean-Jacques Henner which is now lost. They were created by anonymous craftspeople and artists who were mostly amateurs and all the pieces on show were made by hand and not mechanically reproduced.

There is a comfy seat in the middle of the first gallery which looked very inviting so I sat on that with several other people and began to inspect the images of this woman on the walls. It was like looking at wallpaper because you are looking at what is basically a repeating pattern, young woman, profile, crimson veil etc which made me feel as though I was drifting into a trance (or perhaps it was the effects of my lunch). I roused myself before I fell into a deep sleep and went into the neighbouring gallery where there were yet more of these images on display and I began to think 'yeah and so what'.

I suppose you could describe this exhibition as an installation because the artist whose name is attached to it, Francis Alÿs, hasn't as far as I could tell actually created anything in these two rooms. It represents his collection which he acquired over a period of 15 years from antique shops and flea markets in Europe and the Americas which for all I know also represented a bit of an obsession. The accompanying brochure seems full of bullshit to me and here is an example: 'In the eyes of its creator, artist Francis Alÿs, this ensemble of artefacts invites investigation as a collection. Bla, bla, bla.'

I like to leave an exhibition feeling stimulated and if possible inspired to go home and produce more work but this left me feeling duped and asking the question 'why did the National Portrait gallery, which has an international reputation, fall for this? It had nothing really to impart about portraiture and if this artist had a collection of used toothbrushes collected over 15 years would they have also put that on display?' It made me think of the 'emperor's new clothes'.