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'.


MartaSzabo said...

I liked reading this, Heather! Yeah, crazy that this guy gets called an artist for his collection! I think there really was a big emperor in that room without any clothes on! Write to the gallery or something! It would be great for them to get a dose of reality!

Anonymous said...

Just looked at the blurb and accompanying picture- that is very OCD but its not art! Apparently his best known work is called "When Faith Moves Mountains 2002" where Each person moved a shovel full of sand one step at a time from one side of a dune to the other, and together they moved the entire geographical location of the dune by a few inches. Art critic Jean Fisher writes that “the radical event of art precipitates a crisis of meaning or, rather, it exposes the void of meaning at the core of a given social situation, which is its truth (from Wikipedia).

It really is just a symptom of society today which is just disintegrating at ever increasing rate I think. Unfortunately we seem in the modern dark ages of art.

How did the job interview go?

Heather said...

Thanks Marta and Jacqui,

Your comments have restored me and made me laugh too. I'm thinking of following Marta's advice and giving the National Portrait gallery what for over this exhibition.

Heather said...

I've had a look at the National Portrait gallery's website and they neglected to include a form where I can leave some feedback so I will have to send a traditional letter by snail mail. I haven't done that for a long time.