Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A tale of sound and fury

A few days ago, I walked out of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art so angry I could hardly speak – vibrating, nostrils flaring, teeth locked, brows knitted – angry enough to step out in front of, and face down, a speeding car on the pedestrian crossing outside. I left with a desire to never ever return to the gallery. I left hating art.

The SNGMO's current exhibition, From Death to Death and Other Small Tales features pieces from the gallery's collection that have been mixed together with a Greek billionaire's private collection, to "create a new dynamic context for both collections." The show intends to "discover the diverse ways in which 20th and 21st century artists have approached the subject of the body."

There are a lot of big names on show here, enough to make the show almost a who's who of the last hundred years of contemporary arts. In this sense, it is an impressive exhibition to visit in my home town, doubly so that it is free. Clearly, I should be thankful to have the opportunity to be allowed to see such stellar artworks, plucked from the firmament and brought down to lowly little Edinburgh. Sadly, I am not thankful.

The exhibition is, for the most part, a cold dead thing – the title, of course, should have been a clue. It is one long, insipid and uninspired in-joke, with a few good pieces that serve only to highlight the paucity of talent on display elsewhere. Works that are so puerile as to become utterly vacuous, rub shoulders with pieces dense and unfeeling enough, that the bodies which inspired them could only have been corpses. It is an unhappy, uninspired and uninspiring view of the world and ourselves. While it might seek to find something universal in our bodies, it instead finds only darkness and self-obsession.

Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain', 1917
I'm almost embarrassed to admit that it only took us just over 30 minutes to take in the whole exhibition, including a return to linger over five small and beautiful Francesca Woodman photographic prints. I have never walked around the gallery faster. Dust flew in my wake. I may never have seen most of these pieces before, however I have seen similar from the same shallow end of the art pool, where shock and spectacle have become the all-encompassing point. I've seen the like in modern and contemporary galleries across the country. Finding Marcel Duchamp's 'Fountain' a little past the half way mark in the exhibition made for the ironic centre to the exhibition: an artwork whose sole merit is the in-joke, elevated to high art: the clear forefather of much of the work on show here.

Witness the found objects, exhibiting as much worth as a pair of discarded old shoes in a gutter, such as Joseph Beuys' 'Felt Suit' (1970); the ugly forms typified in twenty embarrassingly poor Tracey Emin scribbles; Picasso's 'Nu Assis' (1969) that comes across as the barrel-scraping of a dirty old man; the numerous video art pieces – a medium that is singularly hard to engage with – and a whole room covered in a black wallpaper, patterned with toilet wall cock 'n' balls and lady's spread legs. The viewer is not so much left pondering their body and its time on earth, so much as the more prominent question of why is much of this called art? There is little creativity on show, while it is hard to imagine the artists having taken anything even close to a delight in the making of their work. Almost all that is on offer is cruel irony, a sneer from on high. If I wanted to be this depressed, I'd stay in bed with the curtains closed and have our endless winter rewound and started again.

In short, the exhibition left me cold, much as last year's Sculpture Show did. Like that show, this features work conforming to the same narrow view of the world of art. Also like that show, this one is going to run for many, many months. Yet, where the Sculpture Show lasted for six months, this one runs for nine. It is in considering this final aspect that I became so angry.

I accept that there is a whole world of art out there that says nothing to me, does nothing for me and is made without any heart. I do not like it, yet I accept that it exists and that it will be shown and that there must be, somewhere, people who take something from it. I even admire the gallery for trying something different in their curation of these exhibitions.

What I find unacceptable is that the SNGMO has been given over to this narrow viewpoint for such breathtakingly long periods of time. In the past two years, these exhibitions have taken over the entire gallery for fifteen months. It is astoundingly arrogant: like it or lump it is the message. In the past, where one could visit parts of the permanent collection in the upper galleries, now one has no choice but to return to these exhibitions, or be deprived of museum level modern art for almost two thirds of the year.

I have been visiting the gallery for around twenty years. Today it feels like the gallery and collection that I have loved and thoroughly enjoyed for all that time has been changed into something that is no longer for me. Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps, simply, my view of art is hopelessly outdated and I am lost in an ancient back water in this post modern world. Or perhaps, even more simply, I just don't like art any more.

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