State of Play
3 Feb - 28 March 2004
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London - UK
There is a strong relationship between modern art and the
nursery. The geometrical lines and the bright colors of the 19th
century children's building blocks and models lead right into
Bauhaus design. And of course, those toys must have been exactly
the kind of thing Paul Klee and all the other central-European
modernists encountered at a formative age.
However, I am not sure if this is what the Serpentine Gallery had in mind when organizing its new exhibition, 'State of Play'. This is one of those group exhibitions, intended to take the current pulse of art. And it comes equipped with all the features one has come to expect from that sort of affair, including an irritating punning title and a thoroughly elusive theme.
It also boasts several exhibits that are quite hard to locate, let alone appreciate. One consists of a window covered with blue tape, another of plastic bags inflated by fans mounted on the ceiling. The show starts, not very encouragingly, with a breeze-block wall. The artist, Andreas Slominski, gave instructions to the Serpentine to construct this beginning at the top and ending at the bottom, without explaining how to do it.
Somehow the gallery and their builder gamely succeeded in carrying out this apparently impossible task, but no one reveals the method-which would have been the only interesting point about the otherwise very standard bit of construction. But, after starting with this visually boring conundrum, 'State of Play' gets better.
Much more intriguing as a puzzle is Tim Noble and Sue Webster' 'Kiss of Death'. This consists of two poles, with, on top of each, a rather disgusting agglomeration of stuffed birds and small mammals stuck together. So far, you might think, so uninteresting.
The twist is that, illuminated by a spotlight on the ground, these create utterly lifelike silhouettes of the heads of the two artists, in profile, on the wall behind. A raven perches on Noble's hair, pecking. This work is tantalizing because—short of lying on the floor of the Serpentine—it is quite impossible to see how it is doene. From all other angles, no silhouettes appear, just a muddle of beaks and claws.
It is also a positively mannerist conceit, reminding one of the faces that the 16th century painter Archimboldo used to create out of assemblages of fruit, vegetables and other odd bits and pieces.
'Kiss of Death' brings to mind, too, the heads of executed felons that used to be stuck on the poles at the gates of London. These silhouettes are a trick—and one of the artists have brought off in several works—but it's a good one.
Another rather unnerving fantasy is the sculpture by Sarah Sze, based on the fire escapes of New York buildings. This straggles over the wall of the gallery without ever leading anywhere, certainly not to a place of safety. It looks a bit like Meccano, but the mood is more Piranesi. Aleksandra Mir's The Big Umbrella is just that—a greatly oversized, black, businessman's brolly, which the artist is photographed, slightly charmingly carrying around town. That's certainly playful, as is the lengthy video Christian Jankowski, acted out by puppets from Sesame Street and other television programmes. The only trouble with that was that I couldn't work out what on earth the point was.
Martin Creed, you may remember, won the Turner Prize—and created quite a rumpus—a few years back with a work that consisted of a light being turned on and off. His contribution to this exhibition, Work No 316: A Sheet of Paper Crumpled Up and Flattened, is in the same tradition. It is also a reasonably successful art joke, since the results looks like a monochrome white painting of the kind produced by the American Robert Ryman.
Perhaps there is a slight common thread running through the diverse and peculiar exhibits in this show—a mixture of the artful and the playful, the simple and the paradoxical.
Is that the mood of art today? Search me. But State of Play at least contains a a few works worth investigation.