State of Play
3 Feb - 28 March 2004
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London - UK
State of Play refers to a current tendency in art to use everyday objects and materials with a jouissance that might seem inappropriate in a public gallery like the Serpentine. Such spaces, which are funded by a cocktail of public and private money, are expected to be responsible and educative, rather than reveling in such juvenile fun. However, rather than being totally divergent from the very serious, documentary-style work that is equally prevalent at the moment, this 'playful' art can cut as deep into socio-political concerns as the more urgently-pitched work.
Game theory has been a factor in the analysis of art throughout the twentieth century, so the idea that work is 'playful' is not necessarily radical these days. What perhaps is an interesting development, though, is the notion of 'relational aesthetics', a termed coined by Nicolas Bourriaud, the director of the Palais de Tokyo, which has been a hot topic in recent discussions on curating. Bourriaud's description of the new role of the audience as a constituent of the artwork—when the gallery might be transformed into a functional bar or an advice centre or a knocking shop—could indeed turn art into participatory leisure. 'State of Play', however, makes no reference to this at all; each piece of work is an autonomous object or image, the viewer does not play a crucial role in the formulation of the work. What then, might be the state of play that the Serpentine curators are referring to?
There is humour here, and an irreverent use of materials, but that's to be expected in any group show in London at the moment. Cheeky playfulness is standard fare, so perhaps this is simply a sort of swab of the atmosphere that is already extant; in which case you wonder how decisions were made to include certain artists and not others. Some of the work is new, but much of it has been seen before—it's a bit like saying you're going to curate a show of recent round things. David Shrigley's ping-pong bat and balls inscribed with 'Your Parents', 'You', 'Your Wee Sister' and 'Social Services', for example, is a well-worn piece of Shriglery, though not as familiar as Martin Creed's crumpled sheets of A4 and tiles stacked awkwardly close to doorways.
To revert to the analogy of art as play, there are certain pieces here that are more like nebulous, contingent play than a structured game. Gabriel Kuri's low-fi improvisation 'Clouds' (2004) consists of carrier bags printed with 'thank you' in different languages and attached to ceiling fans so that they inflate and rustle in a most uncloud-like way. The formal gag might be mistaken for vacuity if it weren't for the printed words that give the piece a vague authority of internationalism and the dubious weight of a 'message'. Kuri's clouds are a prime example of art that seems to be mucking about, but is actually prodding problematic or painful aspects of culture or society. Similarly, Bjørn Melhus's videos prompt thoughts on TV evangelists and chat shows, but most people visiting the gallery are probably already aware of these phenomena as banal or corrupting—we've lived through the 1980s and have come out the other side armed with the requisite scepticism. Art that simply points out the evidence of consumerism or mass culture is preaching to the converted, we need more specifics now.
Christian Jankowski's video 'Puppet Conference' (2003), on the other hand, worms into the infrastructure of an arcane world that is extraordinary enough to override any hazy preachiness. Jankowski invited the television networks that own series like Sesame Street and The Muppet Show to take part in a 'conference' where puppets discussed their trade. The networks' control of the script was wincingly obvious as the characters—Fozzie Bear, Grover, a creepy tortoise called Mr Shelby and puppet veteran Lamb Chop—talked about their shows and 'careers' (an hilarious misnomer for characters with no free will) in a hideously saccharine and self-promotional way. Although we can guess at the extent of commercialism in the realm of children's entertainment, here the contradiction of innocence and cut-throat business makes deliciously excruciating viewing.
The problem with 'State of Play' is an overwhelming sense of arbitrariness, of a theme enforced on work so heterogeneous that it contradicts itself at every turn. The press release makes claims of spontaneity and lightness of touch in the work, but again this is not a universal quality. Aleksandra Mir's over-sized umbrella sits dumbly in the gallery, surrounded by photographs of it in situations around the city—in an umbrella shop, on London Bridge among the commuters—while Andreas Slominski's 'Wall Built from Top to Bottom '(2004) poses a teaser. Whereas Slominski displays slap-dashery with breeze blocks, Mir's mode of making is certainly not throw-away. Perhaps it is time that themed shows gave way to an honest admittance that art can no longer be categorised, that the job of the curator is not that of the taxonomer. While the role of The Serpentine Gallery is not necessarily to show radical breakthroughs or track conceptual threads in current art production, if themes are to be employed to corral together work, then the content must be garnered from further afield. The Serpentine tends to show artists of a certain media-friendly level and here, putting the cart before the horse somewhat, the selected works or, rather, artists seem shoehorned together under a vague pretext when more risks could be taken to reveal a punchier state of play.