Art gallery blurbs

I’m feeling a bit pot/kettle for having been rude to Lynne Truss for whinging about things, because this, for the third post in a row, is going to be a whinge.

This time: those blurbs in art galleries. Specifically the ones that tell you what to think, and how you should be reacting. I don’t mind this kind of thing:

Although the inspiration for Embankment came from the single box she found in her mother’s house, Whiteread selected a number of differently-shaped boxes to construct the installation for the Turbine Hall. She filled them with plaster, peeled away the exteriors and was left with perfect casts, each recording and preserving all the bumps and indentations on the inside. They are ghosts of interior spaces or, if you like, positive impressions of negatives spaces. Yet Whiteread wanted to retain their quality as containers, so she had them refabricated in a translucent polymer which reveals a sense of an interior. And rather than make precious objects of them, she constructed thousands.

[some stuff about the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark which I can’t be bothered to type] Whiteread has spoken of wanting to make the Turbine Hall into a kind of warehouse, and this is an intriguing response to a space which was once industrial but is now a museum. For what is a museum, after all, but a storage depot for art?

There’s a certain amount of editorialising there, but it’s mainly concerned with the thought processes and techniques of the artist, which is quite interesting information which the audience can take or leave. But this, from later in the same leaflet, is the kind of thing that really bugs me:

Dwarfed by these towering structures as we wind our way through them, we become acutely aware of our own physical presence. But there is also a spirit of absence here, a ghostly echo of all the abandoned empty spaces that surrounds us day after day.

Thanks, Mr Tate-Curator, but I can decide for myself how aware I am of my own physical presence.

One particular problem with this kind of blurbing is that it invites the audience to disagree. This is from the leaflet for the Universal Experiences exhibition at the Hayward:

This 28-metre-long light table displays hundreds of colour transparencies of tourist destinations visited and photographed by the artists. The pictures evoke fantasies of escapism and are reminiscent of the illustrations in tourist brochures and travel magazines. Combined in this sculptural travelogue these images allude to the increase in global tourism at the end of the 20th century and re-invest their endlessly photographed subjects with a sense of the extraordinary.

To which my reaction is – no they don’t. Re-invest with a sense of the extraordinary, that is. If anything, they banalify the places shown by lumping together such a large number of generic-looking photos. Now the curators at the Hayward might argue that it’s a good thing that I’m being drawn into engaging with the work. Except that I find myself constantly put into a hostile, confrontational frame of mind; and I don’t believe that irritated and argumentative is the best spirit to get the most out of a work of art.

Perhaps all I’m doing is revealing my own character flaws again.

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Modern

Rachel Whiteread is the latest person to do a big installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Embankment consists of lots of translucent white plastic casts of the internal space of cardboard boxes, piled in a mixture of regular and irregular stacks.

These pictures are taken with my credit card sized digital camera, which is really just a toy. So they’re not great quality.

A longish view to give you an idea of what it’s like:

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

Some shots to show what it’s like to wander through it. It creates lots of different vistas and such as you walk round.

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

It’s probably most visually striking looking down on it from the third floor:

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

[pic of Rachel Whiteread's 'Embankment']

I thought on balance it was a bit of a lost opportunity. All these Turbine Hall installations are necessarily big, and they tend to be impressive through sheer bigness. The best manage to do something a bit more. For that matter, the size of this work isn’t as impressive as it might be simply because it’s made up of lots of smaller objects. A big stack of cardboard boxes is less surprising and less dramatic than, for example, one enormous cardboard box the size of a house.

Also, Whiteread has made a career out of revealing the surprising forms created by the negative spaces of mundane objects – tables, bathtubs, bookshelves and so on. But the negative space inside a cardboard box just looks like a cardboard box. If you stack a lot of them on top of each other, so the details stand out less, the distinction is even less clear it just looks like lots of models of boxes. Not very exciting. I can understand why she was reluctant to do something too much like a repeat of House, which would have been the obvious thing to do in such a big space:

[pic of Whiteread's 'House']

but boxes really seem like a boring choice of subject.

Generally speaking, the whole project of commissioning works for that space is an excellent one – it makes a big public event of contemporary art and attracts comment in the papers on a regular basis. The fourth plinth project in Trafalgar Square is very effective for the same reason.