We went to Tate Britain today to see the Chris Ofili show. I thought it was very nice-looking - the dark room with the illuminated monkey paintings was simply stunning. Highly decorative - by no means a bad thing - but, for me, no more. I wonder whether it's because the African and black cultural references don't have the same resonance for me? Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood.
We took the elephant poo in our stride. Our four-year old didn't seem to think its presence in a painting was that remarkable. His main concern was with the logistics. He saw the disadvantage in not hanging the paintings with 'string': as they lean against the wall, sitting on two cannon balls of poo, his little brother couldn't roam around in case he touched them. But the key issues were the negotiations you'd have to conduct with the elephants (he wondered whether they might have suggested the idea in the first place), the need to travel out of London to talk to them (he knows they're no longer located conveniently at London Zoo, having moved to Whipsnade), and the requirement to wear gloves when you transported the poo. But on balance, he thought, it was all worth it as it would involve contact with elephants.
Afterwards, we decided to walk along the north bank of the Thames back to Westminster, then cross over to the South Bank and get the bus home. On the way, we stopped off in Victoria Square Gardens and had a look at the Buxton Memorial Fountain (below). I'd often seen this whilst driving by and wondered what it was all about. It dates from 1865, commemorating the end of the slave trade in 1807 and the end of slavery in the British Empire in 1834.
One of the reasons I'd noticed it before was the combination of colours used in the roof of enameled steel panels: like other Victorian schemes it's one we wouldn't dream of coming up with today. Close up, the colours look no less peculiar and the various Gothic encrustations add to the monument's strangeness: gryphon and sea monster gargoyles, sparkling little mosaics mostly of water fowl, various types of masonry including two different granites. And you can see for yourself below the exuberance, complexity and detail of the stone-carving.
It brought to mind those Hindu temples in India whose roofs are like a steeply-banked football terrace packed with colourful gods. I felt I was in the presence of a sort of European barbarian art that had dropped out of our collective gaze at some indeterminate point in the past century. (By the way, there were no references in the design to slavery, which seemed strange - the designer S.S. Teulon obviously felt under no pressure to be relevant).
And it struck me that all this was at least as exotic as Ofili's work back at the gallery. I'm not saying it was qualitatively better or worse. It just seemed, if anything, stranger and more foreign. I wonder whether this was why Ofili's work didn't have the impact I expected - after over a century of African-inspired primitivism in European art, nearly forty years of Funkadelic-style album and CD covers, and about fifteen years of British art incorporating such artifacts as elephant poo, sharks, bacon and eggs, etc. - were the themes a bit run-of-the-mill? Perhaps our four-year old's matter-of-factness is shared by us all now? And perhaps what would be really weird to see in a contemporary art show is some odd enamel panelling enlivened with a few creepy gargoyles?