Saturday, 6 February 2010

Dung roaming

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?


Kevin Musgrove said...

These days it's the Victorian Gothic that's an alien confection. Taken out of context, a bit of brightly-coloured enamelled metalwork from an industrial setting like a gasworks, mill or steam traction engine is mind-boggling. Or a pumping station.

I love it to bits.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Excellent looking artifact, that fountain. But a shame that the artist didn't attempt to use take inspiration from (more relevant) African primitive art - he could have beaten Picasso to it by several decades and made more of a name for himself.

Gaw said...

Kevin: Where is that pumping station? It's quite extraordinary. Have you seen Smithfield Market (mentioned in my earlier post)? A huge lump of strangeness.

Gadjo: It is peculiar. I would have thought he'd put in some classical references to Africa, such as using classical tropes, such as embodying the continent as a god. There don't seem to be references to anything relating to slavery either, such as the ocean or sugar. Waterfowl? Gryphons? But there is a lot to it and perhaps I missed some small element.

BTW there was a programme on TV the other night about the lost kingdoms of Africa. It was the colonisation of West Africa in the late-19th century that brought to Europeans' attention the primitive art that inspired Picasso et al. The bronzes of Benin shown on the programme - they're in the British Museum - looked totally amazing and were a lot more than simply decorative.

Anonymous said...

Things are only shocking within a context. So torture wouldn't be shocking if you were watching a documentary about torture, unpleasant but not shocking; but i am always unnerved by Han Solo's off screen screams in The Empire Strikes Back, a U-rated film from 1980, and his first, bemused words as the guards throw him into the cell afterwards: "they didn't ask me anything."

Likewise with Modern Art Bullshit, nothing is shocking anymore because you wearily assume it will be "transgressive", "provocative", not to mention faecal and squalid and blasphemous. It's only a matter of time before the Emins and Hirsts cotton on and produce seemingly innocuous "art" which, however, conceals lumps of excrement and human gore. But then, after a bit, when you see Hirst's latest work is a bright pink doll's house, you'll assume it conceals excrement and viscera. But then perhaps it WON'T - and that will be shocking, in its way.

worm said...

what a nice sunday read!

Have to say I quite like Ofili - the dung is a superfluous stylistic flourish, but the paintings themselves are bright and pleasant enough and would look good on almost any large wall

The fountain is excellent! Having lived in london for a fair few years (and being the kind of person, like you, who tends to look at odd statuary in forgotten corners)I have to say that I never noticed it -

have you ever been to Postman's Park near Smithfield market Gaw? Thats the kind of place I think you would like!!!

Gaw said...

Elberry: I get the feel that the recent Britart avant garde is now slipping into art history. The 'shock' is all becoming contextualised and distant. With this clutter removed it's getting easier to assess them against the art that was made before. I think this will permit a lot of reassessments in the next few years - downwards I would think.

Worm: I've had a number of reflective cigarettes over the years in Postman's Park. For obvious reasons it's a good place to put things into perspective!

dearieme said...

We went to live in Oz when my daughter was knee-high to my knee. She was inordinately proud of learning to recognise 'roo poo.

Gaw said...

My son is a bit obsessed with Australia. He wants us to move there. I think it all started when he discovered you could wear shorts there all-year-round.

dearieme said...

The landscape historian Oliver Rackham has a nice quip: "Australia is another planet."