Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Doris's crack - too much information?

I suggested in my piece on Doris's Salcedo's Shibboleth at Tate Modern here that occasionally curators' explanatory texts can kill a work stone dead. This is a particular problem where conceptual art is concerned.

Now Alice O'Keeffe has run with this theme in a good piece in the New Statesman entitled Information Overload.

Alice writes:
"Shibboleth is not "the experience of a third world person coming to the heart of Europe". It is a crack in the floor. Schoolchildren given that explanation would be quite right to feel confused by it and alienated from the work as a result. If, however, they were simply encouraged to explore how the crack made them feel, they might begin to appreciate the real value of Shibboleth and to understand the unique, mysterious power of an image."

Hear, hear.

Friday, October 19, 2007

It's a game

"You see, all art has now become completely a game by which man distracts himself; and you may say it has always been like that, but now it's entirely a game. And... what is fascinating now is that it's goin to become much more difficult for the artist, because he really must deepen the game to be any good at all."
— Francis Bacon

Provenance? What provenance?

Cosmetics magnate, Ronald Lauder, for whom art collecting is "like a sickness", is being accused by the New York Times of a lack of openness by refusing to reveal the full provenance details of his magnificent art collection.

His refusal to comply with the glasnost now expected of any responsible museum or private collection has naturally led to speculation that his collection might, or could, contain works looted by the Nazis. Mr Lauder himself claims a spotless record where Holocaust restitution matters are concerned, so why then his refusal to do the right thing?

Asked by the New York Times to release an inventory of his German and Austrian works, Lauder refused. “It’s my private collection," he said. "Would it be O.K. for people to see what dresses you have in your closet?”

I'm only blogging this as an aide memoire to myself in case I forget that provenance is still a critical issue. Full depressing story here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rock, Paper, Scissors? Game theory work on market mechanisms wins Nobel Prize for Economics

A few years ago, the head of a Japanese corporation consulted both Sotheby's and Christie's for their advice on selling his company's corporate art collection of important Impressionist paintings and other masterpieces.

The sales pitches offered by the heads of the two auction houses were so close that the Japanese mogul couldn't decide who to give the instructions to. So he hit upon a novel solution. He invited the two men back to his office where they were expected to engage in the children's game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The winner would get the business.

Rumour has it that prior to the big match the Sotheby's representative consulted his two daughters who were regular players of the game at their prestigious private school in upstate New York. After receiving his daughters' wise words on playground probability theory, Dad promptly flew back to Japan and won the game, thereby securing the contract to sell the corporate art collection.

I suspect this isn't, strictly speaking, an example of 'game theory' as it is understood by economic scientists. But as an equitable solution to a difficult commercial dilemma it's hard to beat.

Thus it came as no surprise to hear that this year's Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences has been awarded to three U.S. academics — Leonid Hurwicz (aged 90, right), Eric S. Maskin and Roger B. Myerson (both 56) — for their work on game theory in markets, or more specifically on how people's knowledge and self-interest can affect their behaviour in market situations. The idea that knowledge and self-interest play a crucial role in markets seems pretty bloody obvious to me, but hey, what do I know?

The full story (here) refers to, among other things, how this Nobel Prize-winning work touches on auctions. For example, Eric S. Maskin has conducted research to determine which auction mechanisms bring most revenue to sellers.

Funny, isn't it, how economists spend their lives meditating on these issues, eventually winning the Nobel Prize, while Pierre Omidyar pops out of nowhere to invent eBay, at a stroke revolutionising the auction universe. I guess that's why the three Nobel Prize winners get to share $1.5 million, while Omidyar is said to be worth $8.8 billion.

Meanwhile the art market is still governed by the traditional gavel and rostrum auction procedure which remains open to all manner of sharp practices (hence the furious letters to Antiques Trade Gazette every week). Perhaps this partly explains why the art market is still exploding like a stick of Nobel dynamite.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Crack Addicts

It's only been there a few days, but already Colombian conceptual artist Doris Salcedo's installation at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall (left) has generated plenty of coverage about how dangerous it is, plus noisy speculation about how it was made, but very little about what it might signify.

Meanwhile, UBS — the bank that sponsors the other series of major Tate displays upstairs — has seen a huge Northern Rock-size crack appear in its own balance sheet.

Shibboleth, as Salcedo's piece is called, is basically an earthquake-like fissure running the length of the Turbine Hall. It starts by the entrance as a hairline crack in the concrete floor and then meanders down the sloping ramp, widening steadily as it goes, breaking off here and there into tributary cracks, and continuing until it finally disappears beneath the wall at the far end of the hall.

At its widest, the span is about 10in — not much, but evidently enough for two or three people to have already 'fallen in', according to news reports. Nobody has been seriously injured (yet), but it's only a matter of time as works like this (and Carsten Höller's slides) will always attract the Munchausen Syndromers.

The Guardian assembled some architects and builders on site and invited them to speculate on how Doris had done it. Their professional suggestions were credible enough but no more so than those vocalised by members of the public when I visited last Tuesday. Then a local builder popped up and blew the gaff. The Tate had been trying to keep it all a secret, but this guy had been on site during the installation and had seen it all through a crack in the tarpaulin. Cat out of bag.

But does it matter how it was made? Artists can slice and dice buildings any way they like if they put their minds to it, as Richard Wilson demonstrated a few months ago.

If you get down close enough you can see a wire mesh embedded in the sides of the Shibboleth gorge — which at its deepest is three or four feet deep. It looks structural, like an armature to stabilize the concrete, but it's an integral part of the work's meaning.

The Tate provides visitors on arrival with a lengthy printed essay pamphlet explaining what the crack's all about. This is what contemporary art galleries do these days. There's always a worry that the more complex conceptual works will leave people utterly mystified, but also a risk that explanatory texts will over-interpret or over-determine, foreclosing the process of imaginative engagement and impairing the visitor's enjoyment.

The dark side of colonialism
Salcedo has suggested that Shibboleth alludes to "a colonial and imperial history that has been disregarded, marginalised, or simply obliterated ... the history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity and ... its untold dark side." I'm not sure Doris's cracked floor is entirely successful in this precise respect, but perhaps visitors will connect her expressed intentions with their own experience of the work and take those resonances away with them.

There is a certain irony in a major work at one London gallery drawing attention to the disregarded, marginalised and obliterated colonial past, while other museums in London continue proudly to display the material fruits of that same colonial exploitation as if the oft-cited shibboleth of "that was then, this is now" is enough to justify it.

The wire mesh obviously evokes political issues such as the Israel/Palestine divide as well as regimes of incarceration and state retribution — perhaps most obviously and topically, Abu Ghraib. This is a rather more subtle allusion to those human rights abuses than the recent powerful Abu Ghraib paintings by Salcedo's compatriot, Fernando Botero, recently gifted to the Berkeley Museum.

The Turbine Hall may be too big for its own good. Its overpowering size has given birth to a number of projects in the Unilever series that in their attempts to wrestle with the Piranesian proportions of the space end up being too grandiose and overblown to have any lasting resonance other than as entertaining spectacles. It was clearly all too much, for example, for Rachel Whiteread and the wrong place for Bruce Nauman.

Needless to say, the critics are lining up to point out that the crack in the floor has been done before. Arts Journal blogger Tyler Green recalls how Andy Goldsworthy cracked a courtyard in San Francisco. For me it recalled Gordon Matta-Clark's interventions into buildings (as well as Richard Wilson's recent architectural incision Turning the Place Over in Liverpool, but also something of the heroic earthworks projects of the late '60s and early '70s by Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria et al. They dug their big trenches in the Nevada desert and other wildernesses. Doris has torn a bit of the city asunder.

One suspects that as the crack addicts flock to Tate Modern in the coming weeks and as the idiots fall in or trip over it, some of Shibboleth's more subtle allusions will dissolve in a predictable welter of tabloid wingeing.

As a site-specific work it's one of the best things the Turbine Hall has hosted, up there with Anish Kapoor's Marsyas (2002-03). As I left the Tate on Tuesday I found myself singing that Leonard Cohen line: "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The three-year cycle of stolen art: Leonardo painting recovered, weeks after owner's death

The Duke of Buccleuch died in early September aged 83, evidently still brokenhearted at the theft four years ago of Leonardo da Vinci's The Madonna of the Yarnwinder (left) from his ancestral seat in Dumfriesshire.

Now, just weeks after the duke's death, the painting has been recovered and four men arrested.

It is widely known among loss adjusters and specialist art detectives that important pictures taken in art heists tend to re-emerge around three years later. This 'three-year cycle' seems to have been the case with the Duke of Buccleuch's Madonna, which was stolen in broad daylight during a public tour of Drumlanrig Castle in August 2003. Two men dressed as tourists overpowered a guide, snatched the painting and drove off in a white Volkswagen Golf.

Apparently the thieves recently started to enter into some kind of negotiation to try and sell the painting. They were arrested after police intercepted a meeting between five people in the centre of Glasgow.

This is good news for art theft detectives as it demonstrates that not all stolen masterpieces disappear into oblivion. But it remains just the tip of an iceberg that has made stolen art the third most lucrative illicit trade after arms and drugs.

Stolen art is now used as collateral in an extensive subterranean criminal network that embraces people trafficking and prostitution. Human misery is the main product issuing from those global pipelines. Meanwhile prices rise inexorably in the art market.

Turkish Delights

Strange, these coincidences. I've recently been reading Snow, a recent novel by Nobel Prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

Turkey's precarious place on the threshold of East and West is one of the most interesting current geopolitical issues. How will the country reconcile its identity as a 'secular' Islamic state with its prospective membership of the European Community? Will something have to give? Pamuk has been acclaimed for his imaginative meditations on this issue in his award-winning novels.

Then yesterday, Douglas McLennan's Arts Journal digest included a link to Peter Schjeldahl's recent New Yorker piece on the 2007 Istanbul Biennial.

Schjeldahl is very good on the "shallow, frantic" nature of contemporary art biennials and the "yuppie-ish, wine-swilling social milieu" around which they revolve. One doesn't get much sense from his piece of the quality of the art on show, but then these colossal, masturbatory, incontinent art jamborees resist cogent description and are unworthy of intelligent criticism in my opinion. Nor are they really about art, although quite what they're about nobody seems able to say.

But I guess if your publication is prepared to sponsor an expenses paid trip to Istanbul, you would, if you're wise, choose to spend a certain amount of your available time as Schjeldahl did, soaking up the numinous attractions of the Süleymaniye mosque rather than necking booze with odious corporate art sponsors at the 'main event'.

Such carnal pleasures were certainly denied to Michael Dickinson — "the Istanbul representative of the Stuckism International art movement" (whatever that means) — who is currently 'stuck' in an Instanbul jail awaiting trial. Which brings me to the third Turkey-related trimming to tumble into my inbox over the past 24 hours.

This morning I was copied on an email from Charles Thomson, a founder-member of the Stuckists. The members of this loose affiliation of superannuated chip-on-the-shoulder Sunday painters are still whingeing about the state of the Turner Prize and what they see as a Serotacratic conceptualist conspiracy at the heart of British visual culture. Excuse me while I take forty winks.

[40 minutes later...]
Where was I? Ah, yes. Thomson has taken up the cause of his fellow-Stuckist, who was locked up for making a collage depicting Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as a dog on a stars-and-stripes lead, eating dollar bills. It seems that Mr Dickinson could be rewarded with a two- to three-year stretch in jail (cue Giorgio Moroder theme tune) for his ill-advised 'satirical' swipe at the Turkish PM.

The Stuckists have never been the most intelligent purveyors of social and political comment, as Dickinson's offending collage, entitled Good Boy, makes clear. I'm sorry, try as I might, I can't take this seriously. Why on earth do the Stuckists need an, er, "Istanbul representative" when their founding beef is with the British arts establishment?

Thomson has now written to Gordon Brown to ask for the PM's intervention. I can see Gordon wrestling with this in Cabinet. Call a General Election, lobby Turkey for the liberation of Michael Dickinson, or have another shortbread biscuit? Decisions, decisions...

Why are museum picture clearance fees so exorbitant?

I've been considering updating and republishing a paperback book I wrote some years ago about the body in western sculpture. The Body in Sculpture is long out of print but there are often a few copies still available on the invaluable secondhand book site ABE and it remains a core text on a number of arts courses and earns me a sprinkling of annual library photocopying royalties.

I've been advised by the packagers of the original edition (above right) that I should consider seeking an academic publisher for any future edition as this would keep the picture clearance fees to a minimum.

This brings me once again to the thorny question of museum publishing rights. Am I wrong to resent having to pay national museums for the right to publish images held in their collections? After all, in writing about their objects in a serious (albeit accessible) way, I am trying to foster a better understanding of the material culture they hold, which surely is an essential part of a museum's founding premise. I can understand museums levying a charge, but surely when those charges become prohibitive, they are shooting themselves in the foot and impairing the progress of visual education. And don't their objects belong to me anyway in some meaningful way?

Finally, were I to re-publish the book under an academic imprint, I would effectively be ring-fencing it into a realm that is largely inaccessible to the common reader at whom the book was originally aimed.

Am I missing something here?

Benin chief appeals for help in tracing missing artefacts

A Benin high chief has appealed to his Federal Government for assistance in tracking down a significant quantity of his country's missing cultural heritage.

But this is not the usual pleading to the British Museum and other Western museums whose Benin collections were formed largely as a result of the 1897 Punitive Expedition which stripped the country of the finest examples of its ancient sculpture (example show above left). This time, it seems, there is evidence that insiders might be responsible for the disappearance of the artefacts, valued at over $100 million. At any rate, that seems to be the subtext of high chief Chief Sunday Emokpae's recent appeal.

"The  government must come in and assist in unearthing those that stole our artefacts in the Benin museum," said Chief Emokpae. "It must not be swept under the carpet."

If true, this is very bad news, not only for Benin, but for many other developing nations across Africa and beyond. Many previous attempts to win repatration of objects plundered during the colonial era have brought a return volley from Western museums who claim that these source nations are not capable of looking after their own treasures. The losses from within Benin itself, if they are as serious as Chief Emokpae claims they are, will merely harden Western intransigence over restitution.

Full story at one of Nigeria's leading newspapers, The Vanguard, here.