11.9.16

Modern Rock Art


Two recent exhibitions I've attended point to the ongoing romance between Modern Art and Rock Music. Ragnar Kjartansson and Martin Creed both hail from, if not geographic peripheries, then at least the fringe; the former from Iceland and the latter Scotland. They have in common their fixation upon the mores of slightly fusty critically-acclaimed, white, male forms of Rock.

Kjartansson seems to adore the mature, stubbled, alt-Rock of Sigur Ros and especially The National (I groaned at the sight of 180 gram vinyl on sale in the gift shop). He is utterly caught up in the, to me, inexplicable charms of "real" performances, acoustic guitars and alcohol. Oftentimes this enchantment with the musical culture seems bereft of critique - as if to celebrate the cliché of bourgeois troubadours was in itself enough.


The extended multi-channel video piece The Visitors (2012) is a case in point. The setting, a beautiful manor house on top of a hill in an exquisite bucolic setting is lovely. The concept too is alluring, enigmatic and magical. The performance starts as performers and cast are ensconced in separate rooms in the mansion singing their song about "feminine ways". Slowly, still singing together, captured on fixed cameras, they weave their way together down into the far distance of the estate. It's every MOJO critic's fantasy of The Rolling Stones. However, I was left with an overbearing sense of the piece's absences: Who mows these lawns? Where are the small children? How can these (frankly annoying) people afford to live in this massive house? It's a celebration of the indolence and self-obsessed - of a strand of indulgent, moneyed bourgeois culture fiddling with itself while Rome burns.

Only Kjartansson's delightful Me and my Mother (2015) hints at a self-corrective undercurrent. Here are presented five video loops, filmed over a decade or more, which depict Ragnar's mother spitting in his face. This is a brilliant and hilarious piece. I literally laughed out loud. In the earliest versions he and his mother chuckle a bit at the black humour, but as time goes on she takes on a more venomous demeanour and he (always besuited) seems more sombre and chastened. I couldn't help but question the biographical backstory. Is this a woman without grandchildren with an inveterate rocking and rolling playboy for a son? I'm sure Google has the answers.


Martin Creed on the other hand is a little fixated with the interface between Art, Rock and Minimalism. I reckon Creed's favourite records are Glenn Branca's The Ascension (1981) and Rhys Chatham's Guitar Trio (1977). He would also almost certainly own every single Postcard records 7", Polyrock's debut album (1980) and The Fire Engines' Auf geladen Und Bereit Fur Action Und Spass (1981). I think too that given his sartorial choices and the abundance of retro memorabilia presented at the Hauser and Wirth exhibition that Creed has been swept along in the wake of Hauntology. Ghost Box, with its own strong Art Rock impulse, also made a very big impression on Scotland.


How to strike it rich in Modern Art? You must produce the same thing over and over again. It's an extremely difficult thing to achieve without boring yourself rigid but that is, in its essence, the key to greatness. Arp made wooden blocks. Pollock dripped (thankfully dying just as he began to swerve). Duchamp made "readymades". Whiteread moulds. Warhol screen-printed. Rothko painted gradient ramps.

The problem with the Creed show was that it seemed all over the place. Poor Martin is consumed with much too much restless energy - I know how he feels. But it makes it that much harder to find out what the message is. Increasingly I came away with the conclusion that it was this very stylistic eclecticism (minimal dots, pop videos, retro installations, squiggly paintings) and thus by extension the multicoloured personality of the artist himself that was the subject. This is the Artist as Rock Star; art as a kind of cultural autobiography. That doesn't seem enough - it might be old-fashioned of me - but culture needs to be saying something more.

The Art establishment is haunted by a problem when it comes to recognising greatness. The very finest "culture-wide" artistic statements which have come from music's axis, probably for strictly territorial reasons, have been more troubling to it than embraced by it. I'm talking about Harry Smith, La Monte Young, Laurie Anderson, graffiti, Barney Bubbles, Einsturzende Neubauten, Raymond Pettibon and the KLF. Only rarely and in the case of Don Van Vliet (after he changed his name) and Carsten Nicolai do they embrace the real thing. Too often they settle for renegotiations.