Eliminate them from the equation and people become nostalgic for ‘things’.
To encounter an isolated object or material effect in the airy vacuum of a contemporary art gallery’s white cube space is generally perceived as a healthy slowing down of the relentless tzunami of visual information. A temporary mental breathing space.
So ‘things’ seem to occupy two oppositional positions at the same time: a communal anchor against the manipulable fluidity of images and information as well as being a disposable commodification of urges and desires.
Conversely, Bourriaud’s lets-have-a-party ethic of participation - sociability as healthy dialogue - certainly had an underlying progressive point, questioning the future value of things against actual experience.
Themes in group shows always require an elastic spine, a certain allowance for the show’s remit to get a little loose and baggy and fresh connections and perspectives to reveal themselves.
So ‘ExtraORDINARY: Everyday Objects And Actions In Contemporary Art’ (yes, it really is spelt like that) the new exhibition at Salford (UK) The Lowry’s galleries - a messy compact of themes: art’s use of mass-produced objects, art as instruction and response, the momentary subversion of routine in daily life - had real possibilities.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work as an efficiently cohesive show and results in an aimless compilation of themes and works, often ones only with a nodding acquaintence.
The directive managerial banalities of the UK’s obsession with ‘the creative industries’ is often loudly evidenced in toxically joyous exhibition titles.
The 1990s and 2000s may have lathered such zippy titles in irony but they’ve become so much part of the history of contemporary displays that institutions try to live down to their branding possibilities without an ounce of self awareness.
There is an infantile clarity of intent for many public-funded bodies, that is, fun ( most definitely lowercase). Fun being an idle, distracted engagement, a momentary disruption of the repetitions of the habitual and everyday with an implication that their mission statement has a critical inflection, an aspiration towards a post-art world of social engagement as entertainment.
Within “ExtraORDINARY” there is also the vague presumption of an organic congruence between physical actions and effective agency in the social sphere. The PUREGYM signs on the way to the galleries seem to suggest otherwise.
There is also an echo of the art world’s peculiar delusion that there is a legacy of opposition to consumer culture through the (re)presentation of stuff, things, the crap and leftovers from ‘the quotidian,’ the everyday detritus of our society’s particular items and tokens of exchange.
Whatever ‘art’ actually is, it’s best incarnations counter-act the dumb inertia of things and the corrosive triviality of habit in a multi-layered way.
Some art is good at this combination of immediacy and slow-burn resonance, some less so.
Leo Fitzmaurice’s “Litter (Lowry)” (2015) is three groupings of plastic litter bags filled, presumably, with the titular litter. There’s two placements of two bags, one of three, all seated on the gallery floor and casually leaning against the walls.
Clearly one casual meeting of litter bags would work better, retain a disruptive and questioning disposability which is spoilt by the tripart cheekiness of the final piece.
Even taking this on board, Fitzmaurice’s “Litter” has a focused elegance when seen in the same exhibition as Gavin Turk’s deflated balloon, signed eggs, cardboard egg tray, and bitten biscuit. All framed and commodified.
Turk’s output has always seemed to be a bit ‘art student’; simplistic rehashes of Duchamp and Klein lifted from a Thames and Hudson primer on proto-conceptual art. His leaden 1990’s twist was always on emphasis on the signature imprint of ‘Gavin Turk’ as a cynical Warholian branding, even that quickly wore thin.
Martin Creed is much more skillful and entertaining at turning nothing into something thoughtfully amusing. His crumpled ball of white A4 paper (‘Work No. 86’) is now twenty years old and an established tabloid-baiting sculpture. It’s presentation on a squared plinth under a clunky, size-able perspex case completely ruins its insouciant simplicity.
Similarly his blue-tack pressed onto a wall (‘Work No. 79’) is stalked by a titling label which is far too close and visually disruptive. Nothing needs a lot of space.
At least his horizontal line of diminishingly substantial nails and their 90 degree shadows (‘Work No. 701’) is given a bit of space to do its work.
Erwin Wurm’s “One Minute Sculptures” series of small photographs of gallery or studio-based single figures doing inappropriate things with functional objects gets a look in. There’s a woman balancing cups on the soles of her shoes, a man in horizontal press-up position balanced on four coffee cups, a portrait format snap of a man with office supplies - pens, pencils, a stapler - gripped in his mouth, tentatively inserted in his ears and nose.
The other Wurm pieces are less fleet-of-foot or interesting, “Lay Down, Take A Deep breath, Don’t Think And Feel Connected” (2005) is a low boxy white pedestal carrying a small technical drawing style image of a figure following the instructions of the title. A slight variation from this is the earlier “Take Your Most Loved Philosophers” (2002); a taller squared plinth topped with a mini-sprawl of philosophy paperbacks and a small wall drawing of a figure attempting to carry books in their arms and between their legs.
The whole bumpy, lumpy package of the human form gets a number of showings. Spencer Tunick’s “Salford (The Lowry)” (2010) is a human-scale digital image of several hundred naked people milling around outside The Lowry. Usual Tunick fare.
Aestheticizing the pliability of human flesh into both static and moving images are John Coplan’s late 1990’s photos of interlocking fingers and hairy knuckles looking like a nest of sleeping baby rats and Bruce Nauman’s “Thighing (Blue)” (1967), a 16mm film transferred to video of Nauman prodding, kneading and stroking his hairy leg and thigh.
Their inclusion in the show is a case of a loss of curatorial clarity, shoe-horning in a couple of art stars. Both are worth seeing, both should be in a different exhibition.
Willi Dorner’s “Bodies In Urban Spaces” (2011) appear to be exactly what the title states, large colour images of figures in baggy sportswear wedged in the top curve of an exterior urban door space, a breeze block doorway and a gap between stone buildings. They use the raw material of the human body to much greater effect than Tunick’s rehash of a bored herd of nudists.
The most visually elaborate digital film is Wood and Harrison’s “Semmi Automatic Painting Machine” (2014) in which a vertical stand clamped with a column of paint spray guns trundles into view to spray primaries and loud greens on to a series of unconnected objects - chairs, plants, ladders, lamps, balloons, flags, etc - all in tightly edited succession. It’s a natural progression from Wood and Harrison’s short comedic studio-bound films of the straight-faced artists suffering the effects of simple physical laws.
Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics Of The Kitchen” (1975) video, however, fits the shows aspiration to force together objects and directive instructions more comfortably. Rosler’s exaggerated instructive gestures on how to use an alphabet of kitchen utensils is topped off with a fuck-you shrug and smirk which it is worth sitting through the whole piece to experience.
Finally, the two physically substantial works which attempt to prompt audience participation and bring together the ragged tangle of exhibition themes are Karina Smigla-Bobinski’s ‘post-digital drawing machine” “ADA” and Roelof Louw’s pyramid of oranges.
“ADA” is given an appropriately large all-white gallery space. A large translucent helium-filled ball speckled with thumb-thick spines of charcoal hovers in the gallery waiting for a visitor to push it glidingly towards a wall, slowly leaving cumulative patches of accidentally drawn lines. It makes literal the idea of art as interactive but, unlike the bucket of visitors handwipes at the rooms entrance, has little to do with the objects of the day-to-day.
Louw’s pyramid of hundreds if not thousands of oranges pushes this interactivity into a tentative sociability allowing the audience to take an orange until the mountain has disappeared.
The small boy who decided to rearrange the oranges was soon stopped, the rules of engagement politely explained to him.
Interactivity as entertainment clearly has its own rigid rules.