21 February 2011

Tate Britain: 'Susan Hiller' and 'Watercolour'

Tate Britain is hosting a “major survey exhibition” of “one of the most influential and innovative artists of her generation”, Susan Hiller. These are bold claims which I am in no position to dispute. Being a boring old techie (but younger than Hiller), I’m uneasy with “knowledge derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines” (other!), particularly if her work “confers status on what lies beyond rationality or recognition”. The language of contemporary art criticism being way above my head, all I can do is experience her installations, constructions, vitrines etc and work out my reactions to them.

Magic Lantern
I’m afraid I couldn’t get to grips with some of her work, though I readily concede that (the apparently highly regarded) Belshazzar’s Feast: the Writing on Your Wall, inspired by apparitions on television screens after broadcasting closedown, and Psi Girls, clips of telekinetic powers and the like being exercised, are beyond the rational. Some works, though, are intriguing and thought-provoking, which is enough to make any exhibition worthwhile. Venn diagrams will never look the same again after seeing Magic Lantern. Witness is, I think, inspired – even if the voices coming from the 400 suspended speakers are describing encounters with UFOs. What was Hiller’s best work for me is just outside the exhibition area (and so can be seen for free). The J. Street Project is a collation of the filming of every street sign in Germany now incorporating the word Jude, and it is a deep and troubling evocation of the banality of evil.

On the way to the Susan Hiller show, the visitor walks through the Duveen Galleries and encounters Single Form: The Body in Sculpture from Rodin to Hepworth. This complements (and helps compensate for) the modern British sculpture currently being offered by the RA (blog post last month).

Downstairs Watercolour was much busier than the Hiller exhibition, full of Ladies Who Gouache. Its intentions are “to expand our horizons” (landscape pun?) and “to challenge conventional understandings” of the medium. I learnt much and always welcome the opportunity to see works by Ravilious and Nash. No Hockneys, but in recent years his watercolours have been generously exhibited.

Alison Smith, the lead Curator of Watercolour, asks:
... Also, what we would like to explore in this exhibition, is the question – is watercolour a particularly British phenomenon?
Klaus Kertes in the Spring edition of Tate etc suggests:
Perhaps being surrounded on all sides by water intensified the British propensity for the medium.
I certainly don’t know enough art history to begin to comment seriously, and I expect that other dull souls have suggested before that it might be our climate. As the CIA World Factbook puts it: “more than one-half of the days are overcast”. Perhaps also the humidity makes application easier, and the translucence of the medium is particularly appropriate to the light levels most of the year in the British Isles.

Watercolour by virtue of its breadth and historical depth is a highly educational endeavour, and Tate Britain should be congratulated on it. Particularly so when we learn of the BBC Trust and management’s depressing intention for Radio 4 of:
Continuing to develop the general tone of the station away from formality and perceived didacticism towards spontaneity and conversation. (Service Review, paragraph 115)
Tate seem to have realised that what many people want is to engage with substance, as attendance at any Literary Festival makes clear. Thankfully, with Miro and the Vorticists to come, it looks as though Tate is going to carry on being didactic.

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