24 March 2011

The Spectator’s Andrew Lambirth on Susan Hiller

The art critic of The Spectator, Andrew Lambirth, recently reviewed (19 March) Susan Hiller’s exhibition at Tate Britain which I posted about last month. Although Lambirth seems to have been impressed by Hiller’s work in the past, it didn’t work well for him this time:
… ‘Witness’ (2000), a potentially beautiful and intriguing installation of 400 dangling speakers murmuring multiple reports of UFO sightings, makes the wrong impression here, and has none of the eerie magic it had when first I encountered it in The Chapel in Golborne Road, W10. In the Tate it descends into banal cacophony. Context, with Hiller’s work, is quite clearly of fundamental importance.
So much of this exhibition comes across as sanitised, portentous and oddly dreary. However, it is quite literary in conception — which encourages commentators to write reams of pretentious verbiage about it — and this tends to reassure the word-loving English. Text is everywhere, in fact, and art scarcely gets a look-in. This is the stuff of school projects blown out of all proportion. The exhibition does no service to Susan Hiller: clearly it should not be on show in the Tate.
His experience of the Hiller show led to wider thoughts:
Since pluralism in the arts became the order of the day, categories have been bursting at the seams, and the old definitions have lost validity. No longer does visual art denote painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing, but all manner of extraneous and tangentially linked activities as well. Film, installation and performance are crammed in under the same umbrella as Michelangelo, Dürer and Monet, when it’s painfully clear they have almost nothing in common with such illustrious forerunners.
In fact, it’s extremely doubtful whether much of the stuff that currently parades under the banner of art has any justification for being there. Quite obviously, all film and photographic work should be removed to galleries of film and photography, performance should go back to theatre whence it came, and installation could profitably be confined to empty office buildings, where much of it would blend in nicely. Our great national art museums and galleries should be kept for their original purpose — the preservation and display of art.
By this definition of art, one of Hiller’s works which impressed me, The J. Street Project, would be sent off to a cinematheque. Applying it more widely, presumably the Tate curators would have to turn down offers of works like Duchamp’s Fountain or Epstein’s Rock Drill, should the originals reappear.

So how to decide what should be in and what out? Another distinction between the non-arts like installation and performance and “art” might be provided by Lambirth’s comment “Context, with Hiller’s work, is quite clearly of fundamental importance.” Presumably this wouldn’t apply to Michelangelo, Dürer and Monet? But was the experience of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in Washington in 1963 the same as in the Louvre, then or now? That loan is the subject of Lisa Liebmann’s article in Tate etc - worth a look, especially for Robert Knadsen’s photograph (which might or might not be regarded as art?).

After reviewing the Hiller show, Lambirth's article turns to what he calls a splendid exhibition of portraits in the Dorset County Museum:
"I haven’t seen the exhibition yet but the merest glance at the highly informative and fully illustrated catalogue (paperback, £15) makes it look fascinating."
- which could lead into another quagmire about the relationship between works of art and their reproductions, and what judgements on the former canlegitimately be drawn from the latter.

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