First past the postmodern

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Stepping into the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery on the first sunny day of the year, I felt rather inspired and cosmopolitan. This was In the Days of the Comet, a new exhibition which proposes ‘alternative ways of thinking about the here and now’. I was going to see a lot of Important, Very Clever, Modern art. I had decided it would be intriguing and provocative and beautiful. So after encountering various works on the ground floor including a large mound of earth, a working rope bell and a room furnished like an Ikea shop, I was a bit dubious. 
One floor up, I almost trod on what appeared to be a large piece of kitchen foil in the middle of the floor. I said to the security man: ‘Excuse me. I think this might have come loose from something…?’ But he shook his head slowly. No, silly me, this bit of foil was the art piece. I looked at its position on the floor, its shape and viewed it from several different angles to see if I could spot anything significant. The idea that the point might be in the lack of any point seemed reductive and annoying. An indie-looking art student flocked to it in interest, studiously consulting the exhibition guide. I moved on.

Next we spied a wispy pink bin bag hanging from the ceiling. My mum (a sculptor) knowledgeably suggested it might be interactive and proceeded to blow on it in order to find different or meaningful shapes. Mr Security Man again shook his head to stop her. The over-intellectual, yet supremely dull quality of the works so far on display made me feel close to hysteria. In a darkened room off of the main gallery, a red bucket full of greyish liquid was connected up to a fake head. By means of a pump, the artist could make the head ‘vomit’ and repeatedly did so for the benefit of onlookers. Needless to say, I felt a bit ill. On reflection, that was probably the ‘meta’ point. How could this be the pinnacle of British art? What on earth does that say about our ‘here and now’?  We are a plastic, static and vomiting culture, apparently.

I  was about ready to go home when we found the exhibition’s redemptive gem: ‘The Clock’ by Christian Marclay. A visual artist and composer, Marclay hails from New York. The piece stitches together thousands of scenes featuring a clock or watch to create a 24-hour film, matched up to our own clocks. Despite constant reminders, time seemed ironically suspended, perhaps because the narrative never resolved – Sean Penn’s alarm clock became Audrey Hepburn’s blind terror in Wait Until Dark, and flowed into the vivid naughtiness of Amelié, and so on. Marclay constantly toyed with our expectations about time duration, tension and cinematic narrative. It was beautiful, thrilling and extraordinarily intelligent.

Might we all do well to reconsider our career options and justify a roaring trade in ‘Dropped Pasta’ or ‘Bit of Loo-Roll’ in London’s best galleries? Yes, we should challenge the meaning of ‘art’ to ensure we don’t risk cultural stagnation, perpetually sighing and puzzling over the Mona Lisa. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some people may find these pieces stimulating, if not beautiful. But art strikes me as a medium for cultural elevation – we can aspire to be better, more intelligent, imaginative people because of it. The exhibition as a whole made me feel both supremely stupid and embarrassingly superior – not a very nice or winning combo. The vomit and the foil didn’t whet my appetite for much more modern art. Thankfully Christian Marclay provided us with a sweeter aftertaste.

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