Classified: Contemporary Art at Tate Britain
London, SW1P 4RG
22 June through 23 August, 2009
The Pleasure of Dislocation
Classified at Tate Britain is one of the most interesting shows Tate has staged in years. Unlike its previous offering, Altermodern (the latest instalment of Tate Triennials,) which caused a media frenzy and attracted huge attention, Classified is deeply under-promoted, not just outside the gallery, but even inside it, where it is barely made visible by some small posters. Worst of all, it does not have a catalogue. The catalogue has become the quintessential item at the art gallery bookshop. It elegantly fulfills our irrational urge to take the exhibition home with us, whilst shading us behind the critically engaged aura of the dedicated connoisseur.
Any respectable exhibition held over the past 15 years has had its own thick, illustrated, glossy catalogue (very much since the Sensation catalogue from 1997, now in re-print, became a must have for any art lover). However, Classified is a bit different from your average Tate show in that it is a cross-over: a re-hang of some old pieces from the collection together with some major new acquisitions. Amongst the new acquisitions, the show counts the unforgettable Jake & Dinos Chapman’s Chapman Family Collection from 2002 and two works from Damien Hirst’s recent gift to Tate: The Acquired Inability to Escape from 1991, one of the artist’s early vitrine works, and Life Without You, 1991.
Despite the inclusion of these major works, the show has been identified by Tate as a ‘new temporary display’ rather than an event in its own right. Well, I’m afraid this is a missed opportunity, because the theme under which the works are brought together is a really strong one, and it is here articulated over a range of truly seminal works produced by key artists of the past 20 years.
The subjects of classification and collection have been notably present in this year’s artistic offerings. Mythologies, the opening show at the new Haunch of Venison earlier in the year, presented different aspects of collecting and displaying. Academically, this is a ripe field to which a number of major intellectuals have consistently contributed. Think of Foucault’s seminal work The Order of Things, which memorably cites an ancient Chinese scheme of classification as departure point from our relationships to the world, or Walter Benjamin’s Unpacking my Library essay, where collecting as a type of ordering, and passion for the unique overwhelms systematic classification. The show focuses on the way artists’ use ordering systems in their work, exploring how our need to classify affects our perception of the world. Classified combines all this and more.
The show opener is truly breathtaking (and defining, too) as it is based on a complete opposition between the two main artworks featured. At the perimeter of this gallery are placed, evenly spaced, over thirty old-fashioned piano metronomes (of the same kind to which Man Ray applied the eye, creating Indestructible Object from 1923). Each, ticking at a different speed, contributes to an overpowering racket that makes us keenly aware of passing time and the measuring involved in such an abstract function. Here, however, time is multiplied, and through this process it loses its referential modular rhythm. Which of these is beating at the correct speed? Does it matter? What happens when the organisational referent is no longer reliable? Placed at the beginning of the show, this piece by controversial artist Martin Creed functions as an invitation to abandon our certainties and points of reference on the subject of order and classification so that we many embrace new flights of thought. At the centre of the room, is Tate Thames Dig (1999) by Mark Dion. An imposing double-sided cabinet houses a vast array of objects retrieved during the Tate Thames dig sessions, which saw a number of volunteers collecting debris from the bed of the river during low tides. The cabinet is in the style of nineteenth-century display furniture still found in many museums. One side contains items found at Milbank, the other those from Bankside. This work, too, invites us to let go of preconceptions on classification as, on pulling its drawers open, we see that Dion has not labelled any of the objects, allowing the visitor to freely make connections and draw associations. Most interestingly, the work, through the use of pseudo-archaeological methodologies, challenges the nature of what is historically worthy of collecting. Are these objects collected from the Thames of any cultural, monetary or historical value?
Opposite, Monochrome Till Receipt, the diminutive work by Ceal Floyer, which recently made headlines for its ‘provocative simplicity’, is simply stuck to the wall. The work, which would have made Duchamp very happy indeed, consists of a receipt for 49 items purchased by the artist at Morrisons for a total of £70.32. All of the items are white, from cotton wool and crème fraîche to pickled eggs and toothpaste. On this small piece of paper, order and randomness are captured in a continuous struggle. The order of the selective method of the artist (choosing only white items) is challenged by the seeming randomness imposed by the cashier (as the items were scanned). On another wall, a balloon diagram of The History of the World by Jeremy Daller (97-04) and the very famous London Underground map re-named by Simon Patterson, The Great Bear (1992), reiterate that, after all, classification can be a very fluid process indeed. From this stunning room, each one following approaches classification through a range of different media, exploring both the challenges involved in medium specificity as well as those involved in museology conventions.
Here, remarkably, a painting by Gillian Carnegie clearly stands out from the rest. Black Square (2008) is an incredibly thick (materially, that is) layer of black oil pigment on canvas measuring almost two by two meters, where a night vision of tree-trunks in Hampstead Heath reminds us of the apparent lack of order experienced through darkness. A film by Tacita Dean, a near-silent portrait of the poet Michael Hamburger and his collection of different varieties of apple trees, brings to the surface the friction between classification and emotions. From here on, the clean-cut, cold cabinets of Demian Hirst (a counterpoint to the work of Mark Dion encountered at the entrance of the exhibition) surrounds us with an apparent visual silence that is instead implicitly ridden with the loudness of hope, despair, anger and fear. Two rooms are dedicated to the most expensive living artist in the world: in one we are confronted by the stern and cool designs of innumerable, neatly organised medicine packaging (Pharmacy, 1992), while the other straight after presents archetypal, natural collectibles such as shells, in Life Without You, and Forms Without Life (both from 1991).
The last room, in opposition to Hirst’s light-filled displays, brings us to an obscure pre-historic world where the twisted creations of the Chapman Brothers are exhibited in a display that closely resembles their first-ever staging of the collection (at White Cube in 2002.) The work, one of their best, shows a previously unseen conflation of exotic fetish, tribal worship, cheap fast-food (Mc Donalds), globalisation and imperialism, literally carved by the humorous, sinister and simultaneously skillful executions of tribal-like masks and sculptures. Classified is, deep down, a very engaging and thought-provoking show which ends on a similar, albeit more accentuated, note to that on which it originally started, as the Chapmans mischievously dislocate us temporally, historically, geographically and culturally.
Giovanni Aloi is a lecturer of Art History and Media Studies and Editor in Chief of Antennae, the online Journal of Nature in Visual Culture. He also lectures at Tate Modern and Tate on the subject of the galleries' collections. His main research areas involve modern and contemporary art with a strong interest for the representation/presence of animals in the exhibiting space.