February 2009, Altermodern @ Tate Britain

Subodh Gupta, Line of Control, 2008.
Courtesy of the artist, Arario Gallery and Hauser & Wirth Zurich London.
Credit: Tate Photography
 
Altermodern
Tate Britain
February 3 through April 26, 2009
 

“Modern Art to me is nothing more than the expression of contemporary aims of the age that we are living in…It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.” - Jackson Pollock

A giant mushroom cloud of extremely polished stainless steel pots and pans greets visitors at the entrance of Altermodern at Tate Britain. This piece created by Subodh Gupta, aptly introduces the show, suggesting the idea that this is a defining starting point, a show presenting new directions, and one that wants to leave old paradigmatic sets at the door. Line of Control, this is the title of the piece, is a gigantic installation that reverses the idea of negative atomic destruction into one of positive explosion of abundance (the kitchen utensils refer to food, standing in for a contemporary and allusive Cornucopia). 

Altermodern, the 4th of Tate’s Triennials, is the brain child of Nicolas Bourriaud, one of the most influential international curators, French theorist, and funding director and curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The show has attracted controversy in the UK, mainly because of its stark imbedded arrogance involved in, not so much suggesting, but instead declaring that Postmodernism is dead, (as we read in the manifesto that accompanies the show). From this perspective, the artworks we encounter after ‘crossing’ Subodh Gupta’s Line of Control, are invested with the difficult task or representing of, or setting the agenda for a new cultural era. The suspicion that Postmodernism, along with its ideas of multiculturalism and investigations on origins and identity was coming to a close was raised soon after 9/11. After that day, it was claimed, that the world changed forever; the previously unthinkable act of destruction violently imposing a dramatic shift of perception. Moreover so, the live broadcasting of the catastrophic event on TV screens across the world temporarily obliterated geographical boundaries, expanding New York across the globe, whilst simultaneously imploding the world inside New York.

Marcus Coates, Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare, 2008.
Copyright of the artist, 2008.
Credit: Photo by Jo Ramirez
 
These perceptive shifts are integral part of Altermodern’s agenda (Altermodern is the combination of the words Alternative and Modern). The claim that a new modernity is emerging due to increased globalised communication and physical travelling (the internet being the propelling factor), the surpassing of nationalisms in favour of a multicultural platforms (a new universalism) lead artists to respond to a new globalised perception of the world and our lives.

The exhibition is an eclectic collection of cutting-edge artists, some of which are fairly new, and others who have relentlessly made a name for themselves over the past decade. Many of the works included in the show could be grouped under the umbrella of ‘relational aesthetics’, where art becomes, in one way or another more engaging than passively looking at representations on the walls of a gallery space. Therefore, Altermodern is laid out as a journey of discovery where artworks are simultaneously isolated individuals and open signifying conglomerates. There is a large amount of video work on show, most notably that of Marcus Coates, an extremely interesting artist whose work has for the past few years engaged with questions of post humanism, animality and becoming-animal, a currently growing area of academic and artistic concern. In this film, Coates, accoutred with stuffed animal heads (a distinctive trademark) questions an Israeli mayor about youth violence. Aided by the wit that distinguishes Coates’ work, his shamanic ritual brings to the surface a poignant answer ‘directly phrased’ by the animal world he encounters during his journey to the underworld.

Another highlight is the Walead Beshty’s glass cubes. These clean cut and fragile objects have been shipped by the artist from LA, where he lives, to London, where he was born, in tightly fitting FedEx boxes (completed with shipping tags) which in the gallery space serve as plinths to each damaged cube. In transit, they get damaged, and as this happens, they pose questions reminiscing of Duchampian ready-mades. What is the role played by the artist? Who is the author? What is a work of art? When is it finished?
 
Fedex® Kraft Box ©2005 FEDEX 330504 REV 10/05 CC,
Fedex International 2-Day, Los Angeles-Brussels, 2008
(two-way mirror glass with safety glass laminated, silicon)
by Walead Beshty
 
Amongst others, the photo/cinematic work of Tacita Dean in the form of one frame-film inscribed with evocative script directions offer a welcome variation to the high-tech component of the show. Worth noting through this journey, is the diversion offered by Mike Nelson’s Projection Room, which is conceived as a physical space that is not identified or connoted by geographical boundaries.

There is plenty to see at Altermodern, as the ‘explosion of abundance’ we encounter at the entrance of the show keeps its promise; however, the exhibition has mainly attracted harsh criticism because of its imbedded arrogance: declaring Postmodernism dead, suggesting therefore that Altermodern could effectively be the backbone of a new era may to many come across as forced and contrived. The exhibition would have no doubt been received more positively should its premise had been different (however controversy equals free advertising). It is fair to say that the selective process behind the show is rather narrow, and that it does not do justice to the pluralistic spectrum established by Postmodernist concerns (something valuable that of this dying era we may want to retain...). This possibly is the biggest pitfall; a show constructed around an ambitious theoretical approach can become a sterile illustration of the theory itself. It will take time for Altermodern to be digested. Ten years from now, we may look back at the show and realise that it failed in establishing a new epoch; maybe it has come a little too soon, maybe not; maybe Postmodernism is after all not dead yet. However, one doubt remains: for as much as Altermodern is undeniably in tune with recent and current cultural shifts, it seems to project a determination and confidence that do not belong to the contemporary time of uncertainty we are all going through.

 

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.
giovanni.aloi@googlemail.com
 

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