These days, nearly every time I go into an art gallery that is showing contemporary work, I am forced to confront that most useless—and yet intriguing—question of what is art? The answer, of course, is entirely personal, and everyone can secretly identify what they consider to be art and what they consider to be, well, something else.
The Hepworth preview on February 8th was no exception. What the hell is art?
But first the positive stuff.
My thanks to Emma Bearman of Culturevulture for inviting me to the preview despite (or perhaps, because of?) my reputation for candid and forthright opinions. The hospitality at the Hepworth was disarmingly salubrious; a large selection of cheeses, nibbles and drinks shared with the charming company of bloggers. If nothing else, these previews are worth it just for this.
And so to the art. David Thorpe has done a very strange thing; produced, by hand, art works made to look like mass produced prints. These works had taken a very long time to produce. A very long time. In fact, the time element was the most striking thing about these works and there is no denying the skill required to produce the tones and curves of the prints, I mean, artworks. The overall result however, is disappointingly bland. All that work and to such little effect. My overall impression?; perplexed.
When I was at art college, I studied film making and made a couple of interesting films; Gentle Ihor’s Odyssey in the City of Sheffield and Gentle Ihor learns to speak. We used a really old technology back then—16mm film, so coming across this ancient medium in Ben Rivers’s work was a bit of a nostalgia trip. The nostalgia ended when Ben turned up unexpectedly in the gallery and was invited by the curators to talk about his work. After fifteen minutes of him rambling on about film and stuff, I’d had enough of his monologue and hoped his film making skill was a lot more riveting than his speaking skill (and going by the bit of the film we saw in the preview, it is). The film is about a post-apocalyptic island society, a subject right up my devastated street. I’ll be back… (see what I did there?).
The final gallery, devoted to Heather and Ivan Morison’s work, had a large balloon in it. The bright light in the balloon made it look like a small sun floating in the cosmos of the room space. It was an enchanting white light and attracted us like itinerant, fascinated moths. And sure enough, some of us got badly burned. Because the curator then told a strange story. It was strange because it was supposed to relate to the iron chairs, wooden planks (made out of concrete), blackened bones and wax flowers that comprised the exhibition, but I couldn’t make any connection at all between the story and the objects in the gallery. This huge image on the wall for example was supposed to symbolise a man being burned or something…
I can imagine the artists had a great time conceptualising these works on the back of a used envelope from the Arts Council but any meaning, enthusiasm or insight failed to be communicated to me by the blackened bones lying on the floor. They sat there, mute and irrelevant to the story being told.
Admittedly the gallery was still being completed but it would take a miracle to rescue a successful narrative from the broken pieces of this abstract idea.
We ended up back at the room with the cheese and wine; the only thing that made sense during the evening. I gave a lift to Phil Kirby, Harvi and Hazel to the railway station and felt a satisfying sense of purpose. If only artworks could achieve the same effect.
One day, this will happen. But don’t hold your breath.