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November 08, 2005

Tourism and the Artist: Universal Experience at the Hayward, Jeff Wall at Tate Modern and Paul McCarthy at the Whitechapel - Richard D. North takes a tour of London's touristic art shows

Posted by Richard D. North

Universal Experience: Art, Life and the Tourist's Eye
Hayward Gallery, London
6th October - 11th December 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Tuesdays & Wednesdays until 8pm, Fridays until 9pm)

Jeff Wall, Photographs 1978-2004
Tate Modern, London
21st October 2005 - 8th January 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays & Saturdays until 10pm)

Paul McCarthy - LaLa Land Parody Paradise
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
23rd October 2005 - 8th January 2006
Tuesday - Sunday 11am - 6pm (Thursdays to 9pm)

There ought to be some good experiences or at least some good jokes to be had in a series of shows whose theme is leisure and tourism. After all, hey, aren't they what art is for? So here we go on an exploration of how artists see tourism and of how at least one tourist, me, sees art. I almost wish I could tell you to save your shoe-leather, wrap up warmly and take a Thames cruise instead of visiting these galleries. But there are some good things in each of them.

The show that most overtly makes an argument is the one which almost wholly fails. The Hayward's event is probably intended to challenge or certainly to "interrogate" - mass tourism. Most of its artists seem to be arch, banal or sneery. What, for instance, are we to make of the huge transparencies which show us theme park Las Vegas, but do so with the bubble of imagination pricked by say a scruffy bit of hose pipe, to remind us that all is false? Who cares? The tourist visitors to Vegas know what they're going to get. No-one supposes that Paris isn't worth seeing, and its being so doesn't vitiate the Vegas version. Can't we suppose that tourists get the post-modern joke which Vegas offers? Or are such jokes to be reserved for media studies cognoscenti in galleries like the Hayward? Some joke. We were invited to listen to a headset which told us of a woman's abortive trip to see a place where there had once been a piece of non-art by a man called Robert Smithson. Later in the show, we saw by chance, almost a photograph of the non-art (The Spiral Jetty, 1970) which had once been there.

One ought perhaps to take the time to consider a piece of film which showed a group of photographers manipulating a refugee family (How To Make a Refugee) so as to get the right images for their media outlets. Oops. Whilst the photographers may have been a bit naughty in their behaviour, was Phil Collins, the "artist", being any less naughty filming the sad little group all over again for us to gawp over?

So one strolled round this bone-wearying stuff and out of a desire for completeness wandered over to some things which turned out to be remarkable. John Hinde, the name behind a million staid holiday postcard scenes, staged some marvellously happy tableaux of families at various Butlins' holiday camps. And here we have them, blown-up. Perhaps we are supposed to laugh at these coiffured and permed innocents with their fixed smiles, enjoying a fake tropical island or an imitated American diner. But I won't have it. These images from thirty-odd years ago are replete with the cheerfulness and courtesy that were commonplace then. These were portraits of the working class when affluence was turning them middle class: people's leisuretime was being lifted out of working-class expectations. Chalets and restaurants were replacing guest house dragons. These look like pre-Beatles, pre-Cosmo pictures, but they aren't. They show how Britishness continued.

There is an obvious issue about photography shows. Why bother to turn out to things which can be seen on the page or screen perfectly well? These Hinde pictures give us one answer. Though these images are to be had on the Web, their detail and theatricality only really reveal themselves when they are at near-cinema screen scale.

That said it was doubly peculiar to find that perhaps the most interesting item at the Hayward is a row of a couple of dozen light tables whose surfaces are edge-to-edge large-format transparencies. I read that there are 3000 images in Visible World, this 75-foot show, the result of 15 years globe-trotting by a pair of Swiss, Peter Fischli and David Weiss. They take us from a Japanese city to the surrounding countryside, and off to Latin America, to some east European country or other, and to Scotland amongst many other places. We skip from chilling dawns to tear-jerking sunsets. That's part of why this is such a splendid portrait of journeys: we pass through time and place, there are episodes. Here's a beaten-up freighter which looks like a real home to its crew. Here, the belching furnace of an unreformed Commie smelter. It is like a sort of film, but we do the moving rather than the celluloid. I was moved because these seemed to be the sort of images which I have taken over a few decades of travelling. In which, I must be like zillions of other mildly-civilised, very lucky people, taking set piece, even dull, snaps (though the ones on show here often have a fine, implacable professionalism which mine lack).

The over-large Hindes and the contact-sized Fischli/Weiss's both tell us something through the medium of their scale. Over at the huge Jeff Wall show of photographs, I was inclined to suppose bitterly that their being large didn't tell us anything about their subjects. They needed to be big to fill the big rooms they were in, but size was used to suggest importance, but couldn't disguise triviality.

It turns out that amongst his rather tedious work, there are some gems (you can check them out on the Tate website). He likes in the manner of the Hinde's studio to create scenes. I was very struck by a tableau (A Ventriloquist At a Birthday Party, October 1947, 1990): it has a nice touch of menace to it. Shades of the Hinde work. I was tempted by a recreation of a photograph of dead Russian soldiers (Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986), 1992) of the Soviet war in Afghanistan: they have been re-staged as ghouls some of whom are laughing at their misfortune. But the one which stopped me in my tracks was A View From an Apartment, 2004-5. It was an offhand little job showing a pair of girls being domestic whilst through their window a port scene unfolds. It seemed to speak of the home as a place dependent on the world and its ebbs and flows, and yet also as a shelter from its urgencies.

Leaving the Jeff Wall show one encounters Rachel Whiteread's Embankment those opaque white plastic boxes heaped up in Tate Modern's turbine hall. They would have sat well in the Universal Experience show. They irresistibly remind one of polar iceberg worlds, which have been attracting tourists as much as explorers for decades. And then, of course, there's the problem of whether tourism's jet plane travel is eroding the ice-world. Not to mention the Day After Tomorrow sci-fi view that our climate may soon produce freezing, and ice jostling its way up the Thames. Because the cartons are supposed also to be reminders of Ms Whiteread's childhood toy boxes, they are about that awful little trope, "memory, identity and loss" as well.

Bunny Smedley's piece here on Embankment is a comprehensive look at the issues this kind of art raises. I would only add that I didn't respond positively or much at all to this work. I thought the boxes were in themselves boring, they were boringly lit and the whole effect failed in the one thing it might have achieved: it didn't fill or utilise the vastness of the space. The installation was neither massive nor evocatively overwhelmed. There was nothing precipitous, or perilous, or luminous, or eerie about the ensemble.

And so to a Brick Lane lunch in one of those Formica table and fluorescent tube Asian joints where, as a furrier friend of mine used to say:

You can be a millionaire for ten bob.
Isn't that what half of tourism is all about? The Whitechapel was offering Paul McCarthy, but in two parts. In the main gallery there were pieces which were mostly beyond boring. There was, I grant, quite a nice pink plastic pig which was motorised so as to be able to breathe and even I hope I am not imagining this fart. Upstairs, a semi-naked Chinaman (exposed from the waist down) lay on a sun-lounger. Quite odd and arresting, and so real that one stood, held one's breath and waited to see whether his chest moved, and if so, whether by lung or electrics. But it was as dead as a Mueck wax sculpture, and not half so interesting, being (I guessed) absolutely human scale. McCarthy is highly regarded for his take on pirate themes (apparently they speak of Hollywood and invasion), and some drawings of these are on show at the Whitechapel. Like much of his work, they seemed joylessly, sexlessly, pornographic. The show's pirate theme was continued at the other end of Brick Lane in an "off-site" warehouse. But I had schlepped all the schleps I was up for and gave it a miss.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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You missed out by not bothering to go to the Warehouse half of the Paul McCarthy exhibition - it was a breathtaking and overwhelming experience which made sense of the dryer stuff at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Posted by: Rachel Marsh at January 14, 2006 12:45 AM
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