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March 02, 2006

Bricks and other self-referential pleasures: Lilian Pizzichini reports from the Tate Triennial 2006

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Tate Triennial 2006: New British Art
Tate Britain, London
1st March - 14th May 2006
Daily 10am - 5.40pm (last admission 5pm)

Bricks in the Tate are a familiar, comforting sight. Back in 1976 the acquisition of 120 cream-coloured bricks, or Equivalent VIII, caused great, comic controversy. This was no doubt gratifying both to the Tate and the artist, Carl Andre. Scott Myles's The End of Summer brings bricks back to the Duveen Galleries. His installation – a bricked-up doorway plus silk-screen image of himself standing next to a bricked-up doorway – will not, however, provoke similar reactions. Myles explains in an accompanying essay to his exhibit that his piece is based on the work of the artist Rirkrit Tirivanija who blocked the entrance to a gallery in Berlin with bricks. Apparently, this was a reference to "social exchange", which Myles's work queries, showing as it does the artist himself involved in the process of making art. Sometimes, however, too much theory of art detracts from the experience of art. As the opener to the third Tate Triennial, The End of Summer teases without offering allure.

The show is curated by Beatrix Ruf, Director of the Kunsthalle in Zurich. She has brought together 36 artists who all explore "the reuse and recasting of cultural material". The problem, in Myles's case, is that sometimes it's nice to work these things out for oneself. Sometimes, however, artists and curators won't let you. Conceptual art is at its most exciting when it leads the viewer on a journey of their own aesthetic associations, preconceptions and expectations – when looking at the space itself becomes exciting. Sometimes it's just nice to look. Myles's bricks complemented their surroundings in such a way that the viewer was left marvelling at the harmonious proportions of the room and the origins of the materials that give it its colour and warmth. The earthiness of bricks against the smooth sandstone walls of the Duveen felt like a progression from rawness to perfection. A survey of the room and its contents, including Rebecca Warren's clay sculptures and Ian Hamilton Finlay's stone vases, brought out the vitality of brick, clay and stone. The juxtaposition of the classical references to rough-hewn materials suggested elegant forms being coaxed into existence by an artist.

Rebecca Warren's work is very rough-hewn. She takes sculpture and throws clay at it. Her work lives up to the show's brief in its "recasting of cultural materials" and its "themes of appropriation and repetition". The materials here are women's bodies, and Warren appropriates Degas. His Dancers becomes a series of bulbous women with big thighs and cellulite and the odd comedy breast poking out from under an arm. The clay is left unfired after Warren's manipulations of it, which means that it grows and mutates without her control. The result is a truer portrait of the reality of woman's bodies than the perfection usually found in representations of the female form. The subtext is that it is usually male artists creating these visions of loveliness.

Cerith Wyn Evans brings electrical magic to the earthiness of the preceeding exhibits. Light transmitted from a circle of neon tubes gives a magical, showtime feel to the room. But this first impression of glamour is misleading. The Latin palindrome the tubes spell out is succinct:

In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni.
[We go round and round in the night and we are consumed by fire.] The message is dire and the medium – a circular fiery light – gives real resonance to the show's emphasis on repetition. Artists can only repeat what has gone before, but they bring fresh views and new technologies to bear witness to what we all know and want to forget.

Muzi Quawson's photographic documentation of a family in Woodstock (Pull Back the Shade) shows the danger of succumbing to first impressions. She shows a young woman in love with a myth. The myth is that of hippiedom. The reality, photographed by Quawson in a style suggestive of Hollywood depictions of romantic outsiders, is a misguided attempt to "live the dream".

More dreams and myths are played out in Daria Martin's Wintergarden 2005. Persephone's abduction by Hades is re-enacted in the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. The bleak English coastline is soaked with mythic portent as a girl frolics in the sea under the watchful eye of her mother. What ensues is a sinister tableaux vivant using dance, song and the same sporty girl entangled in the ropes of a mountaineer. There's no escape from the inevitability of sex, death and entrance into adulthood.

Angela Bulloch's exhibit is wonderfully discombobulating. Disenchanted Forest x 1001 is an installation comprised of a raised floor and suspended ceiling that are interconnected by over a kilometre of luminescent string. This (repetition again) is a reference to Marcel Duchamp's installation Sixteen Miles of String, shown at the Surrealist exhibition of 1942 in New York. But no matter. There are 1001 numbered metal disks hanging in a line around the wall that Bulloch gathered from Berlin's environmental agency. The disks are used to "manage" trees. The effect, involving a revolving spotlight and electronic music create the impression of a jungle. But this modern wilderness is not allowed to be wild. What we have instead is a controlled climate under constant technological surveillance. Neurosis and nature as inextricably tangled as Martin's girl in her ropes.

In a rare and precious moment of jargon-free insight, the catalogue to this Triennial quotes Sψren Kierkegaard from his Repetition of 1843:

that which is repeated has been – otherwise it would not be repeated – but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition something new.
This quotation speaks more tellingly than pages of ensuing art-speak, and is entirely borne out by the contributing artists. Kierkegaard further pointed out that:
If one does not have the category of recollection or of repetition, all life dissolves into an empty, meaningless noise.
As Ruf points out, the work in the Tate Triennial is not about making postmodern gestures of irony. The artists here create new narratives from old stories and ask us to work out their codes, their cultural references. Ryan Gander, for instance, leaves a pile of newspapers on the floor as part of his tripartite Robbed us with the sight of what we should have known. On the back page of the topmost copy is a crossword. Embedded in the clues is a word that he has invented, "mitim". It has its own meaning and its own etymology. We will not be able to complete the crossword without divining the meaning of his word. Ruf suggests these chosen artists are busy:
inventing fresh meanings within the noise of modern life.
She is right.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.

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