It appears that the two principal forces keeping sculpture alive today are: firstly, the art market which always needs new objects to sell; and, secondly, the art education system which is largely unable to provide students with skills in the newer media that are more able to critically communicate in the culture in which we live. It was the sculptor Carl Andre who said why produce new objects when there are already too many, but if you can turn them into gold, and it doesn’t really matter what they look like, then why complain?
Against the background of such dark observations I would like to examine the work of Thea Djordjadze exhibited in the Neue Nationalgalerie aspect of the 5th Berlin Biennial.
The most remarkable of her pieces is a massive dirty gallery window (click image above left) which is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of anti-art. Djordjadze’s window is reflected in a grunge sculpture on gallery floor beneath it (above centre). If you click on the image above right you will see a close-up of the floor-sculpture’s plexiglas component showing a dirtiness that echoes the big window.
Another echo is evident in the floor sculpture’s curiously parodic sculptural configuration (detail above left), which looks like a simulacrum of “modern art”. The echo is evident in Djordjadze’s contribution to the Biennale’s Skulpturenpark venue (top right). The abjection of the Skulpturenpark version is amplified by the fact that it is situated in the middle of a wasteland. This is particularly poetic, and can easily be read as a deathbed farewell on the part of sculpture.
I was sufficiently inspired by Djordjadze’s work to play the art critic game of naming her “style” because she does appear to be playing a game with style. I thought of “abject art” but it has already been defined albeit rather narrowly (Tate), and in its current Julia Kristevaian sense it’s a bit too passionate. Then I thought of boredom; maybe “new boredom”, especially because there wasn’t really any old boredom, apart from existentialism (ennui). But, again, ennui is just a little too passionate—one thinks of Francis Bacon’s work, for instance. My colleague suggested that this work is playful, and that is true, but in what manner is it playful? It may be playful in the sense of making fun of art in the manner of Martin Kippenberger, for example, who once suggested that fine art was rubbish and that he produced junk.
The dirty window and the sculpture near the widow are resolutely abject. They seem determined to shout out “I am ugly!”. Which is an important philosophical and ideological message in the context of consumer culture and the hyperreality of spectacle. On the other hand, the artist who made these works is now firmly in the fine art system which is all about up-marketing and dependent on the good grace of wealthy collectors.
Standing in the gallery I thought that Djordjadze’s work was pursuing the, by now rather exhausted, path of creating deliberately crap-looking art in order to “subvert” the irredeemably precious object oriented fine art system. This work appears to be self-mocking, it looks like the kind of thing one might see on the set of a television drama when the director wants to portray postmodern art. But when I looked at my photographs of Djordjadze’s work I saw something remarkable. When I applied the usual “autolevels” (which removes flatness) in Photoshop the close-up images became quite animated. In the flesh they seemed deliberately drab. But, like people, works of art can be more or less photogenic.
One is always at the mercy of lighting in the gallery and it was a little dull in the Neue Nationalgalerie, late afternoon on a grey day on the gallery’s ground floor that depends mostly on natural light. Some of the photographs of Djordjadze’s work above are not autoleveled and the contrast with those that are is dramatic. The enhanced images leap from abjection into something much more, for want of a better word, “pretty”. Perhaps that’s a bad thing, because we are not in the jewellery game, here; what we are dealing with is fine art—which is a serious business.
If being ugly, or awkward, is a political statement then is the fact that Djordjadze’s work possesses beauty a bad thing? That seems a little extreme. Thinking along these lines her dirty window metamorphoses from ugliness into a species of post-Cy Twombly experimentation with mark-making, resurrecting that old saw of artistic avant-gardism—the one about finding beauty in the extremely banal. The problem with that particular aesthetic avenue is that it leads to the point where one realises that what one sees outside the gallery is often better than what one sees inside.
There is another facet to the deliberate abjection evident in Djordjadze’s work which is the fact that she is a woman. Beauty is politically incorrect. I mean this seriously because of the way in which men reduce women to their physical appearance. This is an animalistic, evolutionary facet of human nature, but it is also something that our intellect can transcend. And as women attain a much higher status in art (cf. “status hierarchy”) we have to address beauty not as a given but as a problem.
Addressing beauty as a problem is also a significant aspect of “anti-art” of which Duchamp’s urinal has become its most glowing icon. Why should modern and postmodern sculpture repeat the ideologically suspect message of human perfection that can be traced back to classical sculpture? And that classical aesthetic of perfection is echoed in the airbrushed images, of women in particular, that we see in the mass media. Perhaps the only way to deal with such problems is to use the same sophisticated technology of visual communication that is used by the society that we live in. Perhaps sculpture is simply unable to do this; especially when, however “ugly” or parodic, it always becomes turned into a precious object by the art market. And perhaps it also becomes turned into a precious object by the space I have given to it here, and the number of photographs above.