There's spring cleaning, and then there's putting everything you own through the wood-chipper. London artist Michael Landy has caught the public's attention of late with a project called Breakdown, which takes the urge to clean out your closets to a dramatic extreme.
Over the past three years, Landy has been taking stock all of his stuff, and now has an inventory list of over 5,000 objects, ranging from artworks and furnishings to letters and a lucky cap. By the time you read this, they will all be gone forever.
In a project sponsored by the public art group Art Angel and set up in a closed-down C&A department store on London's tony Oxford Street, Landy created a factory of sorts, in which he and other workers (referred to as "operatives"), dressed in functional, bright blue pantsuits, painstakingly labeled and bagged all of his possessions.
Over two weeks, he sent these objects piece by piece through the store on a labyrinthine conveyor belt to the sound of blaring music (by David Bowie, on both my visits). Ultimately, everything went into giant pulverizing machines generously donated by one of the city's bigger waste management companies. A huge list on the wall, resembling a war memorial of sorts, described each package slated for the chipper.
In a conversation with British art guru Michael Craig-Martin (Landy's former teacher at Goldsmiths), Landy emphasized his intent to lay bare the acquisitiveness of consumer culture. Indeed, Landy made material possessions and their transience the subject of his Closing Down Sale (1992), for which he sold second-hand goods in a rented a store in London's East End, a work that took an added political dimension from the fact that Britain was in the midst of a recession.
But Breakdown's amazing success -- it was featured in every major newspaper and television news program and has attracted thousands of people -- is perhaps more personal. It lays bare the life of one man. In today's consumerist world, someone that relinquishes all his worldly possessions, aside from attracting a sort of voyeuristic interest, sits almost like a martyr for our time.
The Landy project has much in common with an earlier art installation, also sponsored by Art Angel: House by Rachel Whiteread, created in 1993 and one of the artist's first monumental "under-casts" (of a home about to be demolished). Like the Landy piece, it, too, was located on a well-trafficked street, and drew on the recognizable, constant objects of everyday life.
Both works are poignant and tragic reminders of transience, culminating in the sacrifice and destruction of the work itself. Like House before it, Breakdown for a brief moment reconnected the often-aloof world of contemporary art with London's masses.
Speaking of cities and hoards of people, the ever popular new Tate Modern recently opened its much-anticipated first exhibition proper, "Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis." Nine cosmopolitan centers, covering nine periods in the past century, are featured in the show: Bombay (Mumbai) 1992-2001; Lagos 1955-70; London 1990-2001; Moscow 1916-30; New York 1969-74; Paris 1905-15; Rio de Janeiro 1955-69; Tokyo 1969-73; and Vienna 1908-18.
Visitors to the show are greeted with a visual and aural cacophony that includes not only paintings, photographs, drawings, films and videos and sculptures, but also big, colorful timelines, music, ambient installations (I am thinking of one particular room in "Vienna" that is meant to evoke a sort of psychoanalyst's cabinet of curiosities) and literature.
The idea behind all this is that these nine cities at certain points in the 20th century were red-hot crucibles of creative activity. Whether or not this was really the case, one thing is certain -- the reception of "Century City" has been rather lukewarm.
The biggest complaints have aimed at the very heart of the exhibition's ambitions. The team-curating effort, which included several people from outside the Tate itself (for instance, Okwui Enwezor, Documenta XI director, was the chief organizer of the Lagos section), has brought cries of unevenness and inconsistency. In addition, the seemingly random selection of cities and dates has led to the inevitable questions of why other cities and periods were overlooked.
For instance, why focus on New York in the years 1969-1974? Of course, artists like Lynda Benglis, Carl Andre and Gordon Matta-Clark interacted with their crumbling city in very winsome ways, but so much of artistic importance came before (Pop, Minimalism) and after (Postmodernism). At least the Tate's chosen period gave the curators an excuse to cite in Laurie Anderson's irreverent comment that "New York in the '70s was like Paris in the '20s," which is repeated several times in the show and is one of the rare moments that one city is placed in a continuum with another.
Except that the curators quite sensibly feature Paris in the period 1905-15, rather than the '20s.
The Tate puts London (1990-2001) in the most prominent position of the exhibition (indeed, it's the only section that does not require admission to view), an understandable choice. But really, even if Damien Hirst is overexposed, how can the London section fail to include a major work by the artist whose "Freeze" exhibition in 1990 was a lynchpin connecting a whole generation of artists covered in the show? Perhaps they think his work eschews urbanity -- though of course it doesn't.
Strangely, in the Moscow 1916-1930 section, which had a strong emphasis on architecture and design, very few of the works came from Russian collections, surely the best repository for key pieces from this period. Some works are borrowed from other museums, while quite a few come from private individuals. This imbalance raises questions about the Tate's motives in its choice of lenders for an area little represented in its own permanent collection.
But to the exhibition's credit, lots of artists who have had almost no exposure in Western museums have now been brought to public attention, such as those who worked in Lagos and Bombay.
London, fairest city of all?
If Tate Modern's exhibition is one way of glorifying the concept of globalism in 20th-century art, another has to be that increasingly common event that effectively creates an international marketplace for art that lasts for only a few days' time -- the art fair. London's one and only contemporary specimen, Art2001, took place in January, with over 100 galleries selling over £10 million worth of art to a crowd of more than 40,000 adoring spectators.
The fair packs a strong punch of mostly London dealers, along with some interesting participants from other parts of England, Scotland and Ireland. Demand to be a part of Art2001 seems to be high. In total, around 600 galleries applied for 101 stand spaces, according to organizer Lucy Field, who works with a rotating committee of dealers and other art types to pick the galleries (this year's committee included Robert Delaney from Bernard Jacobson, Paul Hedge from Hales Gallery, Andrew Kalman from the Crane Kalman gallery, Catherine Newton Groves from the Contemporary Art Society and Jane Quinn from the art PR company Bolton and Quinn).
If you were on the lookout, you might have noticed that leading London dealers such as Victoria Miro, the Lisson Gallery and Sadie Coles HQ did not participate in the show. Then again, the fair featured a wide selection of other major players, including those with high international profiles like Jay Jopling's White Cube, Robert Sandelson, Gimpel Fils and Michael Hue Williams; younger but no longer green gallerists such as Andrew Mummery, Lotta Hammer and Dominic Berning; some private dealers currently making waves in both the primary and secondary markets, such as Andrew Graham Dixon and James Hyman; and of course more traditional heavyweights such as Agnew's, Bernard Jacobson and Spink Leger.
Additionally, "Start," a section of the fair specially dedicated to struggling younger galleries, subsidized by Bloomberg, gave the fair a credible contemporary edge (galleries have a maximum stay of three years in "Start" before they're booted out. Some go on to the "main floor" and others never return). This year the section featured some of the most talked-about new galleries in the region, including Vilma Gold and Alfred Camp.
The prices work on offer ranged from a modest £100 to a more serious £150,000. One could easily find works by new artists, such as paintings from the German artists' collective Hobbypop, brought by Vilma Gold. These large, colorful, expressionistic paintings that toy as much with traditions in German art as they do with popular entertainment were exhibited at the gallery last December, and have now turned up at the fair for a repeat performance. (Incidentally, the paintings looked much stronger in the gallery, where they were arranged like a claustrophobic house of mirrors).
Another new artist who sold well was Rowena Dring, a London artist being shown by Andrew Graham-Dixon. Her colorful, stitched canvases, which are based on landscape photographs and executed in solid blocks of color, underscore what seems to be shaping up as a new trend: of mixing textile arts with painting techniques, a technique also employed by recent Turner Prize short-listed candidate, Dutchman Michael Raedecker.
Strong works from the secondary market, especially those of British artists, were in abundance. A Graham Sutherland drawing sold at Agnew's on the opening day. A Bridget Riley vertical stripe painting, sold for a price in the six figures by James Hyman, was rumored to be one of the most expensive works sold at the fair.
As for future editions of Art200x, how will the fair change with the city's evolving art scene? Field says that it may feature more foreign galleries, but that such growth needs to be carefully weighed against what kind of an audience the fair is capable of attracting.
Veteran exhibitor Bernard Jacobson recounted how, in an effort to start attracting more Americans, PaceWildenstein had been persuaded to participate several years ago. But the modest level of sales made the experiment rather painful. Today, Jacobson comments that "the quality is better... but the fair still feels too innocent for international galleries." Let's sit back and enjoy the innocence if we still can.