Thursday, February 25, 2010



Sometimes I'll read one of those finding-a-new-career articles and speculate on what I might wind up doing if this whole writing thing falls apart.  As it could.  Times are harder in publishing than you think.  Problem is, the guys who write those articles all have one strategy and one story to tell:  "At age fifty, Gregor Samsa woke up from a night of uneasy dreams to find himself unemployed.  Worse, nobody was hiring buggy whip designers.  Luckily, under questioning, I discovered that his hobby was designing world-class starship models.  So I called Industrial Light and Magic and . . ."

Won't work for me.  My hobby is writing.

Actually, I have several hobbies and they all consist of writing.  One of them is writing art reviews.  Here's a sample:

TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster
The Tate Modern.  Bankside, London
October 14, 2008 through April 13, 2009
reviewed by Michael Swanwick

The TH in TH.2058 stands for Turbine Hall and 2058 is the year in which the work is set.  Which is to say that this major installation at the Tate Modern is science fiction.   It is not, as the explanatory material is careful to explain, “just” science fiction, but the artist clearly understands what we are up to.  She is not simply slumming in genre.

But, first, a few words about the venue.

To understand this installation, it is necessary to begin with the building in which it is situated. The Bankside Power Station, built in 1947, was conceived by its architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, as a kind of industrial cathedral.   This tremendous structure was rehabbed into the Tate Modern, a collection of international modern art which in 2000 was split off from the Tate Gallery.  The former boiler house now holds three levels of galleries.  The former turbine hall became a dramatic entrance area as well as a deliberately challenging display space for very large sculptural projects.  Its enormous size (it is 35 meters high and 152 meters long) encourages ambition.

Every year, the Tate Modern commissions a new installation for the Turbine Hall.  The current installation is by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.  Here is what she wrote about her imagined future fifty years from now:

It rains incessantly in London – not a day, not an hour without rain, a deluge that has now lasted for years and changed the way people travel, their clothes, leisure activities,  imagination and desires. They dream about infinitely dry deserts.
This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. As well as erosion and rust, they have started to grow like giant, thirsty tropical plants, to become even more monumental. In order to hold this organic growth in check, it has been decided to store them in the Turbine Hall, surrounded by hundreds of bunks that shelter – day and night – refugees from the rain.

And also:

 Museums have been closed for years because of water seepages and the high level of humidity. In the huge collective shelter that the Turbine Hall has become, a fantastical and heterogeneous montage develops, including sculpture, literature, music, cinema, sleeping figures and drops of rain.

One enters the Turbine Hall to the amplified sound of water ceaselessly dripping, and encounters a grid of empty metal bunk beds painted in bright blue or yellow IKEA colors.  Scattered among them are 25%-larger-than-original mockups of famous works of sculpture – a Claes Oldenburg apple core, Henry Moore’s Sheep Piece, Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Three Large Animals), among others  – fabricated, delightfully enough, by Pinewood Studios.  Calder’s Flamingo nestles up to one of Louise Bourgeois’s spiders.  Maurizio Cattelan’s supersized cat skeleton arcs its back and displays nightmare teeth.  On the walls are insect-like devices with blinking lights, meant to suggest that the refugees are being constantly spied upon.  A single radio endlessly plays a dreary 1950s bossa nova.

The evocation of post-apocalyptic fiction is made explicit by two elements.  The first, and more obvious, is a giant screen dominating one wall which runs continual fragments not only from science fiction films such as Solaris, Fahrenheit 451 and La Jetée , but also from such disparate works as Zabriskie Point , Spiral Jetty, and L'Oeil Sauvage.  This montage, titled The Last Film, is dominated by images of water and rain and does a great deal to establish a weary sense of sadness and futility.

Far more surprising is the presence, scattered about the bunks, of science fiction paperbacks.  It’s not a roundup of the usual suspects, either.  There’s J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World, of course, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but also Jeff Noon's Vurt, Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones, and . . .  well, here’s the complete list:

            Dead Cities Mike Davis
            The Drowned World J.G. Ballard
            Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
            Ficciones Jorge Luis Borges
            Le Goût de l'immortalité Catherine Dufour
            Hiroshima mon amour Marguerite Duras
            Un homme qui dort Georges Perec
            La Jetée. Ciné-roman Chris Marker
            The Lathe of Heaven Ursula Le Guin
            Luftkrieg und Literatur W.G. Sebald
            Make Room! Make Room! Harry Harrison
            El mal de Montano Enrique Vila-Matas
            The Man in the High Castle Philip K Dick
            Pattern Recognition William Gibson
            The Purple Cloud M.P. Shiel
            2666 Roberto Bolaño
            V for Vendetta David Lloyd / Alan Moore
            Vurt Jeff Noon
            The War of the Worlds HG Wells
            We Yevgeny Zamyatin

Which is a surprisingly sophisticated selection, and one that would make an excellent syllabus for a college-level course.  The books are meant, I suspect, to provide an intellectual underpinning to the work as a whole, to provide a running commentary on it and a lively dialogue with each other.  As indeed, with a little reflection, they can.

Those are the pieces.  To judge TH.2058 as a whole, the viewer must wander around it for some time.  There is much to consider.  It is a privilege to see the Calder and Bourgeois works nestled together in a way that would never be allowed with the originals, for they visually chime and echo against each other.   The Calder, which to the eye is made of massive steel, turns out upon being touched to be painted canvas over wood.  “On the beds are books saved from the damp and treated to prevent the pages going mouldy and disintegrating,” Gonzalez-Foerster writes, but there is no sign of weathering, and the pervasive damp which is apparently integral to her vision is simply not there.  There air is comfortably dry.  There are no mattresses on the bunk beds, which look to be completely unused, and this tends to undercut the installation’s narrative.  The cat skeleton would definitely invade the dreams of any children sleeping nearby it.

And in the end?  When all is weighed and considered?

This is, I’m afraid, a rather nostalgic work. The artist has said that she was in part inspired by the Blitz, and that backward-looking focus shows. The Last Movie is heavily evocative of Jean-Luc Godard, the milieu equally so of J. G. Ballard.  Despite the perfectly apt inclusion of more recent books by Gibson, Bolaño, and Noon, TH.2058 cannot escape that gray still moment in the Nineteen-Seventies when briefly it seemed that all art aspired toward the perfect expression of inertia and entropy.

All of which is, of course, a perfectly valid subject for art.  Though Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster used science fiction as a starting-point for TH.2058, there is no requirement that her art be forward-looking.  London flooded, bombed, and invaded, is a powerful image both in reality and fiction.  But the pervasive sense of dread that the installation so obviously desires to instill in the viewer simply never materializes. 

The fault lies squarely in the space itself.

That lofty ceiling undoes any feeling of oppression that the scenario strives for.  The space is too light and airy for the spy devices to render sinister.  The aisles between the bunks are generously wide and nothing seems crowded or cluttered.  The installation as a whole is too clean and bright and filth-free to feel squalid.

This is not to say that TH.2058 is not worth an attentive afternoon.  It contains much to engage the mind and the eye.  But, enjoyable as it unquestionably is, it never quite manages to achieve profundity.  Earlier I said that the Turbine Hall encourages ambition.  It also punishes anything that fails to dominate it.

As I was leaving, I saw a docent kindly but firmly shooing a group of small children off the bunk beds.  They had swarmed up the sides and were bouncing joyously up and down, as if on playground equipment.


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