State of Play
3 Feb - 28 March 2004
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London - UK
Play has a proud past. It was periodically marshaled by the Avant Gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries, first against officialdom and middleclass propriety and then against the instrumental logic that guided, and was entrenched by, economic development. Play, in the form of the Surrealist rebus or Dadaist provocation, served as a momentary challenge to the ethos of efficiency that, from its corporate seat, slowly invests every other sphere of experience. But play needed fortifying with doses of absurdism and bloody-mindedness; in its more genteel moment it lapsed into whimsy, declaring itself a harmless sideshow to the serious business of sense-making-witness Joseph Cornell and his cod-Surrealist confections.
Today we have brilliant jokers in, among others, Maurizio Cattelan and Wim Delvoye. Shows like Tate Britain's 'Abracadabra' have mined a rich seam of play in contemporary art. And in 'Common Wealth' at Tate Modern, play found a natural ally in relational aesthetics. Now the Serpentine has weighed in with 'State of Play'.
There are, in the show, two distinct but related currents, a willed and obstructive awkwardness and a self-effacing tendency, a liking of thinness, smallness and margins. What unites these two strains is the uneasy humor of the skewed encounter.
The awkwardness is clear in a series of mismatches, obstacles and blind alleys that start the moment you enter the show. Straight ahead is Andreas Slominski's Wall Built from Top to Bottom, which inhibits your access to the central space. Just to the right of the entrance, impeding your movement around the wall, is Martin Creed's small pile of tiles, a piece that both aspires to and shrinks from the condition of sculpture. The tiles are the same as those that cover the gallery floor, which gives the piece a tentative look, as if it didn't want to attract attention, but then its positioning has the opposite effect-overlook it and you are liable to trip over. Both artists treat construction as a game in which practical constraints are replaced by merely capricious ones, a Beckettian anxiety in Creed's case and a perverse bravado in Slominski's.
In another room, Aleksandra Mir's giant umbrella is surrounded by shots of the artist herself as she wields it in carious locations across London. While she holds it in a double-fisted grip, it shields other, smaller umbrellas, vies with the parasol over a newspaper stand and screens off a pedestrian shopping street. What could be more practical than an umbrella? A protector of waved hair and pressed suits, it is the perfect emblem of sensible city living. But this one has outgrown its purpose; it has become a caricature of practicality-and dwarfs it's carrier. In one shot, Mir is caught between her umbrella and the massive half-columns of the British Museum, a Lilliputian in a damp and portentous world that measures significance in inches and feet. Like many of the show's essays in awkwardness, this one touches on both the wonders and the discomforts of an existence that plays itself out at a tangent to ordinary society.
Other obstacles in the show take different, les literal forms. Cattelan has had a poster bearing a text in Arabic pasted on walls and billboards throughout the city. The poster plays on the Islamophobic fears that are regularly fanned by portions of the media; in a climate of suspicious intelligibility comes across as secrecy and so carries a hint of menace. But as it turns out, the text is a poem addressed by a man to his departed lover, the writer talking with regret of a wall that has risen between them. The wall plainly serves as a metaphor for their estrangement, but it can also be read as a reminder of the real and figurative walls that separate whole communities (and, more prosaically, as a reference to the surface on which the poster appears). The piece reverses the ordinary axis of postcolonial exclusion, placing an obstacle in the way of most viewers while, for the benefit of others, offering a surprisingly intimate meditation on the pain that obstacles bring.
The second current in the show, the self-effacing tendency, is present in pieces that hug the walls or sit uncomfortably in spaces to big for them. And it is there too in works that use discarded materials or deflate their own claims to serious consideration. Gabriel Kuri has attached plastic shopping bags to slowly swiveling, ceiling mounted fans, the inflated bags trembling like petals in a breeze and beaming down messages of profit-driven beatitude ('thank you thank you thank you for your patronage'). Tom Feher has made a diminutive tower out of polystyrene packing elements, a stunted monument to nothing in particular. And Sarah Sze has contributed a web of miniaturized orange fire escapes that lead nowhere.
Ingeniously, the smallest pieces in the show are situated, for the most part, in the large central room, where they seem doubly insubstantial. David Shrigley's Still life, consisting of a golf ball, a skull, an orange and a bottle, all made out of polystyrene and placed on a rickety wooden table, looks puny in the space. It mimics the poise and presence of traditional sculpture but falls hilariously short, while taking pot shots at Expressionism (the floppy bottle) and vanitas painting (the non-biodegradable skull and orange). And the golf ball suggests that still lifes, whether dense and illuminating or, like this one, incoherent, are fated to become 'cultural capital'—validation lifestyle accessories for the collector who would as soon be out golfing. Shrigley's apparent mildness is a decoy. His humor has a sharp, demystifying sting-and he often trains it on the art world.
There are moments when the show flirts with a more whimsical kind of play. Piplotti Rist's hypnotic installation, for instance, seems out of place, with its pacey, upbeat lyricism. But by and large the work on display steers clear of whimsy, guarding against it with a bracing awkwardness and an involuted, scaled down wit. This is a deft and engaging show, but it has a dark undertow. Again and again, it reminds you that play is liberating precisely because it stands outside the patterns of instrumentality that give the present its particular warp and weft. Player's the show seems to say are bound to be out on a limb, their relations with the world around them a little off-kilter. There is about the work here, alongside the life-giving humor and contrariness, something of a covert sadness of the exception that proves a dismal rule.