Sunday, 20 September 2009





Things are never quite what they seem in the world of contemporary art. The English language magazine ‘Art Review’, based in London and New York, has just published its annual list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world. In the top spot they place the British artist Damien Hirst, on the grounds that, in the past twelve months, his work fetched more at auction than that of any other living artist. In other words, the BritPop conceptual art that dominated the 1990s is still what really counts.


There is, however, another way of interpreting the current situation. This is that the group of taste-makers responsible for creating Hirst’s international reputation are now taking their profits, and getting out. The British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, whose enthusiasm for Hirst was largely responsible for creating the artist’s international reputation, has now sold nearly all his holdings, including the iconic shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde. The high prices are now being paid not by market-leaders but market-followers. The betting is that they may get their fingers burned. Hirst’s most recent solo show in New York, with the Gagosian Gallery, was execrated by the whole American press.


It therefore doesn’t take much imagination to sense that the art world is beginning to look for something completely different. It would be surprising if this were not the case. Contemporary art, like the ancient god Saturn, regularly devours its own children.


One sign of the times is an ambitious new exhibition in Los Angeles, at the Geffen Contemporary. This cavernous space, once a police garage, is a dependency of the sleeker but smaller Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and is regularly used for projects that are too wild and ambitious for MOCA itself. The show, with its emphasis on the transcendent [its subtitle is ‘In and About Altered States’] has a very West Coast flavor. For example it can be seen as something that looks back to Maurice Tuchman’s hugely influential historical survey ‘The Spiritual in Art’, which triumphed at the Los Angeles County Museum in the mid-1980s. There are important differences, however. Whereas ‘The Spiritual in Art’ was more or less entirely about painting, ‘Ecstasy’ is very much a multi-media event, with numerous installations – though, as it happens, very few videos. This is itself a sign of the fact that the contemporary art world is entering an epoch of change, since videos have dominated great international exhibitions for so long.


Basically the exhibition can be divided into three parts. Its least interesting contributions take the idea of ‘altered states’ too literally. There is a superfluity of images of magic mushrooms in this show – an ‘Upside Down Mushroom Room’ by Carsten Höller, a huge painting showing mushrooms with winking anime-style eyes by the fashionable Japanese Takahashi Murakami, and an installation featuring a vast number of tiny hand-made mushrooms by the Brooklyn-based Roxy Paine. Allusions to ecstatic states shouldn’t be ploddingly obvious.


Even more obvious in one sense – but not in another - is the carefully fenced off crystal fountain, modeled on one created for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, which supposedly circulates liquid LSD. Of course here one has to take the organizers’ word for it, since water from the tap would make exactly the same visual effect.


Another part of the exhibition, very large in terms of the amount of space it takes up, has links to the ‘Light and Space’ group of artists who flourished on the West Coast of America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among the most prominent members of this group were James Turrell and Robert Irwin. The interest in this kind of art, once rooted firmly in the United States, has now become completely international. There are ambitious examples here by Olafur Eliasson, Pierre Huyghe, and Erwin Redl. Two of these live in the United States and one [Eliasson] in Berlin, but none is American by birth. The effects they conjure up through the use of light are truly disorienting and magical. The objection, however, has to be that these art works are by their nature ephemeral. Once the show at the Geffen Contemporary is dismantled, the experiences they offer can never be repeated.


There are parallels in the present in the non-artistic sphere. The rides at various versions of Disneyland come to mind, though their aims are less exalted – pure entertainment without the element of non-denominational spiritual uplift that the title of the show suggests here.


There are also possible parallels to be found in the quite remote past, such as some of the effects devised by artists for the great festivals of the Baroque period. The problem is that, though these clearly impressed those who experienced them at first hand, they are now so thoroughly lost to us that they no longer seem to count for much in the general development of art.


There is, however, a third category of art to be found in the show. This is a group of elaborately decorative artworks that seem to represent a new and potent creative tendency. The most obvious examples of are the hugely complex collage-paintings by the already very fashionable Fred Tomaselli, an American who was born in Santa Monica but who now lives in New York; and the vast monochrome drawings of the British artist Paul Noble.


Tomaselli’s compositions are made up of a huge number of different elements – tablets, leaves, insect bodies, fragments of printed images featuring hands, mouths and eyes. The result resembles slightly kitsch oriental lacquer, the kind of thing you’d find in Thailand or Indonesia rather than in Japan.


Paul Noble’s black-and-white works are too big and too intricate to be taken in at a single glance – one has to read them as much as look at them. They have obvious links to Baroque scenography – the engraved illustrations that do preserve at least some aspects of the lost festivals I have just referred to. They also have equally obvious links to Science Fiction illustration.


What Tomaselli and Noble represent is a new fascination with the magic of the hand-made, with art that derives at least some of its magic from sheer laboriousness. Their work invites you to look and look again. In today’s terms, that is something new and – dare one say it? – revolutionary in  spirit.


‘Ecstasy’ at the Geffen Contemporary [Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles] unitl February 2oth 2006.


This site was last updated 20-09-2009