A/V Room








Open Systems: Tate Modern

Feature: James Haddrell

VISITORS to Tate Modern this season will be privy to something of an artistic irony.

In the Turbine Hall at almost any time of the day a long line of people can be seen zigzagging its way towards the ticket desk as hundreds of exhibition goers wait in line to see the current Frida Kahlo exhibition.

At the same time, upstairs on level 4 of the gallery, you can walk straight up to the desk, buy a ticket and walk in to Open Systems, an exhibition exploring the ways in which European and American artists reconceived art around 1970.

The irony? Frida Kahlo, an artist whose favourite subject remained herself, whose art was almost always insular, ignoring the world of her audience entirely to focus on her own physical and mental identity, is attracting much more attention than the artists who make up Open Systems, many of whom took a documentary look at the world that we live in, many of whom produced work which is meaningless without our interaction.

For Brazilian artist, Lygia Clark, that interaction is more than just an intellectual concept.

With Sensorial Objects she presents a series of everyday objects – ping-pong balls in a plastic bag, a selection of pairs of gloves – and invites the viewer to pick them up, to put the gloves on, move the balls around, to ‘make’ the art.

As she described it, she became a ‘proposer’, not an artist – she presented the ingredients for a work of art, but only through the interaction of the spectator did the work come to exist.

In Bruce Nauman’s Going Around The Corner Piece the viewer is guided around a huge white cube with television screens placed at the base of each corner.

Each time you move round the corner, you catch a glimpse of yourself on the next television screen, endlessly disappearing around the next corner.

Without the viewer interacting with the work, the work is meaningless, empty of content.

Unlike the clichéd tree falling in a forest, making a noise whether you hear it or not, or the paintings of Frida Kahlo, which still depict the artist even after the gallery has closed, these works really do not exist without their spectators.

Taking another approach, and opening the exhibition, German artist Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (pictured) contains a small amount of water which evaporates and condenses according to its location.

The curator’s choice of placement, and even the number of spectators looking at Haacke’s work, can change the appearance of the cube.

Turning away from the conceptualism of the cube, Haacke is also represented by Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, a documentary-style work which took on the might of New York’s greatest slum landlord.

At the time the work was produced, the Shapolsky family owned more slum properties than any other landowner in New York.

Like a Michael Moore documentary for the 70s art world, Haacke’s 142 photographs of rundown Shapolsky tenement buildings were produced for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, but the work was deemed inappropriate by Museum managers and it, along with the continued employment of the curator, was rejected.

Another work which draws on documentary technique, Martha Rosler’s The Bowery In Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, explores life in the derelict areas of the Bowery in downtown Manhattan, but insists that this kind of documentary representation cannot represent the experiences of human life.

Twenty-one picture frames each contain a black and white photograph of a rundown street or building, with slang terms for drunks and drunkenness – ‘up to the gills’, ‘boozehound’, ‘sottish’ – written alongside.

However, while both forms of expression, pictures and words, paint a grim picture of alcoholic poverty, the one thing missing from either is people.

Rosler’s work may use the techniques of reportage, the words and the black and white photography of daily newsprint, but by leaving out the people she challenges the ability of this kind of description to get to the heart of any sort of human story.

Drawing in the spectator in yet another way, US artist John Baldessari challenges the authority of painter, curator and professional gallery all at once, handing over the power of critical judgement wholeheartedly to the viewer.

Towards the end of the Sixties Baldessari sent out a range of photographs of his friend’s hand pointing at different everyday objects to a number of amateur artists, inviting each artist to choose one and paint it.

Baldessari then exhibited the resulting works together, posing a number of questions for his viewers. How, if at all, is Baldessari the artist in this project, if it is not even him featured in the original photographs?

What do the terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ really signify if professional galleries can exhibit amateur work?

Ultimately, by taking all power away from both the curator and the artist Baldessari pulled the reassuring carpet of the art-world professional out from under his spectators’ feet and forced them to judge for themselves whether or not the works on show were worthy of any merit.

Despite the many ways in which the work featured in Open Systems seeks to integrate the viewer with the art, the visitor figures at the Tate this season suggest that exhibition goers are choosing to take the passive route, to take a voyeuristic peek into Kahlo’s battered soul instead of immersing themselves in the interactive art of Open Systems.

However, if you are feeling adventurous, if you want your preconceptions about art to be challenged and want to make up your own mind about what should and should not be on display, if you would rather gain a surreptitious glimpse of your own artistic soul, then Open Systems is the place for you.

Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970
Until 18 September 2005
Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG
020 7887 8888;
Sunday-Thursday 10am–6pm; Friday-Saturday 10am-10pm
Tickets: £7, concessions £5.50

Picture credit: Hans Haacke
Condensation Cube 1963
Museu d'Art Contemporaini, Barcelona, Spain. Gift of the National Comittee and Board of Trustees Whitney Museum of American Art. © DACS 2005

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