50: An art review in a small town
Hello, I hope you’re doing okay.
Welcome to Border Crossing issue #50.
This time, a rubbish piece of art in a popular local gallery — and whether it’s okay to say so.
An incredible achievement announced by the World Mosquito Program this month: they’ve developed a viable way to defeat dengue fever. The implications are profound, the science is awesome.
One of my very favourite films of the past few years, quirky yet profound (and very moving) Icelandic eco-crime drama Woman At War has showed up on the Channel 4 player.
I went back to Nick Hayes’ astonishing Book Of Trespass from last year; this time round listening to the author read it on Audible. It’s a tour de force polemic about England’s ludicrous land ownership laws and a beautiful, idiosyncratic, sometimes near-spiritual nature ramble, both at the same time.
On 25th June, Tom Hiddleston is on CBeebies Bedtime Story (the Gen Z equivalent of Jackanory) reading Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet’s book Supertato. It’s the gripping tale of a superhero potato, who goes into battle against an evil villain who is a pea. Will it be mash or mush? (I just came up with that, it’s not the official strapline)
An art review in a small town
Brighton’s central, mid-sized but local art scene dominating Fabrica Gallery is currently hosting a single large installation by the globally renowned, thought-provoking and often immersive Icelandic/Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson. Him of the bewitching foggy tunnel and gigantic ice cubes at Tate Modern, still vivid in the memory. I’ve loved much of Eliasson’s work, from tidy, pattern-forming, ecologically concerned photographs of glaciers, to much larger, elaborate objects that you viscerally interact with. He engages with nature as well as anyone. Meanwhile, I tend to think of Fabrica as a good-hearted kinda mainstream local space that punches above its weight, especially when Brighton Festival rolls around. It puts on fewer, larger pieces by significant figures, rather than curated exhibitions full of work, or anything local.
And yet. This much hyped current installation of Eliasson’s ‘The Forked Forest Path’ is a worthless, irritating waste of the few minutes it takes to encounter it. I reacted so strongly, I wished I’d not gone. Which is not necessarily to say I don’t recommend you go if you’re within reach (it’s always worth seeing and judging new art — especially free, large-scale art like this — for yourself). But blow me, it’s the emperor’s new hedge.
You walk along a path inside a tidy tunnel, made up of closely packed coppiced branches of wood. It snakes around a bit. At a certain point, as the name of the piece suggests, you reach a fork in the path, where you can choose one of two routes towards the exit. Both routes are the same. It’s not a long walk, perhaps fifteen or twenty metres, beginning to end, lasting stretched out seconds. And that’s it. Crucially, you don’t remotely lose yourself in there.
There are no extra touches, nor any enveloping tools or tricks, to enhance this experience or render it immersive. If you’re tall, you’ll have to stoop slightly to avoid getting your head all scratched up by twigs. There’s no soundtrack, no dry ice or lighting effects to create a mist or an ambience. There’s no other kind of nature represented or replicated; just these same branches the whole way around. It doesn’t vary. There are no ideas. Also, there’s no soundproofing and nobody’s being shushed, so throughout your short stroll you clearly hear the bustle and conversation of the gallery outside and the busy urban world beyond that. There’s not even the basic stewarding trick (as was so useful at the Tate in Eliasson’s tunnel of fog) of staggering people’s entry, to give anyone a solitary moment alone inside the installation: you just amble through with whoever you came with, and with whichever randoms are nearby.
Cumulatively, unless we’re meant to be enraged by the sheer nothingness, this is the exact opposite of a provocative, enriching experience.
‘The Forked Forest Path’ is a profoundly poor replication of a thing we can all achieve, for real, by going to the park. Like, getting a bus out to Stanmer or Devil’s Dyke or riding a local train out into Sussex, up to Glynde or along the coast. Anywhere, for fuck’s sake. Especially given the sophistication and emotional impact of some of Eliasson’s work on the anthropocene and climate catastrophe, ‘The Forked Forest Path’ is diddly embarrassing.
Even the word ‘the’ at the start of its title is annoying, as if there’s no other forked forest paths elsewhere, or as if this were a universal one. The ür forest path by which all others are defined. Someone tell Olafur that every forked forest path in the world world is an ‘a’, not a ‘the’.
I find myself fantasising that it deserves to be desecrated, in a replication of how real countryside and quasi-rural spaces are fucked up by human interaction. I wish I had the nerve to make up a fake dog poo bag (not with real poop obviously, this is disruptive art, not a dirty protest) and go hang it up in there, like those selfish idiots who hang their dog bags in the woods. It’s the sort of art exhibit that would benefit from a tramp asleep in the corner.
I emerged with questions. What does a poor artwork mean in this context? How subjective or objective is that shitness — am I essentially correct that this is rubbish, or, if I spoke to the right people with the right qualifications, could someone mount a well-informed, coherent defence of the piece?
So that’s that, a bit of art disappointed me. La de da. Except that with Eliasson at Fabrica, in a small place like Brighton, there is a quiet, pervasive sense that criticising the work may somehow morph into something broader, which could be taken personally.
Once I realised how strongly I felt, I began to clock how other people were carefully talking about it, without talking about it. Increasingly I noticed that people were quick to mention it and demonstrate they’re familiar with Eliasson’s work, and keen to say they’d been, yet actual opinions about the artwork were blandly, non descriptively, neutral-to-positive. I suspect that everyone knows it’s daft shite, yet nobody feels quite able to say so, until someone else does first. Until muggins here says loudly that he hates it. Whereupon the sluice gates open and folks are almost physically relieved to be able to say out loud that it wasn’t any good.
It’s such a weird, dislocating small town feeling: the possibility that criticising one under-performing piece of work by a major figure will end up being remembered as a kind of vile personal slur upon a hardworking local gallery team. It’s so much harder to vanish into the cultural chaos of Brighton than a bigger city like Bristol or Glasgow. Just as this pretend forest path was impossible to get lost in, our town’s cultural diaspora is far too small to have corners to vanish into.
Stand-up comedian voice: what’s that all about then? The act of slagging off a big pile of twigs slips so easily across into the territory of implied criticism of a gallery space, or worse, broadens out into a perceived slight upon a whole city? Obviously, I want galleries to put on big important works, including ones that I may think are rubbish, because that’s the whole point of them. Yet I keep wondering: how impactful — or not — is it, to our arts diaspora, as we crawl out from under the coronavirus era, if an important central gallery puts on one large piece by an international superstar name, and that piece isn’t any good? Does it not matter at all? Or does it betray a town full of grass-roots visual artists who desperately need cogent support and unity?
A decade ago, Brighton Museum hosted a touring exhibition of less controversial Jeff Koons works. It was vanilla enough that they were able to make it free entry and families could go. With that exhibition, I sensed that everyone was more easily able to differentiate the two stances. I was writer-in-residence at the museum at the time and I clearly remember that almost everyone basically agreed that (A) it was brilliant for the city and for the museum that they’d got hold of this high profile Koons show and at the same time (B) yes, of course it was total bollocks. Nobody hesitated for a moment in calling out Koons as a chancer — and that summation in no way reflected negatively on the museum for bringing his hot mess to town.
Your hometown galleries are valuable and precious. But yeah, one of ours just dunked us with an awful fake hedge and it’s okay to say so, even in such fiery times as these. The smartest thing they did on this project was to put the donation card machine at the start, rather than the end. If I’d gone through the hedge first, they wouldn’t have got my fiver.
Cocteau Twins — Heaven Or Las Vegas (4AD, 1990)
Last week I got the chance to interview Simon Raymonde, he was lovely, more emotional and open than I would’ve expected. We didn’t talk Cocteaus much, mostly focused on Bella Union and his more recent music. But inevitably the conversation has sent me back to this heady gem. The production is a little dated (in that odd way, in which bands of this era’s later material sounds more dated than their earlier stuff) but it’s still an enrapturing listen and I discovered that I know every note. Early in our friendship (before she was a guitarist) it was Jen Macro who got me into Cocteaus about four years after this came out. Before then, I’d stupidly dismissed them as soft or something, which was especially daft considering the straight through-line to acts I already adored, such as Yo La Tengo or MBV.
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Loads of love, as always. Look after yourself and your people.