Encounters with recent art
by Gordon Burn
Review by Marc Nash
There are two voids at the heart of this book. The moral/cultural one of the art itself (my subjective opinion, therefore discountable), but the more pertinent one is the void of our tour guide, the late Mr Burn. Any book on art is a bit like those headphones you can hire at the start of a visit to a foreign gallery - (not me buster, I try and hover on the edge of tour parties who have proper flesh and blood guides; in The Louvre once I attached myself to the fringes of a women's Church party from Atlanta Ga, but it didn't take them too long to spot me standing out like a bit of a sore thumb and I was asked, uncharitably I felt, to leave) - but anyway, there are two likely outcomes; firstly such is the impenetrable language and terminology of art criticism, it's akin to your tape being stuck on Portuguese or Swedish for all the good it does you; the second, is the commentary is so basic, that you gain not one insight from the words of soporific wisdom. I fear both are evidenced alternately here.
Burn was also a novelist by trade. Where his tools were words and metaphors and dare I say it, images. Yet all are virtually absent here. Now I would argue strongly that all modern art fails because it relies so heavily on our writerly stock in trade that is language, to inject it with even the first rung of comprehensibility; be it the words of the title (usually an ironic juxtaposition), or a paragraph of explanatory text in the catalogue or even by the exhibit itself. Otherwise, the piece is completely adrift in a sea of sargassum. A dead shark preserved behind glass is less aesthetically pleasing to my eye than watching one in an aquarium, or even better, going cage frightening with one in the ocean. This particular Damien Hirst piece only has any association from its title "The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living" (leave it to us writers darling, we're so much better at that sort of contemplation). But as Burn states, the Young British Artist movement was virulently anti-literary and sought out the more unseemly side of life through its choice of materials, dung, maggots, refuse bags, cigarette ash, used tampons etc. It's our reality baby; it's where the artists each claim to have come from (The North & Scotland). Oh yes an attempt to reinject life into the dear old British Class system. By artists who were only suckled life at the cash teat of Charles Saatchi and the curatorship of Nicholas Serota (The Turner Prize and Tate Museum) and Jay Jopling (White Cube Gallery). In a frustratingly evasive chapter on Saatchi, focussed around the author's failed attempts to manoeuvre a personal interview with the elusive svengali (not meta writing, just tame), Burn admits Saatchi largely is to the artworld what George Soros is to high finance, ie he makes and breaks the market (and the artists). When he tires of an artist, having inflated their market price, he moves their work around the world of high investments, not so very class conscious now are you YBAers? Damien Hirst's latest works are diamond encrusted skulls... Burn argues Hirst has entered the nation's consciousness. I beg to differ, one artwork, a pickled shark has, but only in the same 'what's it all about then?' disdain as "Equivalent VIII" that infamous pile of bricks at the Tate Gallery.
Just how wide of the mark are these working class heroes? Rachel Whiteread's Turner Prize winning "House" in which she plaster cast moulded the inside skein of her house before its shell was demolished, became vandalised and graffitioed by the local community. Why? Not from any exclusion from understanding, rather the real exclusion of housing stock being a live issue in their locale. If you want to make a statement about class, then the logical thing would be not the bricks and mortar, rather the interior, what with the British obsession with DIY and TV home makeover programmes. I've an idea, a gallery full of sculpted snakes, with human features and inside their bodies is the outline of an item of furniture each one has swallowed whole and is slowly ingesting. In their mouth, snagged on their venomous fangs, is a swatch of various fabric samples the snake is poised choosing between to upholster said furniture item. There, please give me an exhibition, I can call myself a cutting edge artist now can't I? The problem with this art is that it only has one idea behind each exhibit. A single association. Hirst did a metamorphosis cycle of the butterfly, ending with them being mounted on cork behind glass. I've done it in one of my novels and it contains more than the one idea running through it. Because words are where it is at. We can take our time to explain it properly.
The book suffers from being a collection of disparate essays written originally for "The Guardian" newspaper, now brought together under one cover. Each essay on an artist may hang together internally - actually they barely do, jagging around from one impression to another - but collectively there is no ongoing analysis tying them together, since that wasn't how they were written at the time. For a movement, it all seems somewhat disparate and lacking in the intellectual rigour required to make an argument. There's an essay on The Clash in 1977, starting out and fumbling their way towards their later greatness and political savvy. It is left dangling as the portal into the artists who follow some ten years later (by which time the Clash were a very different and committed band), it just doesn't make any sense even being here. (Interestingly the most vocal opposition to the YBA has come from the music community, from Wild Billy Childish and his Stuckist movement and from The K-Foundation's sizeable £40,000 cash prize award for the worst artist of the year mocking the 1993 Turner prize). Burn's chapter about the 1993 Turner Prize competitor from Laos, with his piece constructed from rice, is headed with an illustration of an unattributed Sarah Lucas self-portrait collage when she makes no appearance in the chapter. Sloppy. The tone itself is also curious. Rather than the sense of him standing in front of an artwork under discussion, it's more akin to being at the Doctors as he reads from his notes in your file a week later, rather than at the time when he's succussing you with his fingers, or depressing your tongue, or ultrasounding your abdomen. It's like Burn's detached from the whole thing, both the art and the act of having to write about it. Hardly surprising in some ways, when most of the works aren't available for public scrutiny, sat in Saatchi's private collection (remember the fire in his warehouse that wiped out a significant gob of YBA work? - I've an alibi for the date in question btw), or those he's moved on to other wealthy individuals around the world.
But ultimately one is forced to consider the writing itself. Burn invokes the extended image of a safe cracker to compare with Hirst's own asseveration of his work being like a dissector in the morgue. I can see Hirst's comparison, Burn's just seems to be offering something way off the mark. He refers to the use of cigarettes in a piece as 'cancer sticks' and 'coffin nails' - yes, but such association is verbal only, not visual. And so on and so forth. Other critics are quoted at length and just make me want to go and read their texts instead. There are three uninterrupted pages of quotes purporting to talk about Hirst, but none of them are directly addressing him. If an author wants page filler, just list the prolix titles of each and everyone of Hirst's artworks...
Of course there is a perfect validity to writing about YBA movement. Personally, I don't think YBA merits the term 'movement' - the British no longer do movements or waves, such is our fecklessness and decadence we are happy to import movements wholesale from West of us. This coterie all studied at Goldsmiths College, under the same tutor Richard Wentworth, but they were only lumped together courtesy of the market created by one man, Charles Saatchi. Without his patronage, there would have been no movement. Can one individual really be said to determine a grass roots cultural movement?
Like I say, if you're a fan of the art then I can't see you're going to glean any new nuggets from this. If you're uninitiated, this tome won't change that. There are hints of the lifestyle of these artists living and mythologising their lives in public (lots of drunkenness and drug-taking), seeing as Burn socialised with them, but even these insights are few and far between. I'd like to know if the book was commissioned from Burn, or cobbled together in the knowledge of his immanent death from cancer.
Unwittingly Burn may have produced a book illustrating the artistic, cultural and intellectual void in Britain over the last two decades. Don't think this was his intent though. Gordon Burn RIP. YBA, rest in pieces.