Saturday, 27 August 2016


Plot spoilers ahead!

Part-way through this film Deadshot (played by Will Smith) stumbles on one of those top secret folders (you know the ones), and discovers what's really attacking New York. Turns out it's the Enchantress, who used her original enlistment into the Suicide Squad as her chance to go rogue. In other words, the action of recruiting the Squad generated the enemy they now need to face. It's a neat irony. A flashback handily confirms all this.

Except the 'flashback' almost entirely reprises scenes we previously saw in real time. Which kind of scuppers the surprise element a little.

And things are often like that here. Expert critics have spotted that this film is thrown together in an often haphazard way. But then so has everyone else. The rest of the Squad, bar Deadshot and Harley Quinn, occasionally up and do something significant-seeming, in the firm belief they're adding to their backstory. Not in this movie, they're not. (Diablo comes closest, and luckily his back story is so predictable it doesn't need much screen time.) 

And it bizarrely manages to combine repeat load-tipping of info dumps with the assumption the cinema viewer will know their comics lore. Some things we're told twice, others not at all. Harley jumping into the chemical vat, those not familiar with the Joker origin story find that a particularly mystifying moment.

(Me, I'd have started the film with the conference room scene, where the Suicide Squad project is first announced. The aide to Walker, the Black Ops boss, would then have manifested as the Enchantress to the audience the same time as the Generals. Then the rest of the Squad could have been introduced, one by one. All of whom within their own unique personalised holding cell. But I digress...)

Critics (and everyone else) rightly point out the way the soundtrack sounds so slapped on they might as well have stuck an i-Player on shuffle. And that Cara Delevingne might look the part of the spooky Enchantress, but acts just like a model. Which becomes a particular problem in the finale, where instead of commanding proceedings she gyrates like she's in a really bad music video. And when your cast is all bad guys, you need to a pretty good antagonist to up the ante of evil on them.

While Deadshot is projected as the primary protagonist, getting the nearest there is to characterisation, it's Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) who really dominates. It's hard to find a publicity image where she's not centred. If he's intended as the heart of the film, she's its face.

She actually gets a back story. Trouble is, it isn't just bad, it's about as bad as it gets. As if the career woman who throws it all in for the bad guy wasn't bad enough, the scene where the Joker tortures her into her new identity is effectively a euphemistic rape scene, so we even have the 'conversion through rape' trope.

Much of this has been said already, and ably enough, so let's make just one further comment. Notably, both Deadshot and Diablo are conflicted over their bad guy status. Deadshot is shown sniffing gunpowder like a crackhead with a pipe, yet at the same time he's motivated by love for his daughter. That's some... not much, but some indication of an inner life. Whereas both Harley and the Enchantress are simply split, the well-behaved good girl (Harleen Quinel and June Moone respectively) alternating with the sexy bad girl. Not depth but appearance. Times two.

And Harley leads us on to the next common criticism of the film, the way the Joker is reduced to such a cameo role. (See for example this YouTube review.) Most likely, this is another thing down to poor structuring and edit wars. Actor Jared Leto has confirmed he not only shot a whole lot more scenes, he was less than pleased to find how few made it to the finished film. (Asked if any of his scenes were cut, he's responded by asking if any weren't.)

But actually, that's one thing which works in the film's favour. Had the Joker been onscreen more, Harley would have once more been relegated to his girlfriend and sidekick – the Batgirl of the crime world. As it is, his being remote from the plot but forever trying to force his way back in all but reverses things. He comes to represent her desire to be out there, driving recklessly round town rather than being stuck in boring detention. In short, the essential nature of Harley necessitates that the only way the Girl Joker can dominate the film is to keep the Boy Joker at arm's length.

But then again, that's what they do. It doesn't atone for the egregiousness of her origin story, of course. But when we complain about superhero films being so concerned with the heroes, and the heroines always shunted into supporting roles, isn't this something to cheer? (Me, I'd have given Harley none of the unnecessary backstory, and almost no scenes together with the Joker save the brief moment where her rescue seems to be working. But that's probably another digression.)

The conceit underlying both characters is that crazy counts as a kind of super-power. It leaves the wielder so unconstrained by social norms, so ready with the unexpected it becomes an ability akin to the ability to set light to things or be a crack shot. (Neither has any particular powers beyond this.) And then, just to throw you even further, they toss in the notion that crazy might just be an act after all, there to distract you while they get on with their scheming.

And this is accentuated with Harley, who also delights in playing the part of the bimbo stripper. On release her very first action is to toy with the guards' minds, leaving them unsure whether she's lunatic or player, goofy simpleton or corkscrew-minded schemer. Her costume is less the... well, the harlequin image of the original cartoons and more a cross between the peeling facepaint feral joker of 'Dark Knight' and the punk kinderwhore look - both of course designed to sew confusion among those they encounter. And she pretty much keeps up that act throughout. It's her not Deadshot who dispatches the Enchantress, a victory she achieves through cunning and deception.

The one time we see her without the make-up, so to speak, is when she believes the Joker died in trying to rescue her – and we see her crying in the rain. But only we see this. By the time the rest of the Squad have walked up, the act is back on. (Admittedly for this to be true you have to disregard the risible scene where the Enchantress tempts her with the fantasy of becoming a stay-at-home mom. But then you have to do a whole lot of mental re-editing with this film.)

All of which is sold by Robbie's performance, which could without exaggeration be called scene-stealing. It's everything Delevingne's isn't. As she repeatedly sidles up to other characters, they can never be sure whether she'll screw with them, try to snog them or stab them.

And here we've hit the upside. When it works, which in fits and spurts it does, the film treats you just in the same way Harley does. No wonder she's the face for it! You're never quite sure what it is, what it will do to you next, what angle it will come from - dark or comic, dramatic or surreal. The film itself behaves like a lunatic let loose from the asylum. That may well be because the film doesn't really know itself what it is. But it can still press that into service.

And there are times where it does seem to froth with deranged invention. The Joker's henchmen conduct a raid in ludicrous fancy dress, one machine gunning guards in a panda costume. And shouldn't it be like this? if superhero films try to up characterisation, they're still going to be lagging behind in the Academy awards. They're simply not playing to their strengths.

And the concept of a motley collection of bad guys is actually a pretty good one. It's often said the strength of a superhero title is the strength of it's rogues gallery. So why not have just the rogue's gallery? “Let's do something fun”, asserts the Enchantress early on. And something fun does sound a more inviting prospect than another two and a half hours of sour hero grimdark. This ragbag army follow a very crooked path indeed, sometimes doubling back on themselves, at others leaping blocks ahead. A route map they're not. But at least they're moving in the right direction.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


The Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 19th August

Featuring both the guitarist and drummer from Bo Ningen, pyschedelic noise purveyors and Lucid Frenzy fave, Xaviers might seem their side project. But they're dominated by the keyboards of Kenichi Iwasa, the guitar lines often as metronoic as the drums. In fact for the one section the guitar takes to the fore he immediately switches to secondary drums.

To this day, there are those who associate space rock with prog. Yet his child's-play stabs couldn't have been further from their sophisticated swooshes, a buzzing biplane against a Red Arrows display. His cheap, insistent and off-kilter lines lead the band through one long improvised number.

They're strongly Krautrock influenced, never a bad thing in my book. And Krautrock of course can mean either the propulsive rhythms of Neu!, so much a forerunner of the repetitive beats of dance music, or the deranged freak-outery of Faust. Except Xaviers somehow manage to cover both of those styles at the same time. It's a set which lurches forward like a drunken robot. Imagine the clanking castle on chicken legs of 'Howl's Moving Castle' combined with the humanising imperfection of Wall-E. (This analogy is handily pictured.) You were never quite sure whether it would be able to keep going, while it actually assaulted your senses for a full set length with none of the longeurs impro can lead into.

From listening you'd have no idea how proficient the musicians were or even if they had any idea themselves how it was working. It might have been propelled by sheer forward motion for all we knew. And it's refreshing to see such a safety last approach to taking to the stage. The band name comes, I would assume, from the psi powered head of the X-Men. And they certainly seem possessed of advanced telepathic powers.

An earlier, and less keyboard-led, set from London...

Saturday, 13 August 2016


...on the west coast of Mull. The nearby Calgary Art in Nature trail was also encountered. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Saturday, 6 August 2016


NB This review boldly goes into plot spoilerific territory (as surely as it splits infinitives)

If I haven't written much about the Star Trek movies so far (only a brief response to the first one here) it's partly because I felt responses were hard-coded. It just came down to have much of a classic Trek fan you were. Hardcore fans of the original series hated the reboot with a vengeance, whereas I... well I was never that much of a fan, so was more amenable to change. Which suggests at different perspectives, rather than different analysis. Which would make any debate purposeless.

It's true, for example, that the the original series was powered by the Kirk/Spock/Bones triangle. But that seemed effective because of the chemistry between the three actors, the way some bands can only work with a classic line-up, making it something of a fool's errand to try and reproduce. Better to vary from it. Admittedly, they strayed too far, and made films too much about Kirk and his supporting cast. But it's better to go in the right direction and overshoot than the wrong.

This time the script conspires to divide the crew into twos, but is only interested in the effect of this on Spock and Bones. And it's actually handled reasonably well, Spock suddenly finding a joke funny and Bones worrying he's become delirious, Spock attempting to say he'd always assumed their relationship to be based on an underlying respect and Bones firmly insisting it doesn't need saying. It's reminiscent enough to work, without being trapped inside imitative.

And when Kirk's two-hander with Chekov yields nothing similar that's probably just as telling. Kirk's job is to move the plot along, and anyone with him is an audience or sounding board. There's some feints to give him one of those 'atonement-with-the-father journeys' out of Scriptwriter's Basic, but that tends to lurk around the film trying to find some sort of purchase. And, surprise, his 'arc' is his considering giving up being a starship Captain only deciding to stay one after all – meaning he comes out of the film just the way he was on the way in. Phew, that was close!

We're clearly intended to connect to him by him being coded as connected to our era. So much so you half wonder if there's a director's cut scene where he wakes up in the future, Buck Rogers style. Perhaps what's significant is how this is played. He's a rock'n'roll Starship captain, riding a motorbike round an ancient planet to distract the enemy, and later seizing victory by blasting the Beastie Boys at them.

If these moments are annoying, rather than goofily charming as they seem intended, it's most likely because they're so absolutely unearned. At the close he tells another character, now enlisted with Starfleet, she doesn't have to obey all the rules. Because, you know, he said so. There may well have been eras before ours which had lower levels of personal freedom. But the gap between perception and reality, the idea of how free we are compared to the way our lives really function, that must be unprecedented. Short of some truly dystopian turn in history, nobody is going to look back on us and say that was the time you didn't have to obey all the rules. And consequently our heroes have become coping strategies, ways by which we can lie to ourselves.

And the flashy, frenetic direction of the film (by Justin Li, who's previously directed things like 'Fast and Furious' sequels) makes the perfect accompaniment for Kirk. As it leaps, giddyingly and unrelentingly from one set-piece to the next, its almost a trailer extended to film length. At times the flash-cutting is so unfollowable you end up just guessing what must have just happened, and you're normally right.

That said, the set-piece scene where the swarm attack the Enterprise, effectively slipping under the radar of its mighty weapons to literally dismember it, is genuinely effective. It's almost like the opposite to the classic opening of 'Star Wars', where a great big spaceship is shown to be chased by an even bigger one – this is death by an army of minnows. The scene's even given a neat fillip later, when it's revealed that their peer-to-peer inter-ship communications jammed the Enterprises' in themselves rather than through a deliberate plot, like they attacked us with their very unlikeness.

It's one of those classic moments where you can watch a Hollywood movie and root for the bad guys without having to rewrite much in your head. In fact it's virtually Negri and Hardt's theory of multitude versus empire, laid out on the screen. (Not, it must be said, a theory that's particularly convincing. In fact it's quite possibly no more than rock'n'roll autonomism the same way Kirk's a rock'n'roll Captain. But for all that it's fun to see it on the screen.)

And of course at the very same time the film seems cheerily innocent even of the concept that the 'bad guys' might portray positive features. In the standard clash-of-values conversation with the villain Kraal, he snarlingly mocks their “unity” as a “weakness”. Yet not only are his crew as unified in purpose as Kirk's, they are defeated precisely by having this unity disrupted.

Even if we weren't already expecting a plot twist over Kraal, Uhura is given a line to tip us off that one's incoming. And the way it's delivered is effectively handled, suddenly fixing on a clue which has been hiding in plain slight just as we've been looking elsewhere.

Yet it's this twist which truly scuppers the film. It turns out... I said there'd be plot spoilers, didn't I?... it turns out Kraal was himself a Starfleet captain, who wound up marooned on a distant planet, became convinced he was dumped there and consequently got a little embittered. And okay, aliens in science fiction are never going to be truly alien. That would make them beyond imagining, and then no-one would be able to imagine them. They're always going to be our shadow selves in some form, us at our worst so our best can get in a fistfight with them.

But there's a question of degree. Making them our literal shadow selves and no more turns them from disturbing shapes into mere reflections. It's taking those shadows and wringing the darkness from them, it robs them of any element of alienness. Historically as the Earth became delineated to the inch by spoilsport cartographers, the edge of the map was pushed further out and finally space became the place for the weird and inexplicable. This is more less what lies behind the rise of science fiction as a popular medium. It's where the strange can still be strange, where the unknown rears up at us. If you don't honour this then the science fiction becomes just a setting, a desktop background interchangeable with any other.

And this fault line is blown wide open by the ending. In'Into Darkness' we returned to Earth for a final battle with a terrorist bad guy intent on blowing up stuff. And here... okay, it's the futuristic city of a space station, but that's pretty much the same thing. And it's worse than repetition, it's even worse than the nagging sense we never really went anywhere, it runs counter to the most basic premise of 'Star Trek' – the bit spelt out up front about boldly going. Significantly that fabled opening monologue is now relegated to the end of the film, like the franchise is permanently being thrown off course and trying to get back on track. This film should really be called 'Star Trek Back Again'.

Because Star Trek is inherently about frontiers not home bases. Roddenberry's well-known original pitch for the show was “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Starfleet can be referenced, but needs to be kept in the background of a story. Kirk should land on an alien planet like a Marshall bringing law to Dodge City, explorer and policemen simultaneously. In short, this film is not without it's moments. But it's reached the point where they made Star Trek so unlike itself, that even a non-fan like me thought of throwing in the towel.

Friday, 29 July 2016


(Yes, twice in a row! Reviews of art exhibitions which are still on!)

”I want the work to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.”
- Mona Hatoum

The Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum is effectively a double exile. Her family had been forced to flee Palestine for Lebanon before her birth. Then, visiting London in 1975, an outbreak of civil war effectively cut her off from home. Such themes, it's generally held, pervade her work.

Which they do. But rather than the polemical artist this might suggest, her work is actually strongly influenced by Surrealism. Of all Modernist art movements, Surrealism may be the one of which people have the most skewed impression. As it's most successful self-publicist Dali came to characterise it after himself, portraying the idea that it's something frenzied and shrieking. Yet Hatoum has none of this in-your-face shock but is instead quietly disturbing, to the point it's sometimes hard to work out how her works have their effect. For example her frequent use of domestic objects, in the show's words, “find the unsettling within the everyday... making the familiar uncanny”.

And at the same time as it unsettles Surrealism can be genuinely funny. It is to society what the Joker is to Gotham city, looking at a mad world and deciding the best response is to laugh. Her performance pieces do sometimes seem set to shock. Her notes for 'Live Work for the Black Room' (1981) even promise “DEATH, DISASTER, DOOM & GLOOM”. But many works have the Surrealists' impish humour, for example with titles which echo their love of wordplay.

'Grater Divide' (2002, above) for example is a food grater blown up to the size of a room divide. While 'No Way' and 'No Way II' (1996) are respectively a colander and sieve with the holes uselessly plugged, form's link to function broken. Both are reminiscent of, for example, Man Ray or Meret Oppenheim. While a chair conjoined with a desk, part of the installation 'Interior/ Exterior Landscape' (2010), recalls Magritte.

Put together these two influences and what results is art which has a political impetus without being politically assertive. It may be relevant that the scale of her work can vary, from large-scale room-sizes installations which can look like grand public statements to very small pieces which we more associate with personalisation.

Hatom herself has said “I’m never trying to make a direct political statement. There are issues in my head, but they’re in the background; they’re not foregrounded in the work, and they’re not specific to my own history... The tension is between the work’s reduced form and the intensity of the possible associations.”

Or “each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand... I don’t want to pin a single meaning on each one.... I want to make use of... contradictions, play on ambiguity, never take anything for what it appears to be.” And to be political without polemical is in itself a hallmark of Surrealism, as in for example their response to the Spanish revolution.

In the early performance piece 'The Negotiating Table', (1983, a still above) she lies prone and plastic-wrapped on a table, surrounded by empty chairs. It's akin to Gilroy's classic cartoon 'The Plum-Pudding In Danger' but here the artist has substituted her own body as the prize to be carved. Her becoming Palestine (and by implication all occupied territories) makes the point in a visceral way – for many, this is a flesh-and-blood issue. It's common for Hatoum to place her self physically in her work in this way. Even in her more conventional artworks, where she's not personally present, she'll use her hair and nails as materials.

But the chairs being empty, that's as significant as the table being full. The politicians and diplomats who decide our fate don't occupy the same space as us, they are absent from our lives the same time as they devour us. The chairs become totems of power, magnifying it through absence, like the master’s boots in Strindberg's ‘Miss Julie’.

And in general in Hatoum's work, the absence of the human body can be as significant as its presence. Take for example, 'Homebound' (2000, above). It's a domestic situation, kitchen utensils scattered on the table, children's toys on the floor. But nobody's home. Even the clothes rail is bare of clothes. With the empty hangers and mattressless wire-frame bed, it looks like some kind of bare skeleton of a dwelling. This is perhaps the closest to her signature work, the domestic situation shot through with something defamilarising until the scene becomes menacing. And in this case, it's literally true. An electric current runs through the scene at intervals; it's hum rising to almost a shriek, the lights building to a glare them dimming away again. You hear that hum before you encounter the scene, like the thunder of an oncoming storm.

The show states “the title plays on ideas of domestic confinement or house arrest”. And perhaps the bare bed does suggest torture by electrocution. While a small cage, for a pet mouse or gerbil, is recursively placed within the scene. (And watch out for that cage motif.) But overall I think the opposite. Literally, our perspective is outside, looking in. Of course we can't enter the scene, at least not without getting ourselves fried. But the bars between us and it seem less required health-and-safety initiative than part of the work. Many Palestinians have been driven out of their homes in precisely this way. In some cases it has been forced on them so suddenly they have had to leave almost all their belongings behind, creating a scene not unlike this one.

The video work 'Measures of Distance' (1988, still above) explores similar themes. In the soundtrack, Hatoum reads out correspondence between herself and her mother. Voices in Arabic can be heard beneath, apparently a conversation between the two. The video images are of her mother, but they're indistinct, not the equivalent of the neat and arranged family snapshots you'd stuff in with a letter. (Her mother's actually in the shower, but you only know that once told it.) And, much as the soundtrack is layered, they are then placed behind a screen of Arabic writing.

The screen becomes not a portal but a membrane, likened by the show to “a curtain or veil”. With her mother speaking of her “being born in exile”, it seems a much more personalised work. But perhaps, like 'Homebound', the point is that we the audience are outside the picture. The distance to us is immeasurable, the experiences unknown and unknowable, the English translation only marginally more comprehensible than the Arabic.

But, as is common of Hatoum's work, at the same time it hints at a universal experience. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can never go home again”, and so it's significance takes on a positive feedback loop with it's inaccessibility. The more we can't get back, the more we want to look. We all have Fall myths about how we lost our close connection to things, whether religious or political. But perhaps they all come down to the personal, our veneration of our own childhood perpetuating the sense of that childhood being external to us.

'Light Sentence' (1992, above) is formally reminiscent of Conrad Shawcross' 'Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV' (2009), shown as part of the Hayward's 2013 Light Show exhibition. In both a light bulb is remotely moved within a wire cage, to change the play of shadows on the walls. Yet beyond that formal similarity the works are entirely different, as different as two canvases might be while still using oil paint.

Shawcross uses a much smaller cage, across which the bulb travels proportionately further. The effect is almost like a simulated fairground ride, as the shadows fly around the walls you have the feeling of hurtling through space even as you stand stationary. In Hatoum's work the bulb moves slowly, up and down between two banks of wire-mesh lockers. And what's evoked isn't a ride but an entrapment. The cages suggest containment without refuge. They reminded me of the way soldiers are given their own kit to look after, but are expected to have it not just arranged in a determined way but available for inspection at any point.

Similarly, the title suggests at imprisonment. The shadows playing on the walls around the viewer create a double layer of wire mesh, as if we the viewers are being enclosed by the work. But it also suggests the modern open-plan office, granting you a small square of territory but at the same time opening you up to scrutiny. As with 'Homebound' the absence of the human figure creates menace, as if we're looking at a space created for people which gives no consideration to them.

When an artist's biography is, to us, exotic there is a temptation to turn it into their Rosebud. This may be exacerbated when that artist is Palestinian, due to the drastic nature of their situation and the media's tendency to reduce them to either terrorists or victims. Our antennae can be out for 'Palestinian voices', who might interpret the situation for us.

Yet exile is a double-edged affair, and Hatoum has said quite explicitly that her work is as informed by arriving in London as it is by leaving Beirut; “My first impression was the control on the individual, the surveillance issues, cameras pointing at you all the time. That’s why these things came into my work right from the beginning... At the Slade, my first encounter with a big institution, I was shocked by the coldness, by all the rules. I was this chaotic person who wanted to find space. But they wouldn’t give me any.” And sometimes it takes an outsider to show your own country to you. She's also commented that the Slade contains the mummified body of Jeremy Bentham, deviser of the omnipotentPanopticon.

'Cellulites' (2012/13 above) in many ways reprises these themes. Open metal 'cells', something like metal lobster pots, echoing the wire mesh lockers, contain glass-blown red hearts. The hearts look as though their shape may be conforming to the imprint of their cages. Or alternately they may be squishing themselves through the gaps, unlike their prisons unconfined to a fixed shape. And then the biological-sounding title suggests at another possibility – the human heart is kept in a cage, we even call it the ribcage.

'Performance Still' (1985), as the name might suggest, is a still from a performance work where she walked around Brixton dragging Doctor Martin boots behind her which were tied to her feet. It feels as internal as 'Homebound' and 'Light Sentence' are external. Perhaps analogously to the proverbial monkey on the back it suggests that we can never really remove our boots – we always drag behind us the dead weight of ideology.

The exhibition shows us both this still and a video of the performance, but strangely at quite separate points. And perhaps ironically the close-up still is much more effective than the video. The video cannot help but highlight the difference between her and everyone else on the street. Some laugh at her, while she's straightfaced. But even when they just ignore her it's still too reminiscent of the Jesus-like suffering artist, bearing the world's sins on behalf of others more concerned with frivolous things.

'Impenetrable' (2000) is again reminiscent of the wire mesh cages. A block of thin rods appears to float etherially, reminiscent of marsh reeds or a bamboo forest – simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. It's immediately aesthetically enticing, in a way that's unusual for Hatoum. It's only when you go up to it do you realise that the smooth-looking rods are barbed. I kept trying to parse this and finally realised the point was that you can't. As the name suggests, it calls to the eye at the same time a meaning can't be hung on it.

If this is not a perfect show, Hatoum is not a consistent artist. Some of her work does stray into the post-modern. (For example, 'Don't Smile, You're On Camera', 1980, a performance piece where she video-scans herself and then members of the audience.) And too many pieces are commentaries on another artist's work, when that work is not even particularly well known.

Plus the show is over-reliant on boards to document her performance pieces. Which reminded me of when museums just line up broken bits of pottery along a shelf. If Hatoum has spoken of the effect upon her of the cold, institutional world of Britain some stills of her work place them in haunted institution surroundings. These work so well it suggests the best place for this exhibition would be the peeling paint and exposed piping of some disused post-war office block, rather than the neat and clean tourist trap of the Tate galleries. The above does focus on the highlights. But then the highlights... well, they're high...

Friday, 22 July 2016


Tate Britain
(Yes, a review of an art exhibition that's actually still on!)

”Conceptual art was a critical art rather than a contemplative one – not necessarily for looking at, but for analysing or for reading.”
- From the indicia

”No Rhapsody Here”

Things you will see if you attend this show...

Art made from non-art or even perishable materials, such as oranges, sand and ice. Photography, but clearly intended as documentation rather than as artform. Sometimes documenting the perishable stuff before it... well, perishes. (See for example Bruce McLean's 'Six Sculptures' (1967/9) below.) More widely, a focus on the paraphernalia of recording - on reports, on filing drawers and card index systems. Documentation as a thing in itself, often at the expense of what's being documented.

Hamish Fulton's 'Hitching Times From London to Andorra, And From Andorra to London' (1967), rather than give us photos or sketches of his trip, provides a dryly typed list of the time it took him to get from one place to another. For 'The Spring Recordings', (1972) David Tremlett took field recordings of spring sounds from each of the eighty-one English counties. The eighty-one cassettes are displayed lined up neatly on a shelf, with a sign to helpfully tell us what they are. And with no means for us to hear them.

But what you will really come across is text. Reams and reams of the stuff. Normally in bold geometric fonts, as if serifs weren't considered sufficiently rigorous. The group Art and Language, in the show's words, “echoed the conventions, format and content of academic philosophical journals”. No. 1 of Vol. 3 of their journal was headlined 'Draft for an Anti-Textbook' (1974, below).

Some works come ready-built with their own indicia. While others effectively are their own indicia, words in a frame or just thrown up on a wall. With both, of course, the show then recursively slaps their own indicia on. The show comes to look like the largest and most comprehensive optician's eye test in recorded history.

Okay... so... what do we make of all of this?

Reviews of the show, which were almost universally negative, focused on it's dour tone, it's monochrome look, on those uninviting chunks of text. Adrian Searle in the Guardian called it “uptight... bleak... pleasureless... [and leaving] a taste of ashes”. And it's true, it does have a similar hair-shirt tone to the Godard films of this era. You know, the ones with the five-minute shots of someone eating an apple at the camera while someone else recites Marx. Even the dates it gives in its title are unrounded and unwieldy. It's like it has a disdain for the digestible, like it's decided it'll best gain attention by scraping it's nails down a blackboard. As Art and Language proudly declare, “there is no rhapsody here”.

But beneath the dry deadpan surface there's traces of an impish humour, as if all this is a mischievous provocation. The show's quoting Marcel Duchamp's “art of the mind” as an influence before we've even got in the door, and his philosophically pranksterish brand of Dada does seem a strong influence.

Keith Arnatt's 'Self Burial' (1969, above), is made up of a time lapse series of photos in which the artist, maintaining an identical pose, sinks deeper and deeper into the ground. It couldn't be closer to Duchamp's mission statement to “annihilate the ego of the artist”. Ian Burn's 'Mirror Piece' (1967), quite adequately described by it's title, is one of those works which comes with it's own indica. Which also seems to be channelling Duchamp, stating “any of the materials may be replaced at any time necessary/The technique of assembly must be devoid of any interest/ the process is to be simple and ordinary.”

Because this is conceptual art of a particular kind. It's not art in service to a big idea, with anything not conveying that idea in the most direct way possible dismissed as irrelevant. It's concept is art, which is another way of saying it's concept is itself. And it exists not to clearly convey that concept but confound the brain. It doesn't seek to make art in new ways, but corrode the art already made. This is the King exposing himself in your face and defying you to claim he's wearing clothes.

It's true some of Duchamp's chief strategies, such as the use of the random, aren't particularly taken up. But the main way they differ from him is by taking it further. He, for the most part, used objects as art. He didn't use art objects as art, but found objects or assemblages of non-art materials. But times had moved on. Anthony Caro, for example, would make his sculptures from any old bits of metal, not necessarily the 'classical' bronze. So the conceptualists mounted an attack on the art object in itself.

As Joseph Kosuth said in 1969: “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning the nature of art... Painting is a kind of art. If you are painting you are already accepting the nature of art.”

Toppling the Plinths

And those dates in the title, however unwieldy, tell all. By the Sixties Modernism was no longer the wild child but the steady parent. As seen in the earlier 'Out There' show at Somerset House, local authorities by that point had a budget to stick modernist statues up in shopping centres and around housing estates. People now knew what it was and where to find it. It had triumphed. Which of course meant it was time to depose it.

As Richard Cork said, looking back on this era: “It was extraordinary; everything was being questioned, everything opening up, nothing was sacred at all. And all the work you had grown up thinking was revolutionary, like Caro, all that was being superseded.” Caro seems to have been a particular target, which suits me as I've never taken to his work. But Moore and Hepworth, in fact pretty much everybody seen in 'Out There', were doubtless in the sights too.

Take for example Bruce McLean's 'Pose Work For Plinths' (1971, above) in which the artist improbably substitutes himself for his artwork. In some pictures he does valiantly seem to be trying to pose, but in others he's more trying to settle back on them like into the world's worst sofa. The repeat images become like a kind of cartoon strip which betrays how impossible this task is, as he tosses and turns in different failed combinations.

This time the joke's so visible you almost need to look past it for the point. The differently-sized plinths stand for art removed from it's environment, possibly for hierarchy in general. They stand not just for all the plinths in all the galleries, but all the perspex vitrines, the little bits of red rope and watchful attendants. Those plinths need to be toppled.

But, inevitably, it may have been not an artist but art theorist Clement Greenberg (champion of American Abstract Expressionism) who functioned as their main Aunt Sally. John Latham borrowed a copy of his 'Art and Culture' from the St. Martins College library, held a party where guests were encouraged to chew and spit out it's pages, collected these in a jar then sought to return it. His contract was instead suspended.

But the attack was not always so direct. The show says “placing and context for the artwork were seen as key issues”. And this was true in both the immediate and the general sense. Once people figured they knew what a Modernist artwork was, making those elements absent was to deliberately with-hold them. And conscious with-holding starts to take on an almost totemic force. What's not there matters as much as what is.

Art and Language's Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin provide two anti-maps, 'Map of a Thirty-Six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean, West of Oahu' (1967). It's entirely accurate but, being just of the surface of the ocean, entirely blank. While the somewhat gloriously titled 'Map Not To Indicate' (1967, below) is of the United States, but showing only the states of Iowa and Kentucky. (Chosen, I suspect, because both have borders which are simple straight lines.) Keith Arnatt even called a work 'Art As An Act of Omission' (1971).

“Artists were making blank films,” said Lucy Lippard in 1969. “They locked galleries and practiced doing nothing. They were denying conventional art by emphasising emptiness, cancellation, the vacuum, the void, the dematerialised, the invisible.” (Most probably about the similar American scene, but it's too good not to quote.)

Art is Language

The second big influence, at least as big as Duchamp, doesn't get mentioned by the show at all. Which is probably because it wasn't itself an art movement. But then Conceptualism was almost unique in being an art movement based in art schools and academia. Normally, you went to art school only if you wanted to join a band. Not here. Art and Language for example were based at Coventry College of Art.

And they picked up on the then-current academic interest in Structuralism and – increasingly, as the Sixties progressed – Post-Structuralism. This was the notion that language was not just slippery or open to abuse. It contended that what language really described was itself, it was a self-referential, self-defining system. Language was not a neutral labelling device, providing tags by which we might describe the world, but a mechanism by which we impose meanings upon it.

We're used to the idea of institutionalisation, of how a powerful organisation can not just win people's compliance but shape their thinking to its moulds. We're used to the idea of this being achieved partly through language, by devising terminology that people inevitably then adopt. Get them to talk your talk and you're almost there. But this, it was contended, was inherent - language always worked that way.

And more, it threw open the definition of language - seeing it as a system of signs. The clothes you wear, they're a language where you 'say' something about yourself to the world. Road signs and traffic lights? Language. And visual art? Language, too. Art, in seeming to spring from the individual genius artists, is quite possibly ideology in it's neatest form. And visual art may be the most pernicious form of ideology. Images appear to us to be naturalised. Literally, and with it metaphorically, they seem to be not saying anything.

So all this text as art was an attempt to jog us into seeing art as text – to look in the same critical way that we read. As the show says of Art and Language, “language was to be used as art to question art”. And as soon as you convert image back into words the outline of a critique starts to appear. Supposing you read something like “this painting is a portrait of a Seventeenth Century landowner, at home with his possessions”? There's no real value terms in the sentence, no 'feudal' or 'exploiter' or even 'wealthy'. But doesn't it sound like it's already being set up for a social critique, the lead-in to the John Berger chop?

Props Without Agit

The show seems keen to connect this movement to the tumult of Sixties political events, devoting a long wall to a timeline paralleling show openings with anti-Vietnam demonstrations and the like. Those unwieldy years in the title are themselves politically driven, spanning from the start of the Wilson government to the end of the Callaghan.

And, unlike Post-Structuralism, Marx is mentioned. Art and Language in particular declared “a class analysis through the study of meaning in discourse, and the practice of class struggle through didactic activity”. The even said it in a work not so subtlety titled 'Dialectical Materialism' (1975). There's talk of “an art that might reconnect with the world, and act within it”.

But is any of this earned? Like Post-Structuralism, Marx was then fashionable in academia, a name to cite if you wanted to be in the cognoscenti. You could carve a career out of studying him. True, we shouldn't get too sweeping here. Many took up academia as the best means available to combine earning a living with spreading Marxist ideas. But all too often Marx, the man whose axiom was “philosophers have only interpreted the world”, became the subject of academic interpretation. And Marx without the commitment to social engagement isn't Marx any more.

So, in the precise mirror image of Post-Structuralism, Marx is mentioned when he probably shouldn't be. It's like that Godard film with the five-minute shot of someone eating an apple at the camera. Without the other guy reciting Marx.

There's something strangely rarified, even hermetic about this world, those neat shelves of tapes, card index files and aligned text. However rigorously insistent it is that art as a whole should be critiqued, that art is a social product, it seems strangely uninterested in that wider society. Look back at 'Map To Not Indicate'. Something it doesn't indicate is the wave of civil rights, black power and anti-Vietnam agitation then raging across the USA. In fact, it spotlights two states where those movements weren't particularly strong.

The Sixties as we think of them, a conflagration so bright and vibrant, are happening somewhere else. It's almost entirely unlike the agit-prop art of Pete Kennard, so recently seen at the Imperial War Museum. And certainly it's stark monochrome anti-aesthetic and it's incessant problematising is the polar opposite of hippie subculture, with it's dayglo psychedelic posters and it's “do what you feel” hedonism.

But what's perhaps most surprising is how unlike it is to the other Dada-derived movement of the era. Fluxus (originally Neo-Dada) had it's Festivals of Misfits, it's iconoclastic happenings, it's pranks and stunts and jamming of high culture. Fluxus was as messy, as convulsive, as Conceptualism was neat and rigorous. Just compare those neat lines of aligned text to the scrawl and collage of the 1963 Fluxus manifesto (below), before you even get on to the content calling to “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE IN ART”.

The critique commonly (if wrongly) made of Dada is that anti-art was still art. Whereas the critique of Conceptualism, that anti-academia is still academia, that an anti-textbook is still a textbook, is much more on the money. This was, let's face it, scarcely inflammatory stuff.

Conceptualism's impersonation of academia was simply too successful, the infiltrators gone native. By rooting itself in art colleges and public funding, it was genuinely trying to bite the hand that fed it. But who else was it encouraging to do the same? You wonder what kind of audience it considered itself to be aimed at. The attempts to reach “the people” by the public artists of the 'Outside In' show may have been flawed, and to a degree even patronising. But at least there were some.

So have the Tate simply gone for the wrong target, and it's Fluxus we need to be spirit guided by right now? Certainly the summation of the manifesto is stirring stuff - “FUSE the cadres of social, cultural and political revolutionaries into united front & action.” But it's not just that it was active in the political and cultural spheres simultaneously. It's that it seized culture by it's lapels and shook, audaciously stoking up people's imaginations. Dissent was made to seem not just necessary but enticing and attractive – we were too cool for rule. That is something we seem to have lost hold of in more recent years.

But it might be truer to say that the two movements were the broken halves of what needed to be one thing. Inheritors to a radical tradition, Fluxus was never as hippy-dippy or bliss-out hedonistic as other Sixties scenes. But it was more concerned with iconoclasm than incisiveness, more about motion than substance. It was often accused of uncritically replicating that radical tradition, of diligently reassembling the past and so making yesterday's mistakes today. While Conceptualism was merely critical. One frenzied, one lucid. 

And perhaps those halves mirrored the two wings of original Dada, the cerebral questioning of Duchamp on one hand and the savage tracts of Grosz and Heartfield on the other.

Time For Strife

The show states “by the mid-1970s there was a widespread recognition and institutional support for conceptual art”. Which of course meant orthodoxies had to be overthrown all over again. And in fact the final room, 'Action Practice', is so different from all that’s come before that it’s like walking into a different exhibition. As the name suggests politics finally enters the frame, and as it does the monochrome anti-aesthetic departs.

Why should that be? This segues into another point. While earlier it seemed far from convincing this wasn't the British wing of an international movement, making the parameters of the show somewhat arbitrary, here the context does seem more uniquely British.

In Britain 1968 had not been the seismic year that it had in other countries. In France, they talk to this day of soixante-huitards. While the Wikipedia article ‘Protests of 1968’ doesn’t even contain a section on Britain. It's widely accepted that here the social changes most associated with 'the Sixties' almost entirely happened in the Seventies.

And the politics employed have moved from the theoretical to the concrete. Two of the main works are concerned with feminism and the troubles in Northern Ireland. Feminism had not been shy of savvy media events, such as the 1970 Miss World protests. But it's backbone had been grassroots consciousness-raising groups, and it had devised the now-well-known slogan 'the personal is political'. If much Sixties activism had been no more than the radical chic and attention-grabbing antics it's detractors claimed, feminism was one of the exceptions.

And those roots gave it a staying power. Moreover, while it was as keen to expose and question unstated norms as Conceptualism, it was not some dry and disengaged formal enquiry – it was directly concerned with lived experience. (It was only at this point I noticed how few women artists there'd been up till now. So much for my political credibility!) Northern Ireland, in some ways similarly, was a slow-burning issue – something which refused to go away.

In fact, when you start to look at Margaret Harrison's 'Homeworkers' (1977, above) and Conrad Atkinson's 'Northern Ireland 1968 – May Day 1975' (1975/6) you can still see traces of Conceptualism's dry formalism. Neither work is at all concerned with self-expression, but with social enquiry – art as reportage. Harrison's subject is the then-widespread practice to get women to perform piece work from home, so she stitches in examples of the things those homeworkers would assemble – buttons, stamps and jewellery.

While Atkinson juxtaposes quotes from Loyalists, Republicans and British soldiers. One squaddie is reported as wishing the Catholics were “wogs”, the easier to shoot them with impunity. It's posted up without comment, it's for us to decide how we feel about it. This is still some way from the heated agit-prop of Pete Kennard. Yet in art the aesthetics matter. And Harrison's work in particular looks mid-way between a collage and a banner, messy and immediate, art as weapon in the culture wars.

Downhill To Here

Okay... so... that's what to make of it was. But a more pertinent question might be, what does it look like from here? Whatever the faults, I think the short answer to that is “we look back up at it from downhill”.

Complaints made about this show often suggest that this is where we got sold the magic beans. Conceptualism was a bum deal where, seduced by fine-sounding film-flam, we swapped aesthetics for empty gestures. At which point it normally gets associated with Brit Art. For example the Stuckists, Brit Art's perennial antagonists, use the slogan “death to conceptual art” (variant above). But if people associate the two that's because they dislike both, so figure they must be linked.

Art and Language always exhibited under the group name. (Even if I've followed the show's convention and credited individual artists here.) Can you imagine Brit Art doing that? It marked the inevitable degeneration from artist as individual genius to artist as celebrity. Art became the means to propagate yourself as a brand, just as music had before it. Tracy Emin's bed gets displayed in a gallery like Kurt Cobain's smashed guitar, something come down from the world of fame which we can gaze on. It was because of this that Brit Art could become the public face of contemporary art.

But the face is not the body. Go to a regular, not a well-known, contemporary gallery and chances are it won't be Brit Art you'll see. And it's this art, the crappy polaroids attached to some polysyllabic screed, which is a debased parody of conceptualism. (See here for a particularly egregious example, but there's plenty of them.) It's like the difference between piss and shit. Shit smells worse, but piss is more prevalent.

It's chiefly characterised by what Alix Rule and David Levine tagged as International Art English. And you can see the degeneration from Seventies conceptualism to IAE right on the gallery walls here. Try...

“By deciding one area to be the 'area of attention', then the area that is designed as 'not the area of attention' will demand a sufficient amount of attention for it to be acknowledged as 'not the area of attention'.”


“...anathema to an understanding of a modernist compositional syntax that valued quality of presence over process.”

The first is from Art and Language describing their work 'Air Conditioning Show' (1966/7). The second is, irony of ironies, from the show's own indicia describing Art and Language. The first is sharp and witty and above all does actually mean something. (It describes, for example, the white surround on Malevich's 'Black Square' perfectly accurately.) The second... well I don't think it means anything. But more to the point I don't care. It's just so damned uninvolving. It sounds like its saying something clever. So let's just assume it is, rather than bother reading it again.

What's significant here is that this is so unlike the pseudo-poetic luvvie speak so often associated with art writing. It's prose is sterile and bloodless, the jargon of academia without the content, the glossolalia of intellectualism. Ben Davis called IAE “the joke that forgot it was funny”. Just like anti-art became art and anti-music became music, this deadpan parody of discourse became discourse. Yet by remembering when it was funny, by looking back up that slippery slope we rolled down, perhaps we can get out of that lake of piss art is now in.