1 July 2009
Art Monthly (Issue 328 p.40)

  • Jake Chapman, The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, £16.95
  • Liam Gillick, All Books, Book Works, £15.95
  • Meaning Liam Gillick, ed Monika Szewczyk, £18.95
  • Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects, £40.00
  • Ellie Harrison, Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector, £10.00
  • Eduardo Kac & Avital Ronell, Life Extreme, £19.50
  • Brian Peers, Crossword Puzzle, £5.40
  • Stuart Macdonald, The History and Philosophy of Art Education, £25.75
  • Manuel Saiz, 101 Excuses, €12.00

Never one to leave a dead horse unflogged, Jake Chapman pours his acidic creative juices onto the corpse of the romantic novel in his first work of fiction, The Marriage of Reason & Squalor. While the dense theoretical tract of his previous paperback, Meatphysics, was run through a data-mangling programme to render much of it literally unreadable, this romantic novel is only metaphorically so. The story, such as it is, follows a typical romantic trope: the love triangle. Here, a young woman (Chlamydia Love) journeys to the remote island that her rich fiancé (Dr Algernon Hertz) has purchased for her, only to fall in love with the author (Helmut Mandragorass) whose home perches on the rim of the island’s volcano. Interspersed within the pages are watercolours by Chlamydia, a manuscript by Helmut and (real) rejection letters from various publishers. The miasmic writing style is as richly putrid, infantile and knowing as the rest of Chapman’s oeuvre, and it is recommended as a beach paperback to help you feel archly superior to those who might content themselves with Pynchons or Houllebecqs. Indeed, Chapman’s cynicism towards the role of culture is illuminated in a section where Chlamydia encounters Helmut’s collection of Jake & Dinos Chapman artworks and suddenly understands the purpose of modern art: that is, to allow the viewer to revel in the vivifying emotions of ‘the guilt augmented by elaborate contrition’.

All Books might be described as an airport novel; presumably much of it was written on transatlantic flights. This descriptively titled publication collects together Liam Gillick’s six major fictional works. The texts are hard work, flicking from earthy specifics to abstract ideologies, from reality to fiction, and bounding across geographical locations and time periods. But the reader may draw comfort from the fact that Gillick’s characters seem to experience similar ambivalences towards the work’s meaning: ‘I cannot help feeling, however, that our words fail to explain much while perfectly illustrating a sensibility that allows a precision randomness. Is this a sense of adventure or an inescapable love of obscurantics?’

Helping us find a path – or, rather, paths – through Gillick’s complex practice is Meaning Liam Gillick, a reader that collects a dozen essays on his work. Ranging from Marcus Verhagen’s intelligent analysis of the artist’s texts (and highlighting Gillick’s differences with Nicolas Bourriaud’s theories of Relational Aesthetics, for which he is often held up as an exemplar), to Chantal Mouffe’s quick comparison of Gillick’s ideas with her own theories of agonistic pluralism in democracy, and from Maria Lind’s examination of the utopian Frankfurt Kitchen (which is a great help for those puzzling over Gillick’s German pavilion in Venice), to Maurizio Lazzarato’s analysis of the credit crunch in terms of social rights, this diverse collection begins to show the complexities, depths – and indeed limits- of Gillick’s oeuvre. The first step to understanding his work, as the Forward points out, is to understand his intention ‘for the development of the relations that occur between adversaries, rather than enemies, who agree to a shared symbolic space’ – ie to create the conditions for dialogue rather than confrontation. Like Gillick’s own productions, the book may generate more questions than answers, but this will no doubt be considered a good thing for those who, like Gillick, subscribe to Adorno’s idea that thinking itself is ‘a force of resistance’.

How did we get here? How did we end up with artists creating works that focus on alternative implementations of Fordist manufacturing techniques, paradigmatic changes in global ideologies and the corporatisation of group thinking? (Or where an art book may list as its first thank-you, ‘American Airlines: The Official Airline of the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago’.) It might be useful to remind ourselves of the turning point between Modernism and Postmodernism, and this is exactly what Joshua Shannon does in The Disappearance of Objects. He examines New York city and the work of four local artists (Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Donald Judd) at the turn of the 1960s, when the city was undergoing a radical transformation as its master planner, Robert Moses, carried out the largest slum clearances in the history of the US, displacing 500,000 people in the process. Shannon identifies the materiality of the city street as a key factor for these artists and watches as they respond to their environment’s reconfiguration as a centre for the frictionless global transaction of immaterial goods. It is a compelling read that also provides illuminating research on the redevelopment of New York half a century ago.

Of course, one tendency of capitalism is to turn every individual into a micro-company, a project in which self-employed artists often lead the way. Ellie Harrison shows the dangers of this in her Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector, where she submits herself to (Art Monthly contributor) Sally O’Reilly’s Hysterical-Historical Praxis Therapy in an attempt to rid herself of ingrained and obsessive methods of art production. (It is a happy ending; she has since made a dance floor sculpture that will only start flashing its disco lights when it receives news – from the electronic newsfeeds that it constantly monitors – of the death of Margaret Thatcher.) But if you really want to trip out on the highest accomplishments of modern human societies, try Eduardo Kac and Avital Ronell’s Life Extreme: An Illustrated Guide to New Life, which traces the biotechnological reconfiguring of plant and animal life, from Kac’s own fluorescent rabbit, to such unsettling industry creations as the featherless broiler chickens and the terrifying Schwarzenegger Cow, which was bred to develop double the muscle mass of the average cow.

Creating the perfect art student is a less advanced science, however, and with the current debates around art education still burning, it is worth returning to the granddaddy of all books on the subject, Stuart’s Macdonald’s History and Philosophy of Art Education. Having been published in 1970, it cannot hope to comment on the specifics of current debates. Yet reading it again now – it was reprinted in 2004 – is to be reminded of George Santayana’s sentiment about those who do not learn from history being condemn to repeat it. Macdonald also guides us through the swings in power over the centuries, from those that recognise fine art education as the basis for all other crafts and trades, to those that wish to feed local industries by simply teaching specific craft skills. The idea that art education is failing because the statistics show that only a small percentage go onto to be professional artists – despite many going on to great success in a variety of fields – seems to return, zombie-like, time and time again. It is interesting, too, to note that while some of the greatest art courses have been developed by artists, Macdonald also notes that many of the most severe and damaging changes to art education have been driven by hardline attitudes of artists. For example, the centralised Coldstream Report was followed so closely and disastrously by Hornsey that, famously, the students went on strike. Forty years on an many will recognise the damaging effect of such top-down governance, one result of which Macdonald described: Little wonder that some principals, who have had to tolerate the painful imposed policies and the arbitrary assessments of recent years, have become reserved, politic, and uncommunicative.

Finally, to pass time waiting at the easyJet check-in desk, perhaps try Manuel Saiz’s small book, 101 Excuses: How Art Legitimises Itself. Saiz divides his excuses (he suggests ‘excuse’ could be substituted by terms such as ‘rationale, ‘argument’ or ‘pretext’) into sections, and lists each one with a brief, clarifying explanation where necessary. Take some random examples: ’36. Self-Punishment: It exists in works in which the artists shows pain. The artist is suffering because s/he is human, because s/he bravely castigates her/himself. Artists weeping onscreen.’ ’53. Too uncomfortable. This is too uncomfortable to be something other than art. Furniture that is not actually furniture.’ ’63. Special Eye. How the hell has this object ended up here? It is a very lucky coincidence, and I have a very special eye to have noticed it.’ Slipped inside the back cover is: ‘102. Meta art. Works that contemplate and omment on other works. With either snobbish disdain or camaraderie.’ Perfect preparation for the summer art tourist.

David Barrett