In search of the Numinous – more questions, less answers

by maggie

In the bowels of Tate Modern the tanks are a new addition promoted as space for performance and video art. They’ve seemed cramped and fussy the two times I’ve visited this summer. The Tate itself, I imagine is a victim of its own success, part of the international art tour and the tanks also seem to be struggling to balance vision and reality. As well as numbers one has to work with the expectations and behaviours of the public which is often not ideal. For example the last time I visited Rothko’s Seagram Murals on quiet Friday evening an American family in the room with me were complaining loudly how much the space reminded them of their home cinema facility.

Today Art has to answer to many masters, not the least the gallery visitor and proprietor. Each with their own concept of what Art is. Personally, I have come to realise I was brought up with the understanding that Art makes you stop and think. That is what separates it from the ‘merely’ Decorative. Not only should it give you pause, a chance for reflection, it should help you see the world in a new light. It should be able to do this without recourse to the essay that accompanies so much contemporary art. Obviously any contemplation of this ‘School of Art Appreciation’ throws up a number of issues.

It privileges any Art Movement who’s history you have already internalised, even if you can never remember anyone names or dates. It therefore in turn keeps at a disadvantage any Art Movement of which one is ignorant or indifferent to. Of course one is perfectly free to read the label or indeed essay once one has settled on ones initial feeling for a piece. A response  is always sought. A reaction which may or may not be that which the artist originally intended to provoke. Anything but boredom or mild irritation at the materiality of the piece is acceptable. Disgust and revulsion while not preferred are legitimate feelings to be provoked.

The other difficultly here is the demand that the viewer makes of a piece. Work might shift instantaneously from Art to Decoration – much like a Van Gogh’s Sunflower Fridge Magnet or from Decorative to Art – Whistler’s Peacock Sitting Room – subject to the mood of the viewer. The viewer however must always engage with the art (until they get museum head and have to go and have some cake). Not engaging is the sin because that turns all the work to decoration what ever the intent of the artist/maker. Theory laden works from the mid twentieth century onward, of course add extra layers, longer essays and more attitude on behalf of both the artist and audience. Assuming that a piece of work is theory laden however, makes engagement more troubling, due tot the general air of expectation.

Returning to the tanks at Tate Modern then, to the admirable attempts by artists various and Tatters curators to say something, possibly about the unsay-able, brought down by crass and impulsive behaviours of the passing visitor. It’s here that I grind to a halt with two and a half pages still to write up because – Who am I to judge if lazy attendees at gallery aren’t doing their job of engaging with the work! So moving swiftly on…

As a craft-person, often, when a piece leaves my hands all I see are it’s flaws – the mistakes and rooms for improvement. I have to remind myself that a) I set out on this project with a particular aim in mind and I have on balance achieved them (or else the whole thing would be in the bin) and b) my audience knows nothing of my doubts unless I bring it to their attention. Everything is intentional, even if only be default. This self-consciousness of every aspect of my work, however, often leads me to second guess every aspect of an other artists work as I engage with it. Did they consciously choose to do this rather than that or is it part their unconscious practice? Did they really intend this surface texture, the obvious seams or welds, the noise, the hanging wires? Or is it just physics getting in the way of the ideal?

In one of the tanks, two black and white films are projected onto opposing walls. The imagery is entirely abstract. It’s noisy with the sound of the film projector and cavorting children in the echoing space. Underneath all this distraction a sound track plays. It’s dark of course so that the film can be projected and you stumble around in the flickering shadows and a humid and oppressive atmosphere. Have you entered by mistake a third rate fun house, rather than yet another gallery? Finally you fight your way back to the circulation area of the Tanks where it’s quieter, cooler and better lit and wonder what the Hell that was meant to be all about.

Maybe it was a fun fair ride, some sort of freak show, look at the artists, with their earnest intentions, but don’t think on what was their intent. Somewhere I find the little essay about this piece – the interactions of sound and light (and women’s role in early cinema!) – stillness perhaps clarity all the things missing in the actual.

As we walk out into the bustle of the Turbine Hall with is disturbingly cathedral-like resonance’s, I am put in mind of an old experience of mine. In Bradford on Avon, stands a very old Church – a little stone box minimally decorated. I am standing inside it’s cool darkness and looking at the beam of light cast down from the single opening in the south wall. Here everyone knows how to behave – whether it’s veneration for St Laurence or early Saxon architecture (Even a bus load of cavorting children would leave the place relatively, and in the long term unscathed). Then when you’ve had your temporary fill of the unsay-able to separate you can merge back into the every day with out fanfare.

It’s easy to behave when you know how to. To shuffle slowly around a room in front of paintings you should or ought to experience. Or alternatively contemplate a favourite for a minute or an hour. But if you don’t know how to behave, because a piece leaves room for interaction or broad interpretations, or because it’s new what do you do? Fall back on past behaviours? Bring other experiences to bear – who hasn’t leapt around in the dark to sound and light – or we can read the essay first and take our cues from the artist herself.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to communicate here – my own reactionary views in how other people should enjoy their Art or as meditation on my own art education and the elements I desire in experiencing Art well. I felt sad then exiting the Tanks for an opportunity missed, an experience ‘spoilt’. No one has taught me, shown me how to experience, how to engage in this kind of contemporary art, so I pick my way through, with all my baggage; aware, but not quite fluent in all the baggage the Art carries too.



More on Lis Rhodes piece

The pictures of the interior of the church don’t really do it justice.