ART / Art after the deluge: As 1992 draws to an end, Andrew Graham-Dixon looks back at a year dominated by the odd and the unclassifiable

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
This is when critics are traditionally required to deliver what is known as The End of Year Piece. They will summarise the most significant events in their areas of specialisation. They will chart important new developments (the emergence of a powerful new strain of Cuban realist cinema; a widespread reaction against the post-Serialist return to tonality). They will make predictions about the year ahead. All of which gives me a problem.

Trying to focus on the main developments in contemporary art in 1992 is like attempting to tune a television without an aerial: the occasional barely distinct picture comes into view but for the most part the screen fizzes with interference and the only sound is white noise. The terrifying fact is that nothing makes sense.

According to a recently published statistic, the professional artists alive in Western Europe in 1992 would have outnumbered the entire population of Italy at the height of the Renaissance. Art critics have never been less popular with postmen, who have daily to stumble to their doors bearing sacks bulked out with press releases, circulars or hand-written entreaties to review this or that exhibition.

The Art Glut means that the elegant generalisation, the quick definition of the zeitgeist, is necessarily a thing of the past. To give an idea of the scale and nature of the problem, here is a brief and very partial list of some of the British (only British) exhibitions that I did not visit in 1992: the tip of the tip of the iceberg of my ignorance. All quotations are taken from the relevant press releases.

In January, I failed to see:

'Patrick Brill: 'I want to see children's TV. I want to see children's TV banned' ' at the Sue Williams Gallery. 'Valerie Singleton acts as a central figure, being both a presenter of Blue Peter, the Sixties kids' magazine, and lately hosting Radio 4's PM, a news magazine. Brill's paintings are executed in a deadpan manner. The style will be familiar to collectors of Britain's classic farmyard models.'

In February, I missed:

'Sarah Lucas' at City Racing. 'Monster Hooker, Fat, Forty and Fabulous, Sod You Gits, Penis Nailed to a Board and other works.'

In August, I was not present at:

'Abstractions from Domestic Suburb Scene (Sin)' at the Benjamin Rhodes Gallery. 'It has been decided to redesign the gallery to symbolically re-enact the idea of a domestic environment: there will be three fabric walls suspended from floor to ceiling which will serve as backdrops to mail order and bargain store items of grotesque form. As in for instance potties in the shape of pink bears, fake velvet and gold plastic tissue box covers, black figurines in a night-club style with gold labels that say 'Art Collection' upon them. These purchased items will be displayed on Neo-Regency corner tables, very disgusting but only pounds 25.'

In September, I did not attend either:

'Gladstone Thompson' at Laure Genillard Gallery. 'The work entails the replastering of the whole gallery. Subsequently, all surfaces are painted with the exception of a one-meter band of exposed plaster encircling the space. On his choice of materials, Thompson says: 'I looked at the tradition of fresco painting, whereby layers of plaster were laid and subsequently painted on.'


'Abigail Lane: Making History' at Karsten Schubert Gallery. 'Reference Point is a chair, the seat of which has been replaced with an ink pad. It faces the wall upon which is hung a framed print of a bottom. Abigail Lane has also hung wallpaper with impressions of bottoms. Although repeated, no print is identical to another as each impression is taken and printed directly from the model's skin.'

None of these exhibitions sounds like a seminal event in the unfolding story of late 20th-century culture, but you can never tell. The trouble is that most contemporary art, baldly described, sounds more or less bonkers.

Here is a list of some of the exhibitions I did see and find memorable in 1992:

Damien Hirst's dead tiger-shark embalmed in formaldehyde.

Michael Landy's 'Closing Down Sale', which consisted of a dozen or so supermarket trolleys stuffed with found urban junk.

Robert Gober's plaster casts of his own, betrousered legs.

Bill Viola's work for video about a man falling into a swimming pool.

Jeff Koons's 40ft high model of a West Highland terrier made out of pansies.

Now I could (and have done, during the course of the year) rationalise my liking for these particular works by these particular artists. But I cannot be sure that any one of them, rather than the thousands on thousands of works of art in dodgily publicised exhibitions which I missed, represented The Way Forward For Art in the 1990s. There is no way of telling. The Art Glut has made sure of that.

The Art Glut is not a new problem. It goes back years, that thumping weekly sack of mail a constant cause of anxiety and of a creeping sense of critical helplessness in the face of far too much painting and sculpture and video and performance work ever to see, let alone consider. Critics have long known that all the art being made at a given moment in the later stages of this century cannot possibly be placed under a single heading, be made to illustrate one theme or tendency or direction. But in 1992 the problem appears, somehow, more intractable than usual.

In the current Art Glut, there seem to be no especially notable trends, no predominant themes, no favoured way of working. This may be no bad thing, but it makes the End of Year Piece doubly hard to write. Looking at my two lists, of things that I missed and things that I saw, I realise that they have one thing in common. None of the things in either have anything in common. They are like versions of that old quiz favourite, Which Is the Odd One Out?, but with a difference. Sharks, supermarket trolleys, floral statues of dogs: they are all odd ones out.

In the past, solutions to the Art Glut were found. When in doubt, it used to be said, invent an ism. Minimalism, Conceptualism, Neo-Expressionism: that will do nicely. Any art that happens not to fit this year's dominant ism can be conveniently said to depart from, modify or react against it. The beautiful thing about isms is that they provide a structure, a framework for discussion. The trouble is we no longer believe in them.

The most recent, Post-Modernism, was once thought to signal the end of a period in art: the end, logically enough, of Modernism. It is now clear that it did nothing of the kind, or if it did that the army of practising artists, the world's vast population of the would-be visually creative, did not get the message. What Post-Modernism really signalled was the end of the ism. Ever since the word was coined (quite a few years ago now) its ringing air of finality has discouraged the creation of potentially more current alternatives. People have been heard disconsolately proposing terms like Post- Post-Modernism, Post-Post-Post- Modernism Neo-Post-Modernism or even (the ultimate in post-isms) Post- Humanism, but you can tell that their hearts are not in it.

Normally in times of crisis like this you can count on those most ambitious members of the art world, the International Curators, to Sort Things Out. Sorting things out, in this context, means putting on an extremely large and (usually) contentious exhibition which attempts to define the state of international art now. International Curators usually get things wrong but at least they give you an oversimplification to contest and modify. In 1992, however, even the International Curators gave up the ghost. Outfaced by the sheer extent of the Art Glut and the unformulable chaos of its contents, they failed to come up with a single decent ism between them.

1992 saw two conspicuous examples of the Internationally Curated exhibition, one in this country and one abroad. In March, the Hayward Gallery staged 'Doubletake', an exhibition of wildly disparate works by wildly disparate artists assembled under the putative theme of 'Contemporary Art and Collective Memory'. There were landscapes done in needlepoint from Australia, large and vaguely Magic Realist paintings from Latin America, an installation featuring second-hand teddy bears from America. Outside, in one of the sculpture courts, a gigantic music box played Mary Hopkins' hit 'Those Were the Days' very, very slowly. Common concerns, common methods, were not established. 'Doubletake' underlined that even the old idea of a cultural imperium - the notion that art, at any given moment, has its global capital, whether New York or Berlin or Paris - has had its day. There are no rules. There is no pattern.

Then there was Documenta IX, which took place in the German town of Kassel during the summer. Documenta, which happens every five years, is the world's largest contemporary art exhibition and is generally regarded (among International Curators anyway) as a great opportunity for the International Curator to leave a lasting mark on modern visual culture. This year it was the turn of a Belgian gentleman called Jan Hoet and the theme of this year's Documenta was (to quote him): 'From the one to the one to the other; or: from the body to the body to the bodies; or: from the artist to the viewer to the art.' No one has yet worked out what this meant.

But then no one has yet worked out what Documenta IX meant. The show was an enormous, spilling ragbag of contemporary art which found room for just about everything under the sun, ranging from Japanese appropriationism to Soviet neo-conceptualism. The show's principles of selection were unfathomable, but I have my own theory. Jan Hoet collected together every press release about every exhibition by every artist which he had missed, forgotten about or simply ignored - and then invited them all to participate. It was the ultimate Art Glut exhibition: a sprawling mess, and also the most representative show of the modern era.

The End of Year Piece would not be complete without The End of Year prediction. It should be clear by now that the difficulties are enormous, but here goes anyway. 1993 will see a powerful return to the figure in the visual arts. Bottoms, potties in the shape of pink bears and Valerie Singleton will become central to the concerns of the international avant-garde. Paintings will be deadpan. And the dominant style will be familiar to collectors of Britain's classic farmyard models.

(Photographs omitted)