Altermodern: Tate Triennial, Tate Britain, London

The latest critical theory may reduce you to tears, but the art it inspires is engaging and entertaining

Extra! Extra! Postmodernism dead! Globalisation suspected! Mmm, well, maybe. It is Tate Triennial time again and – triennials happening along less often than biennials – headlines are called for. For this, Tate Britain's fourth, they come courtesy of Nicolas Bourriaud, co-founder of Paris's impenetrably au courant Palais de Tokyo and inventor of the term "relational aesthetics".

If I understand them correctly (and this is by no means certain), relational aesthetics scorn the idea that art exists within boundaries – gallery walls, say, or the visual realm – and hold that art is to be found more or less anywhere: in DJ-ing, or knitting, or delivering lectures. It is a belief that has taken firm hold at the Tate, where Bourriaud works. So news that he has come up with a whole new word for this year's Triennial – and that that word forms the show's title, even – was bound to cause a stir.

Altermodern. That's "alter", as in "alternative", and "modern", as in "modernism". And that means what, exactly? Well. "Altermodernism", according to Bourriaud, "can be defined as the moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities".

It may be that you feel an urge to weep here, so let me explain, insofar as I am able. In the olden days of the late 20th century, history was seen as a chain of events occurring in sequence. Each culture had its own history, sealed off from other histories, just as each historical event was separated from other events.

Globalisation hasn't merely swept away cultural differences, it has taught us to think of history differently. Just as geographical boundaries no longer count, so neither do historical ones: history, today, is an amorphous thing, a continuously recurring now. Postmodernism, by playing around with bits of old history, made itself part of that history. Now Postmodernism is dead, dispatched by Altermodernism. Or something like that.

Whether or not this is true, I will leave you to ponder. For the purposes of the Tate Triennial, what matters is that artists believe it to be true. Actually, that too is debatable. Go to the Saatchi Gallery's excellent show, Unveiled, and you will see contemporary art that is neither Altermodern nor Postmodern, but modern. This kind of art worries less about critical theory than it does about boring things like putting paint on canvas. Little of it is to be found at Tate Modern, and even less in the Fourth Tate Triennial.

So what is Altermodern art? From Bourriaud's show, it is more or less what you'd expect it to be, which is work that sets out, in various ways, to be boundary-less. In the case of Rachel Harrison, this includes the simple boundaries of the art-object. What looks like an installation piece in one sub-room turns out to be three separate works – Second Voyage, Bike Week At Daytona, and A Whole New Game – including digital inkjet prints, a DVD player and a polystyrene lump with a nest of ping-pong balls in it. Then again, the three pieces may equally well be read as one piece: very Altermodern.

Travel also plays a big part in Altermodernity. Mike Nelson's Projection Room is carefully structured to exist nowhere, quite. The mid-Atlantic tones of its recorded voice could come from anywhere in the globalised world; the business of the titular booth actually takes place elsewhere, namely on the wall where its image is projected. (There is a lot of projection in Altermodern.)

Nathaniel Mellors's Giantbum requires the visitor to do his own travelling, through an odorous felt maze that doubles as a giant's innards to a mini-Cerberus of singing animatronic heads.

And then there is travel in the sense of change. Another tic of pre-Altermodern art was its lumpish tendency to stay the same. Bob & Roberta Smith's Off Voice Fly Tip will be replaced by a new version each Friday; Ruth Ewan's giant Squeezebox Jukebox plays a different revolutionary air every day at 2pm.

This is all massively engaging, and some of the work in this show is extraordinarily good: Subodh Gupta's giant mushroom cloud of pots and pans, Line of Control, is worth the trip alone. But Altermodern is also hugely selective in the art it showcases, in the history it writes. For a theory that spurns boundaries, Bourriaud's seems strangely boundaried. But it is also, heterochronies apart, a lot of fun.



Tate Britain, London SW1 (020-7887 8888) to 26 April

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015