Public galleries make much of their artist commissions these days. The more traditional their collections, the more directors want to give a contemporary zing to their establishments by presenting a new work by a contemporary artist. But they are, by nature constrictive. You ask an artist to make a statement about the collection, the edifice or whatever, but too often it remains just that: a statement rooted to a place by the terms of the deal.
Tate Britain’s latest commission, from Simon Starling is a case in point. The commission demands that the artist makes a new work “in response to the Tate collection, highlighting the visual and intellectual ideas that connect historic and contemporary British art.” Starling, who studied photography and won the Turner prize in 2005 partly for an installation pointing out that the five platinum prints on display took a ton of ore from South Africa to make, has fulfilled the brief with great elegance.
A six-metre wide screen is hung across the entrance hall of the monumental, not to say grandiose, Duveen Galleries which mark the traditional entrance to the Museum. The screen plays, both sides (one in reverse), a nine-minute loop of a film taken by a camera that, like an insect, darts, swerves and dives around the gallery focusing on works of art which have been displayed there and a rubble representing the bombs that hit the building in the Second World War.
You can see the point. Like the “Phantom Rides” of the nineteenth century, you are imprisoned in the eye of the camera, to take you where it wants for as long as it cares. It creates an ironic distance from the violence of the works introduced (Epstein’s Torso from ‘Rock Drill’ et al.) just as the coolness of the neo-classical architecture could be said to detach the viewer from the sculptures and the pictures. But does it do more?
You need to see it from the length of the gallery, where it acts a part of the gallery and a comment on it, rather than round the main entrance side, where it blocks the view entirely and appears just as a film. But even then, whilst it’s witty enough, it hardly makes you look at the pictures or the institution anew. Which may not be Starling’s fault so much as the commission’s. Artists need more scope than this.
Simon Starling: Phantom Ride Tate Britain To 20 October