Simon Patterson, National Maritime Museum, London
Cast adrift on a sea of old ideas
Thursday 29 May 2008
Some works of art, even though they may not be great ones, stick to you like burrs to an old tweed jacket. Take Simon Patterson's The Great Bear, for example. In 1996, Patterson was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. The Great Bear was his most talked about piece in that show. In fact, it was the most talked about piece in the show as a whole. Why? Well, it had a lot of deft humour for a start, and that always comes as a relief in any Turner show.
You probably still remember it. He took the London Underground map, that oh-so-familiar configuration of lines and loops of different coloured varieties of chewing gum, and gave each station an entirely different name – and, consequently, a different kind of identity. Way up north, Katharine Hepburn found herself bustily buffeting up against Bo Derek. The deep south spur of the District line, the bit that makes a sudden, head-long nose dive in the general direction of Kew Garden, ended up at a station called Max Wall.
In changing all those names – I won't even go near the word "subvert" – Patterson invited us to muse on the way we take pleasure when something doesn't quite remain as it has always been – and that has been the stuff of comedy down the ages.
Now we are 12 years on, and standing in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Patterson is here too presenting an anthology of works from the past 16 years.
Many of them have to do with ships and the sea, with mapping and boats and measuring. Most of them are located up on level two, in Gallery 21. A single work, a kite emblazoned with the name of Yuri Gagarin, soars over a marble statue of Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith. That one hangs just beneath the curved in glass roof of the Neptune Court, looking down rather bemusedly at untidy mobs of happy schoolchildren unpacking their lunch boxes.
But Gallery 21 is the main place and here, once again, we find The Great Bear. This is both a good and a bad thing. We are pleased to see it again but it also works to the disadvantage of almost every other work in this gallery because most of them seem to be playing the same tune. He needs to find a few more ideas before he next approaches a funder – and there has been no shortage of funds available to realise the ideas in this gallery. It just shows you what can happen when you are given the oxygen of publicity.
So here we have an entire room full of reproductions of 19th-century maps of the Aegean and the Mediterranean. Once again, Patterson has meddled with the information the map provides. He has added all sorts of biographical bits and pieces about Jacques Cousteau, a favourite obsession of his. The piece is entitled Cousteau in the Underworld; he has also introduced a few characters from Greek mythology, and snatches of information from Homer's Odyssey. According to the guide, this technique is called "layering". Ho hum.
Another work consists of three giant sails, all side by side, and leaning into some phantom wind. (The only movement in this room is the gentle flutter of the attendant's eyelids.) These sails have names of writers on them – Currer Bell (better known as Emily Brontë), Laurence Sterne and Raymond Chandler. The guide tells us that they are named in this way to remind us that the sea has been written about a great deal, and often very well. Not quite in those words. How lame is that?
In a third piece, called Monkey Business, we see the image of an ocean liner. It's a kind of huge line drawing, side-on. The ship has different levels, and different rooms. Patterson has named them in surprising and unpredictable ways – various levels are given over to geological periods; others are named after famous painters; yet others are called "raccoon" and such like. In this comedy of mix'n'match, perhaps Tintoretto will turn out to be a product of the Jurassic after all! (Cue canned laughter.) That's about it – other than the fact that the Marx Brothers monkeyed about on a ship a bit like this one in a great old film called Monkey Business.
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