Yinka Shonibare: Willy Loman – The Rise and Fall, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
Thursday 22 October 2009
It's an old adage, but it's worth repeating: a human being looks taller, and gets to see further, when he climbs up on another man's shoulders. What can this possibly mean when applied to the practice of artists? It's quite simple. When you make a work, you give it added gravitas by claiming that it refers to, or incorporates elements from, great works of the past. They needn't be works by visual artists alone. They could be by writers too. Samuel Beckett, for example, has been flogged to death in this respect. As a consequence you half-suggest – it is really super-subtle – that you are claiming some kind of parity of achievement, or perhaps that by this simple fact of incorporation of elements from the past, you are even surpassing what you have borrowed from or alluded to.
Yinka Shonibare has got up to precisely this kind of trickery in the grandiose new installation that engulfs the front gallery at Stephen Friedman. Which greats has he drawn into his orbit? At least three: Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman and much else; Dante; and Gustave Doré, who made a famous series of engravings based on The Divine Comedy in the 19th century. The installation itself is an extended act of story-telling which divides into two halves. In the centre of the floor we have the re-staging of a fairly decorous vintage-car wreck. A red car, as beautiful as some scaled-up Dinky Toy, lies slumped to one side. The front wheels off, the driver lies, headless, dead at the wheel, thrown back by the impact of the crash.
Who is this man slumped at the wheel? According to the press release, it's Willy Loman, anti-hero of Death of a Salesman. This is a re-enactment of his death at the wheel. Loman was never a hero. In fact, you could say he was one of us, l'homme moyen sensuel.
Now turn your attention to the huge photographic tableaux on the walls. We've been transported to a contemporary version of Doré's etchings of scenes from Dante's Inferno, where the lost suffer punishments appropriate to their sins. Here are representations of the greedy (clawing at sacks of coins), the gluttonous (bits of animal cadavers are strewn about the floor). The sinners themselves, a representative selection of black and white bodies, are all naked, and in situations of extreme discomfort or pain.
And in each tableau there is, once again, the figure of Willy Loman, wearing his suit made of faux-African fabrics, musing on his fate. These tableaux look like garish, Technicolor versions of something equally grandiose by Rubens – or almost any other of those great historical canvases where human beings writhe around in torment.
What is all this supposed to say about Willy Loman or the human condition? The whole thing is about as emotionally affecting as a sack of potatoes left out on a rainy porch.
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