Tense? Nervous? It might be art
Adrian Searle finds the ICA reinventing itself as culture's twilight zo ne `A Twilight Zone museum . . . not the kind of place you'd necessarily want to t ake the kids on a wet Sunday afternoon. It is a site where reason has gone Awol'
Tuesday 03 January 1995
"Oxygene" is playing on the acoustiguide, by way of a commentary, and a chirpy, ghostly canary is hopping around a bell jar on an antique stand, in perpetual flight from its virtual imprisonment.
Things are becoming temporarily unhinged. The trippy scene in Kubrick's 2001, where the astronaut disturbs his older self, is running in endless loops - there goes the guy in the spacesuit again, interrupting himself at lunch. Hieronymus Bosch is here, with a page of studies of phantasmagorical monsters, though he could well have drawn them from life, down in the bar where the art-world hangs out.
Catherine Yass has taken some spooky photographs of hospital corridors, and Karen Eslea found a film of a woman playing with her baby - but mummy has no hands, just a pair of bio-mechanical prostheses that look like they belong on a kitchen blender. Jackand Dinos Chapman have dragged in a "failed experiment", involving motorised hammers, desiccated brains, bottles of rancid milk and a pink plastic dildo rigged to a hydraulic system. The entire apparatus is gummed up with filth and - luckily for us - doesn't work anymore. What are all these jokes about the exploding space shuttle doing on the wall - and why has Graham Gussin insinuated little signs around the building? The one outside the ladies loo says: "Alien. Oct. 1946".
The Institute of Cultural Anxiety: Works from the Collection is a Twilight Zone museum, a fake collection from an imaginary institution, and not the kind of place you'd necessarily want to take the kids on a wet Sunday afternoon. It is a site where the normal categories have irretrievably broken down and reason has gone Awol.
Even though there are institutes devoted to most aspects of human endeavour (a flick through the phone book finds institutes of chiropodists, psychic phenomena, taxation, disaster studies, adult education, even an Institute of Curiosity and Execution), nowhere will one find one that lays bare our troubled consciences about the nature of contemporary culture. The Institute of Cultural Anxiety may be a fiction, but most of us would qualify for immediate membership: we are all culturally challenged, aesthetically confused and anxious now.
The Institute and its "collection" have been devised by Jeremy Millar, winner of an open curating competition set up by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in order to give a platform to young artists and to "raise the profile of the practice of curating amongst a wider audience". In Millar, a relatively unknown 24-year-old former art student from Nottingham, the ICA has found nothing so dull as a curator: the boy's a wunderkind.
Although the ICA is as anxious an institution as one could hope to find, Millar's curatorial debut in London involves more than a play on the ICA's name. He has brought together artworks by British, American and European artists; scientific models and illustrations; films, jokes, odd artefacts and bits of technological detritus; as well as a number of texts (some specially commissioned from the French urban planner and cultural theorist Paul Virilio) printed on the walls as slogans.
In the Institute of Cultural Anxiety, no one knows what's going on any more. The exhibition maps out the museological terrain of a future suffering from information overload, in which the study of things collapses under the weight of an excess, rather than a dearth, of material. The vaults are full and the data bank is suffering a fatal haemorrhage. "A collection," writes Virilio, "is an ensemble eternally unfinished." And: "The fetishism of the collector draws him forever into the unending quest for th e whole, for completion." The museum without walls becomes the world itself, a collection without categories: Donald Campbell's crash helmet; a Jeff Koons bronze snorkel; a pile of glass eyes; the writings of an 18th-century schizophrenic; a heap of mete orites; a row of computers engaged in some arcane word and number crunching routine; a grainy film of a dredger endlessly sifting a mudbank.
Millar is smitten with the notion that there's so much stuff, and so much specialised information in the world, that it is impossible to take it all in. Emerging from his usual, shadowy role of clerkly scholar and custodian of the artefacts in his care, the curator here becomes as much an object of our attention as the collection he has created.
Millar's response to the confusion about him is to rummage amid the fragments, inventing a loose, ad hoc structure for the "collection" as he goes along. Thus, the Chapman brothers' diabolical machine belongs in a corner devoted to the body, where it sits alongside a rubber cast of a human heart, some photographs of surgical reconstructions of the shattered faces of First World War casualties, a skeletal human arm, and a painting by Luc Tuymans from his series "the diagnostic look", which is based on ph otographs of terminally-ill hospital patients.
Elsewhere, the exhibition takes a look at our relation to the natural world, with Vincent Shine's delicate, hyper-realistic sculptures of tiny plants, Thomas Struth's photographs of flowers, a stuffed rodent stuffing a stuffed cockerel, and one of Jacob Robson's peculiar, beguiling paintings of a paradisical landscape. Vija Celmins's obsessively detailed, introverted pencil drawing of a patch of the desert floor hangs opposite a text by Fiona Banner which describes, frame by frame, the enti re action ofDavid Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia; the lines of Banner's text form a vast panorama of words, filling a sheet of paper as large as a cinema screen.
Risking confusion at every level, Millar's exhibition is a romp through the modern world. This may seem a hysterical, dystopian vision, but is also one of the more endearing cliches of 20th- century speculative fiction. It might also be an accurate representation of the way things are. The question is whether this show is an analysis of our cultural confusions - between master works and ephemera, art and science, high culture and low - or whether it merely perpetuates them. Millar recognises that the rationale we impose on things is at best arbitrary and temporary, but also that order of some sort is necessary, even if it is always on the verge of breaking down. What is surprising here is that Millar's exhibition does not collapse into an incoherent babble. This latter-day cabinet of curiosities is a baroque and perverse ensemble, but one which invites us to revel in our anxieties, to stop worrying and actually begin to enjoy them.
n For details see below
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