“We’ve seen more artists creating work than ever before and we’ve seen prices skyrocket,” said Guy Casely-Hayford, sketching in the “Golden Period”, which contemporary art has just passed through.
Which raised a question, naturally. Golden age or just plastic gilt? Did it supply a lot of incorruptible 24-carat stuff or just shiny stuff that sold well? And is there a silver lining – sterling silver I mean – in a recession that forces artists tomake less work and brings the skyrocket back down? The wonderful Cornelia Parker certainly thought so – so enthusiastic about the aesthetic upside of the recession that she had to catch herself and go back, remembering that quite a lot of ordinary people have had a lousy time of it recently. And, in the end, Casely-Hayford seemed to feel the same way in Where Is Modern Art Now?, an attempt to pin down the next big thing andthe next big noise, which ultimately concluded that being a bit smaller and a bit quieter could be the way of the future.
The question in the title assumed a rather A-Z flavour in the early section of his film, as Casely- Hayford cycled around London (it was decidedly metropolitan in its search) looking for the next Brit Art epicentre. He visited a multi-storey car park in Peckham, where a group of young artists had put on their own show, but decided that it was trying a little too hard to be the new Hoxton.
He was disappointed by his trip to Goldsmiths too, alma mater of a whole slew of the Young British Artists but now, he reckoned, turning out work that was a touch too knowing (what they knew, presumably, was that someone would pitch up from the BBC searching for the next Damien Hirst). Casely-Hayford was looking for shock – at the same time as exploring the possibility that perpetual shock is a difficult thing to pull off – and the counterweight to all the eager young things dreaming of becoming the next Damien Hirst were a group of artists who’ve been working steadily away without headlines for their sale prices. Grayson Perry was obligingly rude about the big art boom: “It’s sucked in a lot of twats,” he said equably. “It’s sucked in a lot of people with floppy hair and interesting eyebrows...like the estate agents of the art world.” Now, he implied, people could get back to making art. And the interesting thing as far as Casely-Hayford’s selection of younger artists went, was that it was far more traditional in form. Tom Price, a young artist who made a name for himself with a peerlessly conceptual work in which he licked the walls of a white room for three days until his tongue bled, is now making small-scale bronze busts and sculptures, the sort of thing that would slip into a Royal Academy Summer Show and not turn a hair (even if it turned out to be a more interesting on close inspection than the average Summer Show garden ornament). Where Is Modern Art Now? Looking with a fresh interest at old-fashioned art, it seems.
I checked out Jimmy’s Food Factory again just to check whether it really was as guilelessly boostering of the processed-food industry as I’d first reported. Surely, I thought, watching Jimmy shovel an entire bag of sugar into his attempt to replicate a supermarket cola this must be a Trojan Horse programme. Nice amiable Jimmy rings up the publicity departments of Unilever and Walkers crisps and says, “No, honest... it’s not a hatchet job. We just want to tell people how hard you work to make the food they love.” So the publicity department buys it and lets Jimmy in to do the factory visits and banter with the food technicians and ice-cream scientists, unaware that nestling in the belly of this gift of free publicity are the foot soldiers of truth. The secret added ingredient that keeps your Viennetta soft? Air! For which they’re charging you.
The reason your cola can strip a penny back to a newly minted sheen? Phosphoric acid, which is almost certainly doing something similar to theenamel of your teeth. And those crispy extruded potato snacks you find so irresistibly morish? Potato starch they would otherwise have to throw away. If it is supposed to be subversive, though, the door on the Trojan Horse seems to have jammed. “They make four million mouthwatering ice-creams here every day,” enthused Jimmy, as a stream of choc-ices rolled past on the production line. Muffled banging from the soldiers who want to talk to us about obesity and chemistry-set additives. Now! Now’s the momentto burst out and let them have it.
Unfortunately, Jimmy is leaning up against the secret hatch making a speech. “Okay... these snack foods aren’t the most wholesome,” he says, “but I’ve discovered that the real surprising ingredients like the air bubbles in icecream and the lavender in cola are harmless and they really add to the fun!