Visual Arts: 'So near, so far away, so vulnerable, so human, so long'
Temple of Diana Blue Gallery, London Chatto pounds 25
Sunday 25 July 1999
An area of the gallery with low-lying shelves supporting flowers, lit candles, and smouldering joss-sticks provides the spiritual religious backdrop for ... what? Mostly wall-mounted art by about a dozen primarily white and English artists (no Indians) on the subject of the media-dominated modern world's Principal Goddess.
Hugo Rittson's video loop (it's the only moving image in the show) is of the minute's silence that was kept on the day of Diana's funeral. His video camera pans over the hordes of sombre people watching events at Westminster Abbey relayed to them on a 50ft screen in Hyde Park. In the video loop, the tolling of the bell signals the end of one minute's silence, and the start of the next. The minutes of silent mourning toll on uninterrupted, merging into the one experienced by the viewer in the gallery. Well, for the true believer they might.
Alison Jackson's photograph of a couple - Di and Dodi look-alikes holding a mixed-race infant - has attracted bad press. It is simultaneously iconic and iconoclastic: the Di lookalike posing as Diana as she might have become if the crash hadn't happened; Madonna and Child and Dodi. The composition is as monumental as a Rembrandt. Strikingly lit figures emerge from a black background. It's also a harmonious domestic scene in which the loving attention of the "parents" is focused on their child. He is a child of privilege, as the ring on his finger and the bracelet on his little wrist imply ("some day, son, all Harrods and Kensington Palace will be yours"), but it's difficult to grudge the never-to-be-born child such baubles.
Also pilloried has been Caroline Younger for her Diana Fetish. This is basically a frock on a wooden coat-hanger. Red ribbons attached to coins and shaped objects of flattened metal have been pinned to the dress. It echoes the way the dead are traditionally honoured by tribesfolk in parts of South America, and so links contemporary attitudes to ancient superstition.
Souvenir mugs stand on a plinth. On a Charles and Diana wedding mug, the image of a busty blonde (Diana Dors) in a low-cut bra replaces the portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales. More daringly, female genitalia have been superimposed on another mug. This is the closest the show comes to the Antidiana, which is perhaps why the piece is by Anonymous and the more daring intervention is on a Queen Victoria commemoration mug.
Diana Dead, a series of black-and-white photographs taken by Klaus Wehner a few days after Diana's demise, of the floral tributes and written dedications placed outside Kensington Palace, covers a large area of gallery wall. Portraits of Diana - damaged by rain or distorted when stuck to a tree- trunk or pierced by the spike of a railing - are a recurring motif. "BOYCOTT SENSATIONALIST GUTTER JOURNALISM" has been printed alongside a paparazzi photo of Diana in tears, which maybe undermines the point the mourner was trying to make. The expressions of grief are a frenzy of earnest soul-searching, sentimental cliches, simple truths and nonsense: "SO CLOSE, SO FAR AWAY" reads one, which continues, "SO SHY. SO VULNERABLE, SO CARING, SO NATURAL, SO HUMAN, SO LONG".
Hysteria continues into the next section of wall, only here it is Tracey Emin wearing her heart on her sleeve. A series of eight lithographs whose titles seem to tell a story: They wanted you to be destroyed; Single- handed; Hard Luck, Diana; Landmines; Oh, Diana; That stupid dress they made you wear; Death of a Princess; Looking for a postcard of Diana. Of course, the raw emotion is backed up with artistry. To produce each lithograph Emin used a sheet of glass, a sheet of paper and an etching tool to scrawl text and accompanying imagery. She had to remember to write backwards so that the text ends up the correct way around, looking awkward and naive.
One Emin lithograph - though it is misspelt, letters are transposed and an "s" is the wrong way round - reads, "THAT RIDICULOUS DRESS WITH THOSE BIG PUFFY SLEEVES THAT THEY MADE YOU WEAR". I wonder who "they" are? The Emmanuels? The popular press? Prince Charles and the Queen? The Walrus and the Carpenter? It could be anybody. But maybe the question is: who's been trying to get Tracey to wear something she doesn't like? She seems to be personally identifying with the sadness, vulnerability, down side of fame, and lack of autonomy embodied in Diana. It's really not far from this "Temple of Diana" to the Tracey Emin Museum.
It's surprising that a show devoted to this huge subject hasn't been attempted before. But, with religious bigots ready to stamp on what strikes them as the worship of false gods, and Diana fanatics equally zealous in the construing of blasphemies, it must usually seem like more trouble than it's worth for artists and curators. So, good for this lot for having a go. Though it's not the backlash against all those years of front-page glamour shots, all those vacuous news reports, which must still be swirling around artists' minds and studios.
'Temple of Diana': Blue Gallery, SW3 (0171 589 4690) to 7 August
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