Tom Sutcliffe: Gloom, doom and happy endings

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The Independent Online

I don't think bookies are offering odds on whether the Tate Triennial will successfully introduce a new "ism" to art, but I'd be betting against it if they were. Curated by a professional "ism" bagger, the cultural theorist Nicholas Bourriaud, the Triennial has been titled Altermodern, with the almost transparent hope that this might be the beginning of something big, an "ism" as successful as its predecessors Modernism and Postmodernism. I think it's odds against – and not only because this "ism" needs a pronunciation guide (Should it be snapped out in a Germanic accent, like the Vorsprung durch Technik ad? Or do you pronounce it in stubbornly English tones, in which case the rhythms are a bit broken-backed?). The other problem is that it isn't easy to work out what Altermodernism might be – even when it's been explained to you several times. The description given in the catalogue leaves you with the distinct suspicion that Postmodernism has been towed off to a chop-shop, given a quick respray and they're now trying to sell it back to us as this year's model.

Which doesn't mean to say that there aren't things worth seeing at Altermodern. Talent has a way of overcoming bureaucracy in the arts and there's no doubt that there's talent on display here. If you want a laugh, you can spend some time with Walead Beshty's FedEx sculptures, in which the artist enlisted the (I take it) unwitting collaboration of the world's biggest express delivery company. The work consists of glass boxes, perfectly sized to fit inside a FedEx cardboard container and then consigned to the company's mercy on an international journey. Unsurprisingly, not many of them make it unharmed, a process that leads to a lot of curatorial guff about virtual spaces and the inscription of experience, etc, etc, but which in the gallery strikes you more as a lethally mischievous (if slightly unfair) comment on FedEx's package handling.

One of my favourites, though – and a work that repays a lot more close inspection – is Tacita Dean's The Russian Ending – a sequence of 20 melancholy photogravure prints, featuring images of destruction and catastrophe. These were inspired, we learn, by the fact that the Danish film industry – a considerable exporter of films in the silent era – was in the habit of producing two versions of each movie, one with an upbeat ending for the American market and another with a downbeat conclusion for the Russians, who apparently preferred to leave the cinema confirmed in their belief that the universe was an implacably hostile place. This isn't without an undertow of humour, either – since the pictures are busily annotated as if they're part of a film storyboard, setting up a tension between creative human energy and the world's tendency to ruin.

What's interesting, too, though, is that these images make you think of something that doesn't often come up in a contemporary art gallery. They make you think of conclusions – which so much contemporary art holds at bay. That's particularly so in video works – which may well repay a viewer who stays to the very end, but are never likely to do so with a neatly tied bow. Indeed, sometimes there's no real way of distinguishing start from finish, but for the brief fade to black that interrupts the looped screening. And the notional duration of less dynamic art forms is always perpetuity. "Is now and for ever will be", is the implicit claim they make, however unlikely it is to be justified. You can't come in late for them – and they aren't going to announce when it's time for you to go.

That's true of Tacita Dean's pictures, too, of course, except that the fact that you read them, literally as well as figuratively, does give them a kind of inner clock. I thought, in defiance of their title, that they counted as a happy ending.

As for Altermodernism – that I think will get the Russian treatment.

All play and no work?

Next week, the Royal College of Art will launch a course module that students can complete by playing a video game, namely Little Big Planet, an innovative platform game that allows players to design and create their own levels.

I suppose educational conservatives may take this as further evidence of dumbing down in our institutions of higher education, but it seems rather a good idea to me – given that video games are now a significant industry and Little Big Planet offers a seductive range of design possibilities. It would be entirely conceivable, once you'd got used to the software, to design an LBP remake of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, or to produce a playable introduction to the theories of William Morris.

The RCA module does include a reading list (including Sherry Turkle's book Life On Screen and Michael Heim's The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality) and suggests that students might like to research "the ethics of virtual communities" among other things. But I think we can take those as academic fig-leaves to offset the fact that most of the coursework will consist of larking about with a controller in your hand.

And, given the ever-increasing sophistication of games software, other universities and colleges are bound to latch on to the idea. How long, I wonder, before Grand Theft Auto IV turns up on criminology courses and a really impressive score on Call of Duty: World at War (at the most difficult setting) will count towards a modern history final degree?

* I'm not usually in favour of the repatriation of national treasures – having a suspicion of any argument in which nationalistic feeling plays a significant part. But the case of the bust of Nefertiti, which an archaeologist scammed past an inattentive inspector of antiquities in Cairo in 1911, may be an exception to the rule. Ludwig Borchardt was determined to get the sculpture out, so he lied about it on the inventory, hid it from direct inspection and ensured that its photograph didn't reveal its true quality. Now the Egyptians have found out about the trickery and have some reason to feel that their case for the return of this treasure has been strengthened.

I suggest that, instead of asking for Nefertiti back, they ask for compensation in kind – from the German national collections. A decent Dürer might cover it, or a really top-quality Grünewald altarpiece. If the Germans agree, then both countries will have been enriched by the best of another culture. If they splutter in indignation and refuse, they may at least understand a little better how it might feel to have the best of your own dishonestly spirited away.

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