Tom Sutcliffe: Right and wrong ends of the schtick

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No artist wants to have a gimmick. A distinctive vision is one thing, a trademark style another. But a trick or a trope goes against the grain of artistry. And yet it isn't always easy to say when you've crossed the line from muse to mechanism. Nobody, I take it, would ever accuse Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman of having had an artistic gimmick – and yet most of us, given access to the right kind of paint pots and a big enough canvas – could rough up a bad pastiche of either painter. The consistency of their work is where the hazard lies. We know what components go into a Rothko or a Newman stripe painting, even though we might prove clueless about how to assemble those components so that the sum is much greater than the parts. And the greater the consistency of style, the more likely we are to wonder whether this is a furrow being ploughed to good effect or a rut the artist can't get out of. Early Mondrians must have looked dazzlingly fresh to anyone with eyes, but telling a good late Mondrian from a mediocre one is a matter for a connoisseur – and probably a connoisseur of Mondrians at that. I'm not sure I could do it.

I found myself thinking about these things while walking around the Tony Cragg exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. It's an odd show, in my experience, which combines some absolutely wonderful works with others that left me wincing. And the issue of the gimmick or the trick is never far away. To a degree this has always been an issue with Cragg's work. There was a time, for example, when you could fairly have described him as "that sculptor who makes things out of plastic bric-a-brac" – during a period when he created large two-dimensional images by arranging found objects on the gallery wall or floor. For a time that was his "schtick", to put it informally, which is only a whisker away from saying that was his "gimmick". But, as the Edinburgh show demonstrates, Cragg is no one-trick pony.

What he is is restless – and, unfair as it might seem, that's almost as hazardous as consistency. There are consistencies in this show – a smooth quality of finish, a passion for the specific qualities of material, a tactile fascination with shape. But if you told a naïve viewer that it was a group show by three or four different sculptors, I'm not sure they would immediately rumble you. They might also feel (as I did) that one or two of those sculptors were far more interesting than the others. Again, it's a trick that draws the line. The bulk of the works here are fluid sculptures that remind you of wind-eroded sandstone, rippling towers with streamlined ridges that at first look like pure shape. And then, walking round them, you start to notice facial profiles. In one sculpture, Mental Landscape, you suddenly see a tiny ear lobe, part of a head which has been extruded into the amorphous ripples of the sculpture as a whole. And it's grim. You instantly get it, and having got it there's nothing else to do but get the next one, in the way that you might solve a visual puzzle. These are sculptures that appear to be there to be unlocked – and once you've found the face all that's left is a neat trick, because you can't restore the liberty of pure shape. It feels as if they've been sullied by figuration.

Then you walk into the next room and encounter work which has also been generated by a general rule (take a simple container and apply a complicated kind of distortion) but which rings like a bell and doesn't stop resonating. It's both beautiful and mysterious, irreducible to a mere device, and impervious to the phrase, "Oh, I see what he's done there."

Or you encounter Under the Skin, an assembly of wooden elements and thousands of cup hooks which proves that it is possible to make a representational sculpture of an itch. Except, of course, that it's far more than that. The face sculptures have a trick to them and leave you feeling obscurely tricked. The others aren't hiding anything, and leave you feeling exhilarated and uncertain.

Translated titles can help make a better world

Right. Assistance needed. Having seen In A Better World last week, Susanne Bier's Oscar-winning film, I was struck by the fact that its original Danish title was Haevnen, or Vengeance. What went through the distributor's mind, I wondered, to take a title which promised some kind of violent action (not to mention narrative conclusion) and replace it with the vague dreaminess of In A Better World? Is the film set there, or just hoping? Did they think they would get better ticket sales with hazy, New Age utopianism? I wondered too whether there was any other English translation that involved a 180 degree reversal of tone. An appeal to cineaste friends turned up some excellent examples of awkward translations from English into foreign languages. Anyone for Malkovich's Hole (the Japanese translation of Being John Malkovich) or Six Naked Pigs (what Chinese translators settled for after giving up the battle to translate The Full Monty)? I also enjoyed – though I can't quite believe this is true – Mr Cat Poop, the Chinese translation of As Good As It Gets, and the earnest Taiwanese translation of Get Smart, which reportedly became Is The Spy Capable Or Not? But there was very little in the way of English solecisms – even though we must be just as guilty of cultural clumsiness. The Hebrew release of Lost in Translation was apparently Lost in Tokyo, which rather brilliantly makes its own point if you know both titles. But what about our own crimes of misunderstanding?

There are places I remember

There's always an odd frisson when your own life experience meshes with the setting of a novel. I can still remember reading a Beryl Bainbridge novel during one school holiday (probably Harriet Said) and suddenly realising that one of its main locations, very accurately described, was just 10 minutes walk away from my house. I was in Freshfield, just down the line from Liverpool, so it wasn't long odds but even so there was a slightly vertiginous sense of two dimensions – the real and the imaginary – overlapping with each other. It happened to me again while reading Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table, an account of a boy's sea voyage from Colombo to Tilbury in the early fifties, a novel based on Ondaatje's own childhood experience. I'd started reading it fully aware that there was an overlap here too. When I was a child I'd travelled by sea through the Suez Canal to East Africa, at about the same time. But though I had some memories of that time, they were a bit frayed at the edges. Then I reached the passage in which he describes going through the Canal, and the arrival of the gully-gully man on board, an Egyptian street conjuror who was a fixture in most passages. And I remembered having piastres miraculously milked from my nose and chicks produced from my ears. What I can't tell now though is exactly where Ondaatje's memories stop and mine begin.





t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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