Exhibit A: pretension

With so many materials on offer, why does an artist choose language, and imagine he can fashion it better than a poet?
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The Independent Online
A "Challenge of Materials" show opened two weeks ago at London's Science Museum, and poets got invited to the party. There's a fab steel wedding dress (what an image of bondage), chocolate shoes, an aluminium handbag, clothes by Vivienne Westwood and Jeff Banks, a glass bridge straight from The Wizard of Oz and a naked man spreadeagled in transparent plastic glory so you see all the bio-compatible surgical implants - from gold hip-joints to polyurethane urethras - that people are wearing these days.

The show is on for 10 years. It's brilliant. I'm going to keep going back.

But only when my indignation about the party has died down. The museum commissioned artists and one poet to do things for the show. The artists' work is on display all round the gallery. At early meetings the poet, Selima Hill, got told, "An artist might want to use some of your work". She had a short think. "Or I might want to use theirs," she said. Co-operation projects got dropped like a charred potato. She decided her contribution would be riddles about the materials, written in the voice of each. "We can't put your work on the walls," they said. "Walls are for artists." She suggested they print riddle-cards to set visitors guessing, searching the gallery for things made in each material. This didn't sound like proper art; maybe if an artist had suggested it, it would have. Her teasing, thought-provoking poems got put at the back of folders about the materials.

The focus of the opening party was a performance by the artist Brian Catlin, whose installations in the gallery included a row of potted materials he might do something with some day. "I'll go deep in to the heart of the forest to hew it out" he'd handwritten (or something in that vein) on textured paper. He called the whole thing, writing and pots, "Pledge". Which must, along with "filigree" and "twilight", be high on poetry's hit-list of Twenty Most Banal Words. Or head the Twenty Most Pretentious.

The material he unwisely wished to challenge in performance was words. He'd ducked the globe's entire spectrum of material resources, from alabaster to zinc. (The UK steel industry coughed up pounds 3m for this show; other sponsors include ICI and the Aluminium Federation. Think of all the materials you can challenge, with that lot.) This man sat down and read words for half- an-hour, with not a joke in sight. He wasn't up to iron, let alone irony. Danny Kaye, singing his "The Emperor's New Clothes" song, galloped into my mind:

Isn't it grand, isn't it fine? Look at the cut,

the style, the line:

This suit of clothes is altogether, but

altogether,

The most remarkable suit of clothes that

I have ever seen.

These eyes of mine at once determine the

sleeves are velvet, the cape is ermine

The hose are blue and the doublet is a

lovely shade of green.

So (poet behaving badly) I asked an organiser why, with one of the best poets in the country on tap, they'd got someone else to maltreat the poet's medium at this opening party? She went a bit pink. "I thought it beautiful," she said bravely. ("Your Majesty, this is a magic suit and you, being very wise and very intelligent, can see how beautiful it is." What an artist he was, Danny Kaye.) The audience didn't share her view. "Conceptual art gives concepts a bad name anyway, but this must be post-conceptual," groaned a philosophy professor. "Cheap Larkin - not up to karaoke at the Pig and Firkin," said a student up from Bristol.

Performance material available at that party included three Faber poets, three Bloodaxes and a Chatto. (Free drink must have had something to do with it.) If the organisers wanted a performance that would mix the challenge of words with that of other materials, why not ask seven poets to create a quick sculpture with hammer, hairdrier and steel shavings? I'd have loved to see Hugo Williams, dress scarf in one pocket, knocking up an installation in "blue frit" (a lapiz lazuli lookalike available in ancient Egypt). An artist could then do a 10-minute poem on "The Sculpture Hugo Williams Never Made". That'd sum up "The Challenge of Materials" OK.

As it was, the poets melted as far as they could from the reading. I found a shell-shocked bunch of them at the end of the gallery, wondering why poets are always at the bottom of the pack. "I suppose if I'd offered to sculpt, it might have been different", said Selima apologetically. She'd done brilliant work here, but suddenly felt she hadn't stood up enough for poetry and lack of pretention. "I wanted to stick to my own material and dig deeper, rather than skate off and do superficial things somewhere else."

Quite. I'm not against artists. (Some of my best friends. Really.) Nor against museums using artists to illustrate the challenge of materials - a lovely idea. I'm on the side of words: against Artists Who Take Themselves Seriously (or get museums to do it for them) in words. The world is pullulating with other materials for artists to get challenged by. Can't they go a bit deeper into the possibilities of silicon, rubber and blue frit, instead of abusing our sole material?

Where to hear poets unpatronised by post-conceptual art:

Selima Hill, Helen Dunmore; Exeter and Devon Arts Centre, 30 May (01392 421111).

Gillian Allnut, Katrina Porteous; 6 June, Durham (0191 386 611, x 338).

Richard McKane, Pascale Petit, Scott Verner, Ifigenija-Simonovic; 9 June, Troubadour Cafe, 265 Old Brompton Road, London SW5.

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