Tom Sutcliffe: Installations are not built to last

The week in culture

Friday 30 July 2010 00:00 BST
(Rex Features)

I found myself thinking about posterity the other day, while watching a carousel of china dogs self-destruct. The provoking object was Joana Vasconcelos's artwork Passarelle (Catwalk), part of her exhibition at the Haunch of Venison Gallery in London and – in an exhibition that put up some stiff competition in this category – by some stretch the most calculatingly perverse object there.

It consists of a kind of industrial overhead conveyor track, of the kind you might see in a slaughterhouse, running in an L-shaped loop. Dangling from the hooks are life-sized faience dogs, attached by the collars round their necks and clonking faintly whenever they brush against each other. A foot-pedal switch extends in front of the piece and when you press it the conveyor lurches into action, causing the dogs to swing and sway as they round the corners. As they swing they knock chunks off each other, which lie piled in a shambles of ceramic shards underneath. There seemed to be more heads than hooks when I went – which suggests that dogs that are really far gone may be put out of their misery at some point and replaced with new ones – but I can't be sure whether this really is an element of the work as conceived by the artist.

I'm a little sceptical about the enduring power of this work. It's possible, I suppose, that in 400 years' time the name of Vasconcelos will rank with Michelangelo and Bernini and Rodin and the tourists will crowd in to take pictures of themselves in front of Passarelle. Maybe there will be Passarelle T-shirts and little Passarelle toys. As I say, I doubt it, but quite apart from the question of its potency as a timeless classic there would also be a large question mark over the persistence of the object itself.

It would present conservation challenges, wouldn't it? After six or seven decades of steady use the motors would go and have to be replaced, raising some issues of technological consistency. There would also be a slight problem in ensuring a steady supply of faience Alsatians and Dalmatians. What if the factory producing this element of Vasconcelos's sculpture went out of business – which is not inconceivable, given that a taste for life-size ceramic dogs surely can't be a millennial constant in human nature. Would a conservator have to fire up a kiln and produce them from scratch?

There is a sense in which the constancy of the work doesn't matter at all, of course, any more than it does with some of Vasconcelos's other works – several of which are just as fragile and prone to mechanical obsolescence. Though Michelangelo and Bernini worked in materials that might be said to have the ambition of longevity encoded into them – in marble and bronze – a lot of contemporary artists do not. Martin Creed presses a blob of Blu-Tack on to a wall, for example, or makes a small cube out of countless layers of sticky tape. If he has hopes that these works will live beyond the immediate moment it is presumably the concept that he hopes to see persisting, rather than any individual enactment of it.

That is true of a huge number of contemporary art pieces, including some which have a good chance of making it into the next century. Take Richard Wilson's 20:50, which isn't a cherishable or preservable object in any conventional sense. It might be tricky to source sump oil in 500 years' time, but it will surely be possible and it won't be difficult to recreate Wilson's piece – which fills a room with a mirrored surface.

Perhaps it's a good thing that audiences of the future won't be confused by the wrong kind of historic patina. If contemporary installations stand the test of time their expressions will be both antique and brand new. That is never the case with a painting or a sculpture, which must age in a different way.

Does that mean such installations are more likely to survive over the centuries, or less? I'm inclined to think it's the latter. An idea or a set of instructions for an installation cannot crack, or be subject to water damage, or fade in strong sunlight. But they have a fragility all their own – and since they cannot even be said to exist outside their gallery manifestations, you wonder about their ability to hibernate through those long winters that even the best art sometimes has to ride out.

Vermeer's paintings spent a very long time not being considered to be masterpieces but they never stopped being Vermeers – and that had something to do with their blunt physical powers of persistence.

Bloodcurdling performance lights up the stage

Watching 'Danton's Death' the other day at the National Theatre I was reminded how good music hall stage effects can be in otherwise high-minded plays. It ends with some very realistic guillotinings before chopping (not fading) to black, and on the night I went you could tell that the audience relished this little spike of vulgar spectacle in what is otherwise a distinctly cerebral play. Perhaps it would have derailed the mood if it had occurred earlier in the production, and perhaps my secret hankering for a gout of arterial blood was over the top. But coarse and visceral shocks needn't be incompatible with high art. Greg Doran's production of Macbeth 10 years ago remains a benchmark for me of judiciously employed spine-chilling – with some effects that involved nothing more than the unexpected tipping of some chairs and others that were more technically sophisticated, such as a moment when an apparently solid brick wall produced grasping hands reaching out for Macbeth. I live in hope that some director will eventually be brave enough to give us a 'Hamlet' with a full-blown Pepper's ghost effect and the Battle of Actium with a 20,000-gallon-onstage tank.

An attic full of promising books

I assume some form of regret attends every round of Booker judging, even if you feel very happy with the list you produce. But a regret unique to the first round of judging is the disappearance of promising books by first-time authors. It isn't that you think any of these books have been unjustly excluded... and there's nothing dishonourable in their not having made it against such strong competition. It's only that established authors who miss out can fall back on a support system they won't always have. More than once I had the judges equivalent of that dream in which you discover an unused room in your house which solves all your storage problems. I fantasised about an imaginary Booker attic which was reserved solely for the accommodation of promising talent. If we had been able to award a Don't Stop Now special prize I would have been making a case for The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell, The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, Ruby's Spoon by Anna Lawrence Pietroni and The Still Point by Amy Sackville. Do keep writing. I'd like to read that difficult second novel.

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