Read the small print, however, and you find that what you are in the presence of is something rather more significant. “Wilkes’s installations apprehend an end point in our understanding of things as they are – a point at which words become insufficient and the naming of objects is disconnected from our experience of them” (that is to say, “I can’t think of any way of describing this”). And that is not all. “These precisely placed constellations of ready mades, sculptures, found objects and manipulated images form an uncompromising questioning of the self, and a constant desire to move beyond what is known.”
That particular constant desire is also what takes you as swiftly as possible to the next room…
Bringing together [how? Are buildings being transported girder by girder and paintings DHLed to some crossdisciplinary ground zero in New Cross?] artistic and architectural projects by distinguished [the guarantee of quality, the answer to the question “Why should we be interested?” They are Distinguished. But what distinguishes them? And from what? How far are they from being undistinguished?] international [so they practice in different countries? Or do they live in different countries? And is this a good thing?] practitioners, Curating Architecture focuses on the relationship between architecture as an increasingly influential [c’mon, when has architecture not been a very influential aesthetic practice?] (and dominantly transdisciplinary [wow. Architecture crosses disciplines in a dominant manner. What is a dominant manner of crossing disciplines? And which disciplines are you talking about? And is that where we’re at now, still talking about learning and authority as things that are needed for admission to the categories of aesthetic practice? And there are too many adverbs here]) aesthetic practice [now I’m thinking of someone playing tennis in a particularly graceful way, probably with blond hair backlit by sunshine. I blame over-use of “practice” and its derivatives] and the complex claims [what are these claims and why are they complex] on public and institutional [now, again, which institutions are we talking about? State-funded groups of people working together for particular ends? Or any organised labour unit? Or simply a function that transcends what is done by individuals? Or the kind of institution that people used to say other people they thought had psychological problems should be in?] space [I’m not so naive as to think you’re just thinking about the primary meaning of this, the stuff that has three dimensions and can be measured by a ruler, although that’s what “public space” normally refers to – parks, for instance. The fact that your space can also be “institutional” makes me think you’re talking of some immaterial, conceptual space, such as a field of study. But then institutional, let alone public space becomes a little too big to be a useful idea – everything to do with an institution, everything to do with the public, in other words, everything to do with everyone. I wonder if “people and institutions” might have done just as well here, although what you are trying to say would remain obscure] made by [things are so much more difficult in the passive] artists, curators and architects [do all artists, curators and architects make these complex, though unspecified, claims? Or just some? Who are they? Are they all distinguished?] as they seek to articulate [to articulate as in “express” or “explain”, or as in “articulated lorry”?] new, often political and certainly critical [intriguing – why are they more certain to be critical than they are political? There’s something in there. Everything is political, of course, and I suspect everything is critical too, though I’d like to be sure just which meaning of that word you have in mind here. Probably not the most common if not literally correct one of “making a negative judgement”, probably closer to the idea of objective assessment, but if it is to be a “production of space” that is critical, it must embody that criticism somehow. How would it do that, I wonder? By some kind of inbuilt reference to other productions of space, or to production-of-space theory, or what? Would I recognise understand such inherent criticism if I saw it, I wonder?], productions of space [“space” again. I somehow doubt this is the same space as before. But this is something that can be done by artists, curators and architects. Are they working together or in collaboration? Architects certainly produce space, in a sense, although to be pedantic I’d have to say they put walls and roofs and floors around space that already exists. But they do create “a sense of space” and a different sort of space to what was there before. So do curators, sort of: after they’ve put up a show, the gallery feels different, and works differently as a place for experiencing art, to what it did before (I’m aware this is probably a rather naive view of what curators think their job is these days). How artists produce space is a bit harder for me to understand. They might create a new conceptual space, but that’s a game anyone can play. But before space, we have “production”. I’ve tried to read Deleuze and Guattari, and I know they wrote a lot about “production” in their discussions of psychology and emotions, where you might not expect to find such a mechanistic, material-sounding notion. Maybe there’s a vogue for using language that suggests that art and cultural studies are not about vapid flim-flam but are endeavours as grounded as car manufacturing or plumbing, as if lecturers have a pot of Swarfega in their offices for the end of the day. But as it’s not clear what kind of space you’re talking about, the literalist in me objects that no one can produce space. OK, the Big Bang produced space, the expansion of the universe is producing space, and according to the Horizon I saw last night time maybe the constant production of new quantum granules of, err, something. But I don’t think you’re talking about cosmology here, and for us on the surface of this planet we’re still in a pretty classical Newtonian space in which space is, importantly, available in strictly limited quantities.]
Reading stuff like this is a bit like playing charades. The deal is that the person performing the charade is basing their performance on something you probably know about: only a very bad sport would choose a German TV miniseries. So they gesture towards something, you get it and everyone’s happy. That’s how all language works, true, but when you are wielding such specialised meanings of words there seems very little space (there, I can use it too) for anything to be actually said.
You might say that this was only meant for academics to read, and that they would understand what you were trying to say. But The Showroom, which sent me the email in which I read this, is, or was, a public gallery funded by state money. So this is a way of saying, everyone can come, but not everyone is welcome.
Tom Lubbock says that Rothko’s paintings are like power ballads:
Rothko made a real discovery when he found that, by using a very restricted language, a few bars and panes and rectangular frames of strong colour, blurry-edged and set in simple arrangements, he could stir in the viewer a powerful empathetic and emotional response. I’m not denying his ability to move you.
No, and I don’t deny this ability to Mariah Carey or Harry Nilsson, either.
Like the songs, the paintings have a hook:
And the thing about hooks is that they have an almost neurological effect. … A Rothko work is all hook, it’s designed as a simple, strong visual catch; one riff, writ very large.
The trouble is that Lubbock confesses that he is susceptible to this simplistic stuff in songs – Lionel Richie is his most shocking example – and films – The Sound of Music and ET – just as he is to more complex material. He prefers the latter because there’s more to it than emotional manipulation. So his parallel doesn’t apply to those of us who are unmoved by the emotional porn he cites. And anyway, the power ballads and cheesy films are crafted to leave only one possible response – one positive response, anyway, as rage and misery are never far away when I hear Mariah Carey. Rothko may have succeeded in evoking big emotional responses, but the paintings don’t specify quite what they will be.
You could criticise him for being just an old Romantic, still peddling the sublime, and in those late paintings with their swirling murk and stormy blacks we do seem to be among the superhuman forces of nature. I wonder if Lubbock just has a problem, in a rather British way, with the emotion, with the talk of mysticism and religion, even if it is godless; as Adrian Searle
The dim lighting and contained feeling of the Rothko Room at the Tate has always given it, for some spectators, an air of immanence and mystery. I prefer paintings in plain sight, without the heavy breathing…
and Peter Campbell
… finding the depths in the pictures suggested by some of Rothko’s statements is now, and probably always was, an act of faith that requires a sort of self-hypnosis.
It’s true that Rothko’s paintings are imposing and direct, painted henge monuments that use optical illusions and manipulation to hold and seduce the eye. They work because they are a wallowing in the world of sense. They are as familiar and intimate as the inside of your eyelids. I think that’s why we drop our defences before them. We have known images like these since we were too young to know anything else. Such was the first thing we ever saw, and such well might be the last. No wonder these paintings release such powerful and unpredictable emotions.
In fact, I think his exploitation of the artefacts of visual perception make him more an abstract impressionist than expressionist. Or psychedelic without the primary-school colours that hippy ideology demands.
None of that makes them Celine Dion in paint.
This reminds me of The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond of the KLF: a confusingly plausible method for constructing and selling the perfect pop single:
Every Number One song ever written is only made up from bits from other songs. There is no lost chord. No changes untried. No extra notes to the scale or hidden beats in the bar. There is no point searching for originality.
So why don’t all songs sound the same? Why are some artists great, write dozens of classics that move you to tears, say it like it’s never been said before, make you laugh, dance, blow your mind, fall in love, take to the streets and riot? Well, it’s because although the chords, notes, harmonies, beats and words have all been used before, their own soul shines through; their personality demands attention.
So even if the paintings are just machines for inducing a certain emotional or meditative condition in a viewer, I don’t think that makes them bad or insubstantial or unimportant art. There’s more to art than an aid to meditation or emotional release, sure, but too much contemporary art – for instance, the pointless exercise currently on show in the Turbine Hall – is directed at the conscious intellect alone. I’ve always been attracted by the idea of making art that has the immediacy, cleverness and emotional hit of a good pop song.
When I was at primary school a teacher told my class that there was no such thing as black paint or ink or dye: anything that was called black would, if you looked hard at it, turn out to be dark brown or blue or some other colour. Because black is not a colour, it is the absence of light, so it’s not something you can make. You can’t make an absence. If you say you can, you’re just playing with words or not expressing yourself properly.
When I used to do photographic colour printing – which you had to do in a totally dark darkroom, with no safelights, just a little glowing green light floating in space to tell you where the “expose” button on the enlarger timer was, and your memory of where you put the box of printing paper and the scissors and where the door handle was – I liked standing there with useless eyes. It wasn’t black, of course. I could watch the coloured dots and squiggles writhing about like tadpoles. When I read about photons popping in and out of existence in a vacuum, seething, as quantum physics says they do, I think about those coloured dots. None of the darkrooms was completely light-tight, though, so after a minute you’d begin to see cold white wedges where daylight was leaking in. A minute more and you’d see a bit of the wall lit up by the light. It would seem incredibly bright, but I knew that if the roof was suddenly taken off I’d be blinded. Then I’d think about how you can see a single candle flame at a distance of several miles on a very dark night, or so I had read. About how your eye can register a single photon of light.
I’d think about black velvet, the blackest thing anyone seemed able to think of. Or soot, the mattest thing I had ever seen. Or the black powder I used to make paint with.
Disappointingly, I had also found out that matt black isn’t as black as glossy black. But glossy black always exists alongside specular reflections, pretty much the brightest things you can look out without hurting your eyes.
A film editor once told me that to represent blackness in film, the frame had to have some light in it. She said there was a certain maximum ratio of dark to light. It was obvious, when I thought about it. You’re looking at a cinema screen, a highly reflective surface in a room with at least a couple of emergency exit lights on. If you film a coal cellar at night, you’ll get a negative as clear as it can be. If you make a print from it, you’ll get a print as opaque as it can be, which is not totally opaque. Run that print through a projector in a cinema and you’ll be allowing the minimum amount of light possible onto the screen – the projector light shining through nothing but film black plus the exit lights. But that’s still some light. Enough to see that the screen is a light-coloured rectangle, much brighter than than the curtains and walls around it. The same thing happens with video monitors. Turn them off and you see how unblack they are.
To represent blackness, you have to prevent the viewer’s brain from dwelling on the true lightness of the screen. You need to distract it with some kind of image, force it to accommodate a tonal range wide enough for it to see the darkest tone as black, give over enough of the screen to the lighter tones so that the brain doesn’t disregard them as simply a bright light, so that it looks for detail in them and adjusts its awareness of brightness levels accordingly.
Once I’d started to think about the problem of blackness in film, I began to notice how David Lynch’s films go much further than most in representing pure, unrelieved blackness. At moments of transition, we are led into a glimpse of total blackness, a vertiginous velvety blackness: when Fred Madison goes down an unnaturally dark corridor in his apartment in Lost Highway, or, in Mulholland Drive, when Betty turns the corner in her aunt’s apartment, and just before the dead Diane is found in her house, and as we fall into the inexplicable blue Alice-in-Wonderland box, and when the movie director Adam orders “Kill the lights” before kissing the notably and glossily brunette Camilla on set, or behind the diner after Diane has put the contract on her. Flirting with darkness.
A poem, or incantation, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks suggests that darkness allows a passage across otherwise unbridgeable gulfs:
Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me
The mystical. Which brings us to Mark Rothko. “Black-form painting” No.1, I think. A more glazed black next to a less glazed black. Which is the real black? Is either? Between them, as if by accident, a strip of a lower layer of still blacker, matter black is visible. To see that as anything other than real black, you would have to try quite hard not to look at the other, lesser blacks. The same trick that the cinematographer and print grader uses; while looking from one black to another, our gaze has to trip over that crack into what we cannot see as other than real black.