I have to confess to a fear that strikes me whenever I go into a gallery of contemporary art and see the entrance to a video installation. Does anyone else get this? I get this sinking realization that if I walk down that darkening corridor towards the sound of that whirring projector or muffled dialogue, I’m going to have to be there for at least 20 seconds. I’ll have to crunch myself up against the wall. That might hurt. And what if I don’t like it? When is it ok to slowly walk back out of the room, as though lost in contemplation of the muzzily out-of-focus shots of deserted parking lots with subtitled dialogue? Is five seconds enough? I might smile knowingly to myself as though I have reached a level of understanding beyond most of the other visitors, while secretly thinking to myself that I’d far rather be watching the last 20 minutes of Liar Liar. Again.
I had this feeling a couple of times while visiting the new triennial of contemporary art at Tate Britain. The triennial has, over the years, showcased contemporary British art, but, perhaps in order to better illustrate the guiding thesis of its curator, Nicholas Bourriaud, this iteration takes in a range of artists working all over the world but within a fairly established artistic strategy, i.e. one well-versed in the writings of N. Bourriaud. The triennial’s title, Altermodern, needs a bit of explaining. Unfortunately, and despite the good intentions both of Bourriaud and the Tate publicity and interpretation department (the Tate really does have a department called “Interpretation and Education”; I think Stalin had one of those, too), explaining this intentionally open-ended term has proved something of a headache. The Tate website has a video interview with Bourriaud and a (slightly tongue-in-cheek, I hope) manifesto that aims to pinpoint the times in which we live with pithy phrases like “our daily lives consist of journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe.” Having taken the Tube to the gallery that day, I totally got that bit.
I think Bourriaud realizes he’s in deep water trying to define art being made now, as anyone would (no one confidently used the term ‘Renaissance’ until the nineteenth century, after all, and even now no one can quite agree when that got going), but for all the obfuscation and slippery language of the manifesto, the exhibition itself makes thoughtful and often compelling links across a range of artistic approaches. Credit is due to Bourriaud for allowing the art to take precedence over the curatorial conceit and not the other way around. Although when the conceit is this vague it’s hard to know what wouldn’t be considered “altermodern.” A hint at the broadness of Bourriaud’s brief is given in the inclusion of veteran art maverick Gustav Metzger, whose past as lighting designer for sixties bands like Cream and The Who is evident in his 2006 piece shown here: five liquid crystal color projections of an exceptionally trippy nature that brought me right back to the last time I watched a documentary on “the swinging Sixties.” Those were the days.
Video projections dominate Bourriaud’s exhibition, although happily the majority of them feel like real extensions of the language of video. Marcus Coates’s The Plover’s Wing, a 30-minute interview between the artist, dressed in an old-school Adidas tracksuit with a dead badger on his head and a dead rabbit poking out of his top (no, wait! Come back!), and an Israeli mayor concerned about the impact of the region’s violence on the young generation, is a strange, deadpan, hilarious and ultimately heartening work that has a warmth about it I don’t remember seeing in previous triennials. Honestly, it’s truly touching to watch the patient seriousness of the mayor and his translator as they observe Coates performing various animal sounds while acting as a mediator between the human and animal worlds. Lindsay Seers’s film Extramission 6 (Black Maria)—projected inside a wooden mock-up of Thomas Edison’s 1893 film production studio Black Maria—is a kind of patchwork documentary of Seers’s childhood. Suffering from memory loss as a young child, Seers retreated into an obsession with film that led her to using her mouth as a camera. It’s all filmed and staged in a way that steers clear of sentimentality while packing a significant emotional punch. Both films—connected, I suppose, by an interest in translation and the slippages it succumbs to—are both witty and unashamedly emotive. It’s also maybe the first time I’ve sat through an entire video installation without itching to leave. That’s that fear conquered.
Altermodern does sometimes slip into neutral. Simon Starling out-banals his own impressive record of drearily quixotic projects with a piece involving camera phones and Francis Bacon furniture that I’d rather not go into (the brevity of life suddenly being particularly apparent); Rachel Harrison, darling of the New Museum’s Unmonumental show, looks lazily hip and studiedly noncommittal with her stack of painted buckets wired up to a tiny video of some people in Florida smashing up a car. There’s a smattering of post-Matthew Barney D&D style mythologizing in the work of Charles Avery and Nathaniel Mellors, whose palatability is directly proportional to your resistance to whimsy and interest in made-up maps. Andrea Zittel’s influence continues to proliferate, as seen in the nudge-nudge utopianism of Olivia Plender, whose handmade costumes and knowingly obscure reference points can be a bit wearisome. And the seemingly omnipresent Subodh Gupta fills one of the central halls with a vast mushroom cloud of reflective kitchen utensils, a hangover from the brash days of the YBAs, like a big silver fart.
There are, though, many more hits than misses, especially Tacita Dean’s suite of photogravures entitled The Russian Ending, a reference to the doctored sad endings of Danish films released in Russia (they reserved the happy endings for the American market). The photos, culled from flea market postcards, show beached whales, collapsed bridges, and open-casket wakes, each etched with Dean’s storyboard-style notes (“zoom in,” “pan out,” and so on). As with Dean’s best work, it’s a contemplative experience that never sacrifices a kind of melancholy beauty to its conceptual rigor, and epitomizes the best bits of Altermodern: uncertain, searching, witty, serious and—this is the really radical bit—generous.