Pity the poor defenders of Minimalism. For decades they seem to have done nothing but chase ghosts. No sooner is the ghost of Formalism locked up in the attic than the ghost of Minimalism-as-a-style-of-interior-decoration pops in the front door, ready to wallpaper the house. And just when 1990s academic criticism had settled for a fairly comfortable consensus on what is now called the 'internal contradictions' of Minimalism - a view of Minimalism as a place where modernist Formalism was both worked through and displaced by the contingencies and contextual sensitivities that have informed much later practice - a new exhibition threatens to drag it once more into the gaudily mirrored pits of style and fashion.
'My Head is on Fire but My Heart is Full of Love', curated by Toby Webster, Will Bradley and Henriette Bretton-Meyer, is not, however, about super-clean surfaces or ample wardrobe space. Refreshingly, Minimalist sculpture isn't presented as a paradigm the side effects of which are disseminated throughout contemporary culture; instead it is quoted as part of a larger constellation of cultural objects and obsessions that revolve around the erotics of an endlessly refracted reality.
Call it Neo-Baroque, call it psychedelia, call it the flip-side of modernity, what matters here is the simple fact that certain insights into the complexities of modern experience that are too often associated only with the coupling of high art and high theory can, in fact, be traced in many divergent cultural forms and practices at once - practices that the politics of representation have often pitted against each other.
Minimalism's obsession with mirrors - their uncanny ability to mislead the gaze, their status as emblems for the lack of reality that is now seen to reside at the core of our experience of the real itself - is of course crucial to the type of cultural remixing that took place here, typified by the moment where an onlooker expecting to get lost inside Robert Smithson's Enantiomorphic Chambers (1965) stumbles on a young David Bowie having a mirror date with his own wonderfully alien self, photographed by Mick Rock. Or in Jean Vendome's luxurious distorted jewellery dissolving in Urs Fischer's ruin-like mirror constructions. Or the solid vacuity of Jim Morrison's face, inspected in all its iconic detail, taking on the kind of mute matter-of-fact-ness that informs certain kinds of Functionalist architecture, as in Tom Burr's Brutalist Bulletin Board (2001).
One of the achievements of this exhibition is to demonstrate that a displacement of Formalist-type concerns also took place in fields outside that of Modernist art in the narrow sense. At that moment where the spaced-out shimmer of David Bowie meets the moodiness of the Doors or Iggy Pop, Rock not only became conscious of its own role as yet another type of densely packed Modernist nothingness. It was then also able, at the flip of a coin, to turn into (for instance) the operatic gymnastics of Queen, because at this point there was nothing any longer that could keep Rock 'n' Roll together as a coherent and meaningful form - no matter how many guitar mantras were churned out by ever more purist Indie outfits in the decades that followed.
At this point the notion of style gets divorced from its habitual role as either a marker of the identity of artistic form, or the indicator of some 'lifestyle' or other. One image in the exhibition perhaps captures this more succinctly than any other: a 1973 Mick Rock photograph of Ziggy and Ronno having lunch on the train to Aberdeen. Dressed to the nines even in the bright daylight of the train compartment, the two musicians seem lost in design - so perfectly encapsulated in a visual field of their own making, it makes their very ordinary plates of peas and potatoes seem like surprising, outlandish accessories. Yet this exhibition not only invites a reinterpretation of the notion of style and its workings across various cultural registers. By taking a small step outside the habitual discourse of the various objects in the exhibition, it also manages to give a strange sense of the relative slowness and repetitiousness of Western culture, a culture in which a myth of permanent change and instability is told over and over again, in so many different forms, for so many different publics, and over so many years. It is the image of this myth that is projected in this exhibition - the myth of a culture still impressed with its own modernity, yet acting cool.
First published in Issue 69