Tate Triennial

Nobody seems to have liked the Tate Triennial 2006. The British press predictably gave it a drubbing, following the lead of The Guardian’s Adrian Searle, who, in a particularly vituperative attack on the use of institutional jargon in the show’s catalogue, suggested that Swiss curator Beatrix Ruf ‘stuff her hegemonic codes’. Word on the street was that it was arch and fashion-driven. There were conspiratorial mutterings about bias towards certain galleries. (Cabinet Gallery and Herald St represented almost a third of the 36 artists – make of that what you will.) Some liked the idea of a curator from outside the UK having a fresh perspective. Some were disappointed by the result.

The rubric of this survey of current British art was that these artists could all be corralled together under the umbrella of ‘appropriation’ – signalling, in Ruf’s words, a reinvigoration of the ‘recasting of cultural materials’. Yet the degree to which it was evident was so wildly variable as to render the term platitudinous. Here was a typical case of remit versus reality. How do you satisfy both the informed general public and specialized art audiences and keep the integrity of your pedagogical duty intact without bludgeoning the art’s nuances?

I actually like the work of a good deal of the artists included in the Triennial. It’s a partisan selection compared with the more even-handed British Art Show 6 survey currently touring the country, but that’s not such a bad thing. I think Marc Camille Chaimowicz’ influence is hugely important and the acknowledgement of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who recently passed away, is salutary. I also like Rebecca Warren’s rambunctious take on statuary and macho sculpture; so too Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s observations of Pop cultural flotsam, Lucy McKenzie’s excruciatingly self-conscious reuse of visual styles, the elegant layering of ideas found in Michael Fullerton, Ryan Gander and Cerith Wyn Evans’ work, and Mark Leckey’s film meditations on art, aspiration and desire. Yet the show was like a conversation with one of those name-dropping types who insist on referring to well-known people by their first name. A shortfall occurred between an assumed familiarity with certain prevalent trends in art-making and the paucity of work on display: a hint of neo-Modernism here, a nod to socially engaged practice there, plus a sliver of Pop culture, all tied together with dandyish poise and lightly worn intellectualism. In some cases a single work served to represent an artist’s work: Peter Doig’s Gasthof (2004) or Alan Michael’s Untitled (2005), for example. In other instances this parsimonious approach was unhelpful. Much as I find it dreary identifying where art history books stop and Jonathan Monk’s self-aggrandizingly referential games begin, the inclusion of his Twelve Angry Women (2005) – 12 vintage photographic portraits of women with coloured pins affixed to their ears – did little to illuminate his ideas.
Performance comprised a sizeable part of the exhibition, including Linder’s The Working Class Goes to Paradise (2000–6) and Gerard Byrne’s An Exercise for Two Actors and One Listener (2006). (That no newspaper critics bothered to register their inclusion speaks volumes about performance's status as a form.) These events were staged within a multi-purpose area specially designed by Pablo Bronstein and architect Celine Condorelli, distinct from the main show since, as Catherine Wood points out in the catalogue, they are closer to the concerns of theatre than work ‘associated with the body-centred legacy of performance art’. Yet this contributed to a nagging feeling that the show was oddly empty of physical objects.

A number of pieces pursued a more direct critical engagement with institutionalism. Simon Martin’s film Wednesday Afternoon (2005), in which an unseen narrator describes the difficulty of relating to objects on display in a museum, is forceful in its observational acuity. Enrico David’s use of the Tate’s shop as a display mechanism for a number of his sculptures and prints hinted towards crucially unaddressed questions about the pressures of marketing on exhibition-making (Untitled (Triennial Outlet), 2006). Luke Fowler’s Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (2006) evokes the 1970s’ British Left's attempts to instrumentalize culture for political ends. The Otolith Group’s video Otolith (2003) uses the premise of a message from the distant future to look at the Cold War space race through the prism of personalized post-colonial and feminist critiques of US foreign policy.

Contrasted with Christopher Orr’s prissy figurative paintings – nostalgic 1950s’ imagery retro-fitted with the dubious subtext that they are works of appropriation (market-driven conservatism, more likely) – or Djordje Ozbolt’s cheerfully bawdy but glib Postmodernism-by-numbers canvases, these kinds of work were multifaceted and critical enough to ride the insoluble problems of this kind of survey. Much art in the UK today feels as though it is conflicted by both its own aesthetic travails and its relationship to the systems that support it. (Just look at the miscegenation of hype and flimflam that forms much of this year’s ‘Beck’s Futures’ at the ICA.) Despite itself, the Tate Triennial’s internal contradictions are quite possibly its strength.

Dan Fox is co-editor of frieze and is based in New York. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK, and Coffee House Press in the US.

Issue 99

First published in Issue 99

May 2006

Most Read

From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
In the Rocky Mountains resort town, boutique facades hide the remnants of a surprising counterculture 
Pussy Riot members detained; Pope.L launches ‘Flint Water Project’; Ghetto Biennale participating artists announced
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017