Vignettes of Brit art

Different Strokes

Vignettes of Brit art

In 2002, Turner-prize winner Anish Kapoor’s awe-inspiring work ‘Marsyas’ was unravelled at Tate Modern, London. The 150-meter-long, 10-storey high ‘part sculpture, part installation’ comprising three steel rings joined together by a single span of PVC membrane had taken eight months to build and install.

The work was named after Marsyas, a satyr in Greek mythology, who had challenged Apollo to a musical contest and consequently faced punishment of being flayed alive. For art specialist Katherine Rose, Kapoor’s work was a prime instance of how contemporary artists in Britain were pushing the boundaries of scale and material, ideas and imaginations. 

Presenting the ‘story of British contemporary art over the last twenty years’ at British Library, Bangalore recently, Rose highlighted the explosion of artistic output in Britain while offering a bird’s eye view of some of the most interesting artists and art practices in the country that had caught worldwide attention.

She cited the instance of Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ (1991) which involved an extraordinary process. The artist first filled a garden-shed with personal objects and got the British Army to blow up the entire shed. The blown up fragments were then collected, strung up and suspended in a closed room; with a solitary electric bulb lighting it up from inside, the hanging artwork along with its deep shadows eerily recreated the moment of explosion.

Rose also alluded to Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian conceptual artist, who worked on the themes of race, class and history; his series of photographs titled ‘Diary of a Victorian Dandy’, while recreating 19th century lifestyle including the interiors and costumes, had successfully challenged stereotypes of British history.

Six themes

Rose, who is a museologist, educator, as also a director of Flow Associates (UK), extended her discourse by following six themes relating to the British contemporary art scene.

The first one related to ‘Young British Artists’, a group of visual artists which created a ‘new’ kind of art using unconventional material and exhibited them in unusual locales like warehouses, old dockyards and factories. YBA exhibitions curated and promoted by the artists themselves dominated British art scene during the 1990s. The group was supported and collected by advertising executive Charles Saatchi.

Theme two: ‘Conceptualism and the shock of the new’. Explaining ‘conceptual art’ as a way of making art where the idea was as important as the material form, Rose quoted the instance of Damien Hirst’s work, ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, which displayed a 14-foot tiger shark immersed in formaldehyde in a glass vitrine. Commissioned in 1991 by Saatchi, it shocked many viewers and went on to become an iconic work of British art in the 1990s.

Theme three: ‘The rise and rise of art market’. The market for visual arts expanded significantly in Britain, and unique art works became highly valuable with many new collectors coming in as active investors. Saatchi and his gallery established London as a major centre for emerging contemporary art, and became a key factor in the rise of young British artists. Hirst’s sculptural extravaganza — ‘For the Love of God, 2007’, a skull cast in platinum and encrusted with 8,601 diamonds — was sold for 100 million dollars, thus becoming the most expensive piece of modern art anywhere in the world.

Dealing with the theme of ‘New Media, Technology and Art’, Rose pointed out how computers and internet, for instance, had made a tremendous impact on not only production of a different kind of art, but also in circulation and sale of art.

Interestingly, Rose’s fifth theme was ‘A return to painting’. Painting had come back, pushing limits of representation and showing a radical and innovative approach as never before. Paintings became, by turns, subtle and beautiful, haunting and dramatic; there were many instances of artists working on this medium in other than just interesting and predictable ways.

Theme six: ‘Art Institutions, public funding, and people enjoying art’. During the last two decades, art institutions were able to receive increased government funding, resulting in enhanced engagement with people and development of a host of public programmes.

New institutions were created — like the Tate Modern — by transforming industrial wastelands into art venues. New and ‘brave’ art galleries also started springing up, often creating free, open spaces which provided novel opportunities for people to enjoy, participate and appreciate art. However, according to Rose, increased government funding for arts might not continue in future.

Several dimensions

Rose’s presentation made distinctions between 2D, 3D and 4D art in Britain and provided many fine examples of artists indulging their creative faculties in each one of them. Besides referring to some incredible works of Turner-prize winning artists Chris Ofili, Grayson Perry, and Rachel Whiteread, she also recalled, among others, Banksy, the ‘notorious and illegal’ street artist whose sharp satirical works were painted anonymously in public places; Anthony Gormley, whose ‘Another Place’ consisted of a series of a hundred cast-iron, life-size figures installed along the Crosby beach; Tracey Emin, whose controversial work titled ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’ showed a tent appliquéd with names; Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s unique artistic practice which was based on collaboration, dialogue and pure language interventions; and Graham Harwood and Mongrel Collectives whose ‘Uncomfortable Proximity’ was actually an online website.

In 2001, Samantha Taylor-Wood (b.1967) produced a haunting video, ‘Still Life’, (3 minutes 44 seconds) which became a classic example in its genre. The video documented how fruits arranged in a beautiful bowl decomposed over a period of time, thus alluding to the theme of time, transience, and death.

Michael Landy (b.1963) too ‘created’ his performance piece/ installation ‘Break Down’ in 2001 when he decided to get rid of ‘all’ his personal belongings from postage stamps, clothes, furniture, artworks, to motor car. All these objects were fed to a crusher in full public view and the process of destruction resembled an assembly line in a mass production factory. The response was tremendous with ‘Break Down’ attracting more than 40,000 visitors.

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