Altermodern, Tate Triennial 2009

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Like so much that is now churned out as art, this is the stuff of temporary exhibitions, not permanent display, demanding attention yet offering nothing but a transitory frisson in return, forcing a glace over the shoulder for a moment, but, in spite of technical complexity, so shallow in content, so arid in spirit, so unrewarding in any aesthetic sense (indeed so contrary) that it cannot hold a visitor.

This quote refers to The New Contemporaries (1994). But Brian Sewelle might well be describing Tates fourth triennial, Altermodern, with a notable difference: The former exhibition offers little technical complexity with the exceptions of Nathaniel Mellors animatronic sculpture and Loris Greauds vibration installation, which presents electrical frequencies of the artists brainwaves. These aside, both New Contemporaries (1994) and Altermodern both suffer from an intellectual and aesthetic impoverishment that Sewell believes makes so much contemporary art so forgettable.

Thats not quite fair. Its not the art in Altermodern thats forgettable so much as the curatorial premise. According to the Tates exhibition information, the fourth Triennial proposes a new term altermodern which curator Nicolas Bourriaud champions as an in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalization, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and mediums. Ignoring, for a moment, that artists have wandered like this for a while now (recall Dick Higginss notion of intermedia back in the 1960s as an obvious example), the exhibition does involve a kind of searchingthough its the viewer who finds herself looking for something unexpected as she moves from work to work.

By his own utterance (disseminated through a YouTube video), Bourriaud says he writes a book when he has answers and he curates an exhibition when he has psychicsIn the case of Atermodern, he is interested in what comes after post-modernity. Its Bourriauds conviction that were through this phase and into a new global era that will involve not so much discovery as rediscovery. In the short video featured on the Altermodern page of Tates website, Bourriaud advances altermodernism as the answer to globalization. The new concept operates like an archipelago (cluster, constellation) of different responses to globalization rather than a continental totalizing form.

With this in mind, it is curious the exhibition does so little to problematize its modernist emphasis on normative notions of geopolitics and contemporaneity. Altermodern brings together new British artist albeit with a twist: Not all them are new (witness Gustav Metzger) and their relationships with Britain are various to put it politely. Does this matter? Not really, beyond being contradictory as an exhibition. On the one hand, it celebrates current trends in British art; on the other, it purports to question the new as a category of experience.

Despite such conceptual conundrums, however, Altermodern is experientially successful. Its fun and, dare I say, entertaining. Prosaic but important issues such as exhibition size, the ratio of time-based artworks to objects and still images and the relationship among pieces are well considered. Granted, there are moments when the aesthetics of the carnivalesque feel overwhelming, especially in the entrance/exit to the exhibition along Tate Britains main axis. Here Im thinking of Spartacus Chetwynds video work and brightly coloured amorphous viewing cushion, David Noonans collages of found images on jute and Mathew Darbyshires re-dressing of the entrance with colorful architectural forms. As these works interrelate, they suggest both a physical and psychic space somewhere between a circus and a stage, a theatrical combination that no doubt has old Michael Fried rolling in his grave.

Theatrical in very different vein are the video installations in purpose build spaces. Of particular note is Lindsay Seerss Extramission 6 (Black Mariah) located in a structure recalling Thomas Edisons film production studio built in 1893. Granted, Im a sucker for artworks that telescope between scales. And I enjoyed the play between the images of the studio in Seers film viewed while actually being in the space represented. The girls identification with cameras to the point of being one is a nice, low-fi cyborg reference exemplifying the kind of thoughtful restraint that made this work solid.

My absolute favorite artwork of all, however, is Nathaneil Mellorss Giantbum. Like Seers work, it is also located in a self-referential space, with this one referencing the intestines of the giant in which the plays characters find themselves trapped. Lined with a material reminiscent of soundproofing pad, this space comprises a mini labarythin in the middle of which is a hilarious automated sculpture of Mellors himself. At least his head. Sigh. So good.

In sum, Altermodern wasnt that badnot nearly as disappointing as some of the Chelsea MA had encouraged me to believe. If it wasnt good, there were parts that were downright interesting. Richard Dorment aptly expressed my own sense of Altermodern when, in a review for the Telegraph on April 26, 2009 comparing this exhibition to the opening of the Saachi show, Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East:

Even as I left the show at the Saatchi Gallery, I knew I wouldnt feel the need to go back. My experience of the Triennial wasnt nearly as satisfying, but Ill return again and again. Hows that for a back-handed compliment?

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Some Reviews:

Richard Dorment in the Telegraph, February 2, 2009

James Huyton published in a-n

Sally O'Reilly on Nathaniel Mellors in Frieze Magazine

Lindsay Seers at Matt's Gallery