June 27, 2009

Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.

It was interesting hearing people mention “Poor.Old.Tired. Horse.” at the ICA, London, before I actually went. http://www.ica.org.uk/Poor%20Old%20Tired%20Horse+19863.twl There was a frisson suggesting something important might be happening. For the capital, maybe, the Text Festival is peripheral, something, somewhere up north but this is an exhibition in a London institution. An altogether different status again and a status that could contribute to artistic/poetic progress: Poor.Old.Tired. Horse. is not that show.

There are three major problems with it (“No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” so maybe more than three problems will emerge as I think about it): a form of curatorial attention deficit disorder; a fragmentary curatorial logic; and curatorial dilettantism in relating the included work to the stated aim challenging that “stupidity [which] reduces language to words” (quote from Ian Hamilton Finlay).

I didn’t realise until after I had visited and started reading the catalogue how big the curatorial problem is. Part of this was due to my bad legs and it being literally a dozen years or more since I was last at the ICA and so I had forgotten how the exhibition spaces work; so I decided to start at the upper galleries and work my way down. This meant I didn’t perceive the failure in curatorial logic until I had got to the end – ie the beginning. Herein is the first sign of the curatorial confusion: the show has a narrative logic but doesn’t allow for the possibility of the visitor approaching the narrative counter-intuitively. To locate the intended flow then: Room one concentrates on Ian Hamilton Finley; Room two features a handful of the well-known Concrete Poets (Chopin, DSH, Kriwet) plus ‘other artists who …created interesting parallels to that of the concrete poets’ (Acconci, Andre, etc); Room three is an exploration of “artistic practices from the 60s and 70s, and the ways in which they were allied with poetry”; The last room, room 4 (or the first room for me) concludes the missed/promised survey with six ‘younger artists’. “Several are represented by text-based pieces, and others use combinations of text and image…”.

The bizarre curatorial ‘hole’ is in Room 3: which makes no sense at all in relation to the concept of the show. The Philippe Guston work stands up and is one of the highlights of the show for me, but what are the David Hockney drawings doing there? The pretext that they are responses to CP Cavafy poems is gossamer thin. They are great drawings but how do illustrations of poems ‘challenge stupidity that reduces language to words’? In same vein, Alasdair Gray illustrates a text, but the work doesn’t even have the justification of quality, the illustrations are execrably talentless, embarrassing Eric Gill simulations. And Robert Smithson’s ‘Encyclo’ is a terrible doodle, basically. This room is the evidence of curatorial attention deficit. Although there are problems with the survey in the first two rooms, this room seems to have nothing to do with the exhibition’s concept; either it represents the paper-thin knowledge of the field in the curators or some desperate shortage of work for which it became expedient to fill a space. And so ignoring the room 3 abrogation, the core of the show is room one and two. I found it surprising that Ian Hamilton Finley’s work could be shown in such a way as to diminish its impact. The installation manages to neuter Finley. In room two there are some great pieces (though it is actually dominated by the terrible spinning Sky Never Stops by Lilian Lijn); but in combination with the preceding Finley room, it only magnifies the question of why Bob Cobbing is not represented. If this exhibition were treated as representing concrete poetry, it would be as big a travesty as the one we have to put up with from the mainstream Hegemony of the Banal.

So the final room is the six younger artists. The first criticism is that six is too many for such a small space. Second, the temporal leap from 60’s concrete and conceptual artists to 2009 suggests that the textual practice of that era is a discontinuous tradition that is only now being rediscovered. Which is rubbish. Of the 6, Anna Barham , Matthew Brannon, Karl Holmqvist, Janice Kerbel, Frances Stark and Sue Tompkins, I found no-one particularly interesting. In the context of the rest of the show, I had the impression these were young artists who have some text in the work, and the curators have such a limited grasp of what is currently going on that the inclusions are there by curatorial accident. When you look at the jumble of the catalogue the evidence seems to support this. The first half details the show and the second half is a ‘collage or texts and illustrations…”. Not in itself a source of issue, except when you go from Haroldo De Campos and Eugen Gomringer (neither in the show) to an essay about William Carlos Williams followed by Matthew Brannon’s “Words on a Page” (which is in the show), you have to think that the whole event is either aleatory or ignorant.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with your critic here. I visited yesterday the show and was completely dissapointed.

Everyone seems to find "exciting and thought-provoking"... Oddly enough.


Anonymous said...

you might also like Mute's review of the show - agrees with your points about the curation http://www.metamute.org/en/content/upstairs_downstairs_from_intensity_to_entitlement