August 10, 2010

Duffy at the Tate

When I first heard that Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy had curated an exhibition called The Sculpture of Language at Tate Liverpool my reaction was an equivalence of anger at the implications of this hegemonic banality and resignation that it was only to be expected.

For a while I intended to traipse over to Liverpool specially, so I could do write an informed critique. Noticeably there appear to have been no reviews of the show. Google just throws up the usual lazy journalism of reprinting the Gallery press release. A quick look at said-publicity, the list of works included, and the execrable sonnet Duffy wrote to accompany her selection made me begrudge the obvious waste of time and effort to actually go and see it but also realise that the information available is more than enough to know what’s wrong with it. Coincidentally I have been reading Tom Raworth’s latest “Windmills in Flames” which includes the appropriate response to Duffy ‘Coda to a Laureate’ – (first line: “If I could take my tongue out of your arse”).

According to the PR the show “Presenting artworks created in a range of media from 1699 to the present day, Duffy's personal selection creates a multi-layered and poetic display. It invites us on a journey towards a universal notion of language, from ‘before words’ to ‘when words come into being’. She explores the numerous ways in which artists have deployed, dissected and engaged with language; by making reference to literature, by exploring the processes and devices of inscription and the formal qualities of typography, by using words to convey meaning or by creating works that are synonyms and metaphors for communication itself.” I always wonder what marketing people and visual arts people (for that matter) mean when they refer to a ‘poetic display’. You frequently read artists and curators refer to images as poetic but I am never sure what that actually means; one can usually infer that it references some form of vague lyricism, which is about all you could expect from Duffy. In her case maybe vaguely lyricist visualism is preferable to

I couldn’t see Guinness
and not envisage a nun;
a gun, a finger and thumb;
midges, blether, scribble, scrum.

Followed by 2 more stanzas of equal banality.

The claim that this has been realized as an installation, which allows visitors to re-write it to create ‘their own sonnet’ is I guess laughable. My bet is that this is nothing more than the usual UK gallery practice of ‘hands-on’ write on cards and pin on a board to ‘have your say’.

The irritation about this show is in the oft-repeated fiasco of the visual arts co-opting poetry and in their choice demonstrating that they have absolutely no idea of what is going on in contemporary poetry. In curating the Text Festival I have reviewed the Tate Collection myself to borrow from so I know what Duffy had to work with. Seeing what she chose I am drawn to a comment from Marjorie Perloff’s ‘Differentials; Poetry, Poetics, pedagogy’ which I am also reading at the moment: “the what might happen subordinated to the what has happened”- this actually describes the problem in the hegemony of the banal, Duffy and her oppos write as if modernism didn’t happen; their past is not modern (her selection at the Tate is at best artistically static); their present is not contemporary and their future can only be the past.

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