November 26, 2010

Every Day is a Good Day

There's been a buzz about the major retrospective John Cage, currently on display at Huddersfield Art Gallery - originated by the Hayward Gallery and the BALTIC, an excitement I also shared today when I got to see it. I say 'shared' because despite all its marvels, I found a flaw which has nagged away at me since I left.

You enter the exhibition to a film of Cage being interviewed and photos of him doing various things, and even if you don't hang around to watch the video the drift of the Zen contentment of his conversation seems to gently locate your consciousness as you pass into the exhibition proper. The individual works are mostly beautifully deep and subtle images, for obvious reasons, reminiscent of Japanese Zen painting, punctuated by the equally striking diagrammatic compositions. Seeing such a body of work is fascinating, wash-away calming and affirming. It's just great stuff.

Then there is the hang: inspired by Cage's use of chance-determined scores, according to the catalogue "the exhibition differs markedly from a traditional touring exhibition. The procedure that Cage often employed, using an I Ching-like computer programme, is used to determine the layout of the exhibition at the gallery, with the programme determining the position of each work through chance operations. This results in works being displayed at many different heights, and in groups that no curator would ordinarily choose; such chance encounters between quite different works gives a sense of them being part of an ongoing creative process, rather than merely being the result of one creative moment." And on first experiencing the spatisalisation of works as no curator would not ordinarily choose, it is very striking. Knowing that the works are juxtaposed by chance adds a new layer. But as I walked through the galleries a second time (as I was waiting to meet Phil Minton who was performing at the Gallery), something about it began to bother me. It's no more than a deep feeling but how to explain that there is something fundamental and subliminal not right? I began to wonder about the "I Ching-like" computer programme. I realise that I am not convinced by the computer programme - not that it isnt random or that someone cheated, but that its randomness is not Cagean. I know that Cage did use a I Ching computer programme to generate chance operations which he created with Ed Korbin but he also used the I Ching itself - as I have frequently in the past. And it is this familiarity with I Ching that makes me uneasy. I didn't investigate the mathematics of the hang but I can only call its effect 'mechanical', and for me it seemed to clash with the ethereal Cagean gestures in drawing and paint. I am left thinking that an installation using an actual I Ching ritual would have delivered a more organic chance driven curation.

Just on the comment "in groupings that no curator would ordinarily choose", I am also reminded of the Schalauger (Basel 2009) hang which delivered a similar aesthetic (other areas not pictured here had the Cagean sparseness).

So I found Cage's works beautiful but I was less convinced by the artifice of the mock-Cage installation concept - not because it was over-egged or contrived but because I could feel that it was machine generated rather than spiritually random.

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