Serpentine Gallery, London
25 November 2006-28 January 2007
A range of symbols spring to mind when thinking about death: the hooded figure wielding a sickle, the faceless boatman ferrying the souls of the dead across the River Styx, the watery existence ascribed to the souls in Hades' underworld and Purgatory - the quintessential departure lounge where Christian souls gather waiting to pass into eternal bliss.
However, death needn't be imagined as the process by which the self is stripped of its fleshy envelope, thereafter existing as an ethereal being. It need not be thought of as exclusively the property of humanity. A change or movement from one state to another, or the destruction of an object in order that its raw material be used for another, quite different object, can also be viewed as a death.
In its many guises, death can be seen as the central feature running through Damien Hirst's murderme collection, which has been recently showing at the Serpentine Gallery. In this show there are works in which the imagery reflects the mythical aspects of death; in others, it reflects the brutal aspect of death, as in the case of Andy Warhol's silkscreen canvases depicting an electric chair and a car crash. The inhumanness of humanity is portrayed by the delicately rendered 'Mechanic' (2006), a work by Tim Lewis, whose images of naked figures, flickering in motion, are seen to be running, one after another, on a treadmill. Some works are downright beautiful, such as Sarah Lucas's piece 'New Religion (blue)' (1999), which consists of lines of blue neon light in the shape of a coffin. Even Jeff Koons's work, 'New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polisher' (1980) and 'New Hoover Celebrity IV and Quik Broom' (1980), which are vacuum cleaners attached to light boxes, seem to suggest - by their very inactivity - an absence of life.
It would be wrong to think of this exhibition as being saturnine or serious; it is not. A good many works reveal a humour, however subtle, and it is this that gives the whole show its playfulness. In Nicholas Lumb's piece, 'Skipper' (2006), a pair of battered trainers lying ownerless on the floor is made to appear, by an invisible mechanism, as though they're snouting the ground like hogs.
For me, one of the most evocative pieces is Michael Joo's 'God II' (2003). This is a sculpture of a man, perhaps an Arctic explorer, reclining on his back on a bed of ice. He is frozen. It's this aspect that seems reminiscent of those reports you sometimes read, in which a body is described as being yielded up immaculately preserved by a glacier some 40 or 50 years after that person's disappearance. In the words of WG Sebald, 'And so they are ever returning to us, the dead'.
The exhibition is, indeed, intriguing, not only in terms of the work shown, but also because it reveals much about the collector himself. Hirst's preoccupation with death through the processes of petrifaction, decay, physical transformation and preservation is self-evident to anyone familiar with his work. These interests form the theme throughout this collection. However, there are other qualities that arise: that in death there are aspects of sublimation, delicateness and humour intermingled. It is these aspects, once the cacophony of grotesqueness, the misery of loss and the stench of decay have dissipated, that continue to resonate.
Damien Hirst, with the help of English Heritage, is restoring the Grade I listed building, Toddington Manor, Cheltenham, with the view to housing his own work, along with the murderme collection.
Kerry James Marshall: Along the Way
Finishing its last call on 22 October 2006 was the exhibition entitled 'Along the Way', covering the work of the American artist Kerry James Marshall from Chicago. This excellent show had already been at the Camden Arts Centre in London, followed by the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, then to The New Art Gallery Walsall.
Home and Garden: Paintings and Drawings of English Middle Class Urban Domestic Space 1914 to the present
On 20 February 2007, a remarkable exhibition opened at the Geffrye Museum in East London, accompanied by an excellently researched and produced catalogue. This venture is as rigorously defined by the curators as its title implies, but to the proverbial 'visitor from Mars' it provides a superbly informative and revealing investigation, anthropological in its scope and yet rich in contemporary art.
Uncertainties from America
The Serpentine Gallery has stolen a march on the Saatchi show with their blockbuster there, a massive undertaking with 200 works by 50 artists. The curators were Hans Ulrich Obrist and two others. Matt McCormick's 'The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal' has removals men carrying out a pastiche of Newman and then Rothko, whitewashing all the way.
Douglas Gordon: Superhumanatural
The film and video artist Douglas Gordon had his first one-man exhibition in Britain at the Lisson Gallery in 1994, sponsored by its perceptive director Nicholas Logsdail, to which he returned again in 2001. The following year, he was to exhibit 'Entre'Act 3' at the Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven. 'Fuzzy Logic' followed at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and from about this time his work really took off internationally.
WGS and Waterlog
The German author WG Sebald, who made Norfolk, England his adopted homeland, is this year celebrated there by a group of seven British artists, mostly Norfolk-based: Tacita Dean, Marcus Coates, Alec Finlay, Alexander and Susan Maris, Guy Moreton and Simon Pipe.