Monday, 12 October 2009

Pop Life at Tate Modern

Having recently visited the exhibition Pop Life: Art in a Material World at Tate Modern in London I felt moved to write a posting about it. It is true that this extends the remit of this blog, which is not officially concerned at all with questions of aesthetics but there are two ways in which this exhibition does touch on an issue that has been of central concern to a number of previous postings. The issue is publicity. The original press release makes clear that art that is involved with publicity in the sense of "marketing" is at the centre of the exhibition. Questions of publicity also arise however in another sense since some rooms of the exhibition are closed to those aged below 18 and one work has been removed entirely from being shown after consultation with the police. The relationship between these divergent senses of publicity and the fact that the exhibition is international both in composition and in terms of where it will be shown (since it will subsequently tour) make the exhibition worthy of comment here on a number of fronts.

The notion of "publicity" in the sense of marketing is heavily accented in the exhibition as the original press release suggested it would be. In the centre of the exhibition there is a recreation of Keith Haring's Pop Shop complete with products. One of the first works on display is a video that shows a giant version of Jeff Koon's Rabbit being pulled along as part of a parade organised by Macy's, there is a hour-long video about an artist who turned herself into a prostitute for a period and a room is devoted to the work of Cosey Fanni Tutti that features her in poses for pornographic magazines. In addition there are two rooms devoted to the work of Andy Warhol that focus on late pieces of his that are explicitly presented by the curators of the show as indicative of a compromised relationship to commerce.

The rooms that are explicitly presented as only suitable for those over 18 are the ones that feature the work of Cosey Fanni Tutti on the one hand and Jeff Koons on the other. Within the Jeff Koons room is Made in Heaven a celebration of his marriage to, and sexual relationship with the Italian porn star La Cicciolina. The centre-piece of this room is a very large sculpture that shows the couple copulating with Jeff on top. Around the room there are photographs of oral sex and anal sex and a wedding cake presented in suggestive style that also sends up the general idea of weddings.

The work that was withdrawn from the exhibition is a photograph by Richard Prince. This work is an example of appropriation art since it is a photograph of an original work by Gary Gross that features Brooke Shields, aged ten years old, nude and made up to look a good deal older than her age. The photograph by Gross was originally commissioned by Shields' mother to advance her career but was later objected to by Shields herself. The appropriation of the original by Prince was re-titled by him Spiritual America in reference to an earlier work by Alfred Stieglitz. The original Stieglitz photograph was itself suggestive in a different way being a close-up of a gelded horse in harness. Prince details his own thoughts on this image here. This work was exhibited initially in an over 18 only room like the works of Koons and Cosy Fanni Tutti that are still exhibited. It should be noted that as well as the continued exhibition of the works in these rooms there is also still on show a sculpture by Takashi Murakami Hiropon which shows a girl with enormous breasts from which are exuding milk with which she is featured skipping. Additionally, in the room devoted to Murakami there is a video which features Kirsten Dunst playing the role of a young girl who is very alluring and intended to invite an erotic notion of childhood.

In the context of the general works on show in the exhibition the censorship both of the work by Prince that has been entirely removed from show and of the rooms featuring the works by Koons and Cosy Fanni Tutti is completely absurd. The justification offered for the latter by one of the guards during the show was that many people not used to looking at art would come to the exhibition and might be offended though why they would be more offended by the works put into the specially marked rooms was not explained. The censorship of the Prince photograph is entirely outrageous and made on the grounds of child protection. The suggestion that the abuse to which children are routinely subjected around the world is grounded on the showing of art works in galleries is patent nonsense. The abuse to which children are subjected is of two sorts: domestic and in the context of civil conflict. In the former the abuse that is conducted is overwhelmingly the result of close intimate relations with relatives, often parents and siblings and is the product of these relations, not of exposure to art works. The latter type of abuse involves the formation of child armies, rape carried out by and on children in the pursuit of military goals and a widespread set of labour practices grounded in the societies they are part of. None of this is due to art works.

The fact that an exhibition based primarily on presenting the public with art works that negotiate a relation to commerce and to explicit sexuality should compromise itself with censorship authorities in the way it has is particularly disturbing and indicative of a lack of self-reflexitivity on the part of the curator's of the exhibition. This is particularly striking since Alison Gingeras, in the video that the Tate Modern web-site presents as an introduction to the exhibition speaks directly about work "pushing boundaries", "knowingly wanting to transgress taboos" and describes the attitude of wishing to demarcate the ways they can do this as "hypocritical". That Tate Modern could, after licensing such a video by the curator as indicative of what the exhibition is intended to convey, subsequently completely pull one of the works from the exhibition at the behest of the police, is extraordinary in what it says for the contemporary climate towards precisely the challenging works the exhibition is intended to show.

The exhibition itself focuses a series of questions that the actions of the curators and directors of the gallery make seriously urgent. Firstly, what is the relation between the sense of publicity indicative of "commerce" and the sense of publicity indicative of the need to display and show that many of the works stage? Secondly, how is that art institutions such as galleries and museums have come to see themselves as part of the policing of desire? Thirdly, what intended set of connections between art, morality and politics is engaged by works that immerse themselves so fully in contemporary culture (shops, pornography, pop reference and culture)?

These questions should be being left to the works themselves to engage with, obviously in relation to critical commentary that includes a sense of the connection between the works shown and those to which they comment and respond. But it cannot be the point to close down the exhibition by cloistering some of its rooms off or allowing the police power of the state to decide what should be on display.
See also this piece for further thoughts on this subject.

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