5th January 2016, David Cook and I visited Michael Craig-Martin: Transience at the Serpentine Gallery in London. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. Here’s the third and final part…
Richard: Ha, just about. The comparison with the Rothko room is interesting. To me, where the Rothko room has an under-lit chapel-like atmosphere, MCM’s rooms at the Serpentine are in-your-face oppressive, like being trapped in a car showroom with an over-energetic salesman. Not so much of the transcendence. And I think that’s part of the point. MCM makes you engage with the work and the objects he depicts by force. These are aggressively ugly colour combinations – they’re pugnacious.
It’s interesting that some of the objects depicted have fallen out of use or had their design overhauled. Here we have Cassette, 2002. By 2002 cassettes had pretty much been superceded by CDs, DVDs and digital files as storage devices. To anyone born after 1997 this is probably a pretty obscure object. Is his intention to memorialise it? If so, why?
David: In a way it mocks the transience of these ubiquitous but ephemeral things. There is a memento mori quality to the cassette. It is doomed, already in the past: a repository of information that soon will degrade or no-one will have the equipment to read. All the objects are depicted through the same style prism – memorialised if you like – but not respectfully. They are robbed of everything but form. It is as if Craig-Martin is saying to designers: ‘my art will endure…but your products won’t.’ He is saying to Jonathan Ive “You might be selling 100 million iPods a year, but in a while they will be junk. But my paintings will be the same, and they will still be valuable, they will function as well as the day they were made.”
The bottom line is that we have allowed our consumer objects to supplant us at the centre of our art. Not only does the earth go around the sun but art no longer revolves around us either, but around our obsolcesent consumer durables.
The whole aspect of the show is sardonic. And to me, dripping with Warhol influences. I sometimes doubt the greatness of Warhol, but his influence is right here on the wall in the wall paper, in the acceptance of the everyday as a subject and behind the scenes in the creation of art celebrity which MCM has vicariously dabbled in at Goldsmiths. Warhol – who had made a lot of the running in including vernacular objects in ‘higher’ forms of art clearly was behind the initial choice of subjects and the mechanical look. But these are still very much hand made works: the artist in him was too strong. The distributed and reproduced element does not feel integral in the way it does with Warhol’s work. The dissemination of prints and internet works feels very much more like the reproduction of traditional 2d forms than Warhol’s mechanised and hands-off methodology. We get a very self denying art that almost can’t bear to be looked at: you couldn’t look at any painting here for as long as a Rembrandt or a Cézanne. It is not comfortable with itself in the same way. Its chosen idiom fights with the subject matter. This creates an arresting tension, but it is an uncomfortable one.
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