Anna and I visited the Becks Futures exhibition at the ICA gallery this weekend. It was a bit like a greatest hits album for the last year of the british contemporary arts scene. A real mixed bag of work but I was surprised at how many of the artists were interested in ideas of language, meaning and communication.
(Simon Popper re-prints James Joyce's 'Ulysses' with the entire text in alphabetical order then piles them up to look like modernist buildings. The meaning of the text is lost as it becomes re-interpreted and catagorised in such a systematic form. The installation is a critique of both modern obsessions with systems and formulas and the post-modern disillusionment with communicating through text that was born out as a result.
Matt Stokes (the winner and now £20,000 richer) films a 'northern soul' dance night in St Salvador's Church. Dundee. Flavia Mailler Medeiros’ film marries together 1970s footage of the cast of Easy Rider with George Bush's inauguration speech distorted just beyond recognition and spoken in the style of an american used car salesman. Sue Tompkins jams her type-writer with bleached out paper then tries to type words of meaning into the faded paper.)
It's refreshing to see contemporary artists using language and text, not in an ironic sense, but with what appears to be a sincere belief that we still have something to say and that art is still a valid vehicle to express it through. Back in the eighties, one critic, Suzi Gablik, wrote, " At this point in history, art finds itself without any coherent set of priorities, without any persuasive models, without any means to evaluate either itself or the goals which it serves. To the postmodernist mind, everything is empty at the center"
Whilst I think it's still true that art is still struggling to find a way of evaluating itself, I was pleasantly shocked to see that there is something more than "emptiness" at the center of many of the Becks artists. We might not know how to say it, or even how to evaluate how we say it but there seems to be a growing understanding that we can at least try to say something!
As a Christian, concerned with articulation of truth notions and meaning, I find this extremely encouraging. Modernity, it appears, hasn't muted the artist entirely. There's still life in the old dogs yet. In the words of a wiser friend, "Modernity - Go eat yourself!"