Tate Triennial: Altermodern

Artvehicle 39/Review

3rd March 2009 — 26th April 2009

The coining of a new word, or perhaps more accurately, the launching of a new ‘art-brand’ seems to be the order of the day in Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘Altermodern’.  The back of the catalogue reads: ‘Few books introduce a word into the language, as this one does’.  The show puts great emphasis on its brand identity, with its complicated logos, signage and a weird little typographical design which stamps the end of every catalogue article ‘ALTERMODERN’.  There is something reminiscent of the Barbican’s Museum of Terrestrial Art in the heavy-handed packaging of this work.  Bourriaud offers here his antidote to ‘the void beyond Postmodernism’: a re-appraisal of modernism for the global age.

The grandness and ambition of such a mission is one of the biggest attractions of this show – as if a comprehensive survey of British contemporary art isn’t in itself a tall order even without trying to string it all together with some kind of meta-narrative.

The spectre of Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud’s book released in 1998, looms large.  Social and political engagement is still key for Bourriaud, although many of these artists seem to pursue these through complex narrative worlds of their own, often crowded with artistic and cultural references and borrowings.  This is perhaps a step back from the ‘microtopias’ that were described in Relational Aesthetics – any social engagement Charles Avery might have seems a million miles away from that of Rirkrit Tiravanija or Thomas Hirschorn. 

One of the enduring images from the show is that of an incredulous Mayor, of Israeli town Holon, reflected in the mirrored glasses of Marcus Coates, while the latter tries to solve the problem of youth crime by contacting animal spirits.  This video becomes excruciating, as Coates yelps and barks at the Mayor and his interpreter, suggesting more strongly the superfluous nature of much contemporary art, rather than illustrating some kind of enlightened, useful and globally sensitive practice. A piece that more comfortably capitalises on the gap between art and reality is Joachim Koester’s The Hashish Club – the images of a smoking club and cannabis leaves suggest intoxication; yet offers a different experience, through representation (rather than simulation) of these things.

The new brand reaches back to older works too, such as Mike Nelson’s Triple Bluff Canyon, part of which is presented here, seeming somewhat beached in the enormity of the Duveen hall.  The segment seems more like a representative here on behalf of Nelson’s practice – similar in this sense to Seth Price’s underwhelming wall piece later in the show.

The complexity of many of these works, such as Spartacus Chetwynd’s Hermito’s Children or Olivia Plender’s Machine Shall Be The Slave Of Man, But We Will Not Slave For The Machine renders them potentially illegible in this context; that of numerous dense installations packed with a crowd such a high profile show draws at Tate.  Mathew Darbyshire’s impressive Palac installation is somewhat spoiled if you happen to enter the show any other way than from Millbank, when it would become a foyer-like introduction to the show.  Darbyshire’s piece is one that does seem directly engaged in the concerns set out by Bourriaud, in a way that is pertinent to an audience in the U.K., now.

This is a very engrossing show, with some outstanding pieces such as Lindsay Seer’s Extramission 6 (Black Maria) and Tacita Dean’s The Russian Ending, however the prevailing feeling is one of over-inflated curation, working somewhat to the detriment of the individual parts.  Perhaps the project is more geared to the audience looking back at the event in retrospect, rather than the one stood in the Tate this spring.

Richard Whitby

Tate Britain
London SE1 9TG

Daily, 10am-5.50pm

Tate Triennial: Altermodern — 
Marcus Coates ‘Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare’ 2008
Photo: Jo Ramirez. C: The Artist.

Marcus Coates ‘Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare’ 2008

Photo: Jo Ramirez. C: The Artist.