Re: Open systems at The Tate Modern London

From: blp
Category: Art
Date: 26 July 2005


The work that's in this show was hugely important to me a few years ago. It was quite a relief going round it to find myself less seduced by it, but also a slight disappointment. What struck me looking at it this time was just how bound up with the fashionable politics and concerns of its times it is. I realise this isn't a particularly earth shattering insight. Most of the artists looked like hippies. But it's quite easy to miss the zeitgeist in the work because most of it, at first glance, is so resolutely dry, ungroovy and unpsychedelic looking. Nevertheless, the sixties preoccupations are there, whether in Martha Rossler's and Valie Export's excavations of feminity and representation, Lygia Clark's touchy-feely, hippy group hug, art-psychotherapy crossovers or even the treatment of the gallery as a site for activity/active looking in environments by Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman.

What's common to all of it, diverse as it is, and pretty amazing still, is the sense of newness and inquiry about it, which must have been absolutely self conscious and deliberate. And constantly, with all the forms being explored, perhaps dependent on this very variety of forms, is a clear intention to return the viewer to a sense of themselves, to get inside them kinaesthetically and psychologically, often by subjecting them to frustration or boredom. Again, different as this seems from the sensual hedonism of the hippy era, in retrospect it looks all of a piece with happenings, sit-ins, love-ins, be-ins, guerrila chic, communes and a general desire to explore the possibilites of human experience. This was the moment when Modernism was slipping into Postmodernism via a shift from the complete, authored, finished object to an emphasis on performance and process, or, as Frederic Jameson might put it, ontology - being. Even the objects now were designed for these purposes rather than just to be looked at, hence, I suppose, open systems. Common to all this was a concern to affect and remake the individual and this was more or less explicitly revolutionary. New times were thought to be coming and to bring them about, you had to create a revolution first of all in people's consciousnesses.

It's surprising after being so impressed by this for quite a while to find it looking naive - and perhaps it's also not quite right, or at least not the whole story. It was while I was watching Martha Rossler's video of herself being thoroughly measured by two hippies in lab coats that I started to have a lot of these thoughts - and they were based on a misunderstanding. I took it all to be part of this vague, apparently vital engagement with being. Actually, it was a precise, just, political attack on processes of supposedly scientific measurement and classification that were being used as means of oppression at the time, particularly of women and, like a lot of the best art of the time, was confident enough of its substance not to be in too much of a hurry to make itself understood. What's interesting about this is that it gives the work an internal completeness specifically bound up with meaning - apparently a closed system then - but does so using the new medium of video and with such insouciant, tedious slowness that it ends up having the experiential effect of attrition on the viewer's bourgeois jadedness and arrogance that puts it in the realm of an open system - as long as the bourgeois viewer is already open enough to hang around for the payoff.

I can't help thinking - as always - of Godard, believing up until 1968 that he was making films that would help to bring about a revolution. It does sound naive now with hindsight, but...it wasn't entirely. The expectations may have been too high, but many of the works of this period did and do work in the way they're intended to - as long as you give them the time. The message, very often, transmitted experientially, is, you don't need to panic about not having enough because you don't need as much as you think you do. And further, having too much is corrupting. From this it's a short step to what really characterised so much of sixties culture and ties this work to Woodstock, daisy chains, electric Koolade acid tests and peace and love: innocence - the aim of returning to it AND the naivety of believing it could be so easily reacquired. Paradoxical but unsurprising that so much of this fixation on innocence turned bad, in cults, mind control, even murder (Baader-Meinhoff, Manson) - easy for a simplistic message to turn radically unforgiving of human failiings. And perhaps there was always an element of that cruelty in the artworks, whether directed by the artists at themselves - Adrian Piper fasting while reading Kant, Chris Burden having himself shot in the arm, Bas Jan Aader's doomed Atlantic crossing in a too small boat and so on and so on, or at the viewer in all the strategies of frustration and alienation employed. No wonder voracious Capitalism ends up again with the whip hand over Democracy's implicit altruism and self restraint - the former seems kinder even as it kills. Meanwhile, all the challenges of this work dissolve into the one idea - that they are idea-based, and from there conceptual art turns into exactly what it didn't mean to be - a game of quickfire, ephemeral cleverness - like gag writing or advertising.