Altermodern: The Tate Triennial Tate Britain, Millbank, London February 3 – April 26, 2009
Since the Tate split into Modern and Britain, most of the glory as well as the tourists have flooded into the former power station on the South Bank, very much leaving Tate Britain as a quieter gem of a venue. Still, its Tate Triennial is one of the few events directed toward the current state of art here.
Nicolas Bourriaud’s selection as curator for this, the fourth Triennial, was probably greeted with a few smiles, as the last, selected by Beatrix Ruf (of the Kunsthalle in Zurich), was a very dour and quiet affair. Famous for documenting Relational Aesthetics, the expectation was that Bourriaud would offer a more performative and dynamic show than Ruf’s. Though much more entertaining, it is still very much an insider’s view and not an overt crowd-pleaser. In fact, Bourriaud has taken the moment to advance a new theoretical catchphrase for our times: “the Altermodern.” What is Altermodern? For him, it is “an in-process redefinition of modernity in the era of globalization, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and mediums.” With a term linking “alter”—as in “other” or “different”—and “modern,” one imagines a re-appropriation of the modernist language, as a sign system or style, and putting it into a new form of play. Rather, this alternative modernism is “neither a petrified kind of time advancing in loops (postmodernism) nor a linear vision of history (modernism), but a positive experience of disorientation through an art-form exploring all dimensions of the present, tracing lines in all directions of time and space.”
The simplest illustration of this thinking is probably Simon Starling’s recreation of the tables designed by Francis Bacon in the 50s, before embarking on a career of painting. In a process akin to Chinese whispers, these three desks were fabricated with the aid of photographs on three continents. Or the London-born, Los Angeles-based, Walead Beshty’s minimalist glass sculptures featuring a skein of cracks created by their handling by Fed-Ex across the globe. Perhaps the most obvious altermodernist is none other than Franz Ackermann, whose “Gateway”-Getaway, a colourfully abstract painted installation, is drawn from his travels. Inspired by W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Bourriaud emphasizes travel and place; the artist or Homo Viator (as coined by Bourriaud) “turns cultural nomad: what remains of the Baudelairean model of modernism is no doubt this flânerie, transformed into a technique for generating creativeness and deriving knowledge.” He/she is the new globalized artist.
The resulting show appears to be a highly fashionable series of atmospheres—somewhat like the disorientation one feels from too much travel and its constant transition between non-places: waiting rooms, hotel rooms, foyers. Rachel Harrison’s colourful sculptures and photographs of heads (inspired by Darwin) evoke a brash funhouse, Darren Almond’s slow-exposure photos of the full moon over Chinese landscapes feel otherworldly, and a clubby glow emanates from Gustav Metzger’s projections of liquid crystals. In terms of place, Joachim Koester’s installation transports us to an 1840s hashish club, while Lindsay Seers’ autobiographical film is projected inside a cardboard model of the Black Maria, Thomas Edison’s first movie studio.
Ultimately, it is Bourriaud’s opening salvo that is the most effective. The Duveen gallery, a long, tall corridor of a space that serves as a passageway and atrium for all the galleries, is generally regarded as a difficult space to use. With Subodh Gupta’s gigantic sculpture made from stainless steel containers and utensils (in the shape of a mushroom cloud) and Matthew Darbyshire’s faux entranceway, “Palac,” inspired by the hall’s Neo-classical architecture which he associates with a Socialist Realist building in Warsaw, the flow and sense of space through the hall is transformed. The result is a Duveen hall with a more beguiling, bazaar-like atmosphere, especially with Spartacus Chetwynd’s pop-inspired, feminist video montage opposite Bob and Roberta Smith’s weekly contributions of a painted assemblage-diary based on weekly conversations with Bourriaud.
Where this Biennial departs from others is the inclusion of non-British or British-based artists. “Passers-by” in Bourriaud’s phrase, such as Subodh Gupta, Peter Coffin, Navin Rawanchaikul, and Seth Price, have been included to flesh out his internationalist argument. In fact, Bourriaud has been inspired by the Alter-globalization movement, an offshoot of the World Social Forum, which advocates cooperation and interaction on a global basis but is against neoliberal forms of globalization (e.g., IMF, World Bank), which they perceive as enriching the developed world. As nice as that sounds, the international nature of the contemporary artist or Homo Viator does not seem to be overtly politicized. And as laudable as it is to be inspired by politics right now, these artists could also be seen as representing the other kind of globalism—one certainly feels that their dealers are. Ultimately what has Bourriaud said about our moment in London? Perhaps not much more than the fact that it is an international centre for a certain sort of edgy contemporary art. At times it seems as if Bourriaud is trying to define a broader aspect of culture, but his moment might already be past, and it may be up to the next Triennial curator to capture our current economic times.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.