10 June 1995

Rites and wrongs

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On the Millennium and the art of Transgression. Thoughts prompted by ‘Rites of Passage’, an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London. Published in the Guardian 10 June 1995.

WHETHER it is 2000 or 2001, the day itself will eventually come—and soon enough, too. People will get up and probably sigh with relief as all that late 20th century flapdoodle about the millennium slides away into history. Those who are too rational to feel relieved the world hasn’t ended, may still pause to reflect on the strange quality of fin de siècle myths, which subordinate fact to anxiety, turn history into an external spectacle, and produce far too much employment for people like Simon Jenkins. The approach of our big date has got us resurrecting previous ends of the world.The year 1000 now has the look of a real blockbuster. Christopher Frayling, whose BBC 2 series, Strange Landscapes, is devoted to this, describes ‘a huge sigh of relief’ going up when it became apparent that the first millennium had passed without cosmic disaster. The 1890s are also good for reheating: a seething stew of Decadence and Entropy, with vampires thrown in by Bram Stoker. Fleeing science and materialism, artists and writers escaped into Symbolism with the help of Madame Blavatsky and the Celtic Twilight.

The Fabians may have been publishing tracts about the bright new world to come, but the prophets of Degeneration were busy too: remembering Jack the Ripper and measuring the skulls of criminals in order to project doom and decay right into the genes of the urban poor. Freud published The Interpretation Of Dreams as the century turned, equipping the new age with the unconscious and providing it with its own myth in the Oedipus complex.

In previous ages, as Frayling points out, the millennialist vapour seems to have been brewed up by people at the edge of things: whether the strange medieval sects imagining catastrophe and redemption at the first millennium, or the political militants who dreamed of pressing on with the revolutionary changes of the late 18th century. But this time the government is firmly in on the act. Having scaled down and indeed sold off many of its historical responsibilities, it will use the Millennium Fund, a more or less uniquely British contrivance, to build lasting monuments even if they do have to stand in for real achievements.

The lottery has been criticized for milking the poor to subsidize opera for the rich, or to keep teetering Tory MPs with a vault of ancestral papers to sell out of the bankruptcy court. But it also works more generally to adjust the balance between Fortune and accountability, between Providence and planning. As for history, this becomes either a junkyard or a laser-enhanced spectacular. These may be disconnected times, but we certainly know how to make a festival out of a centenary or anniversary. Every year produces a new list, and the events are good for everyone: arts administrators, artists in search of commissions, sponsors, and bouncy castle operators too. By the time the millennium arrives as the biggest of these festive spectaculars, we will be hard put to remember that people once thought of history as self-creation rather than fireworks, and built great hopes on the idea that people were able to make it move one way rather than another.

Some in the contemporary art world stand at a leery distance from all this, even as they fill in the application forms. But many have adjusted to the climate. So we have an aesthetics of fragmentation, which co-exists uneasily with the scaling down of the welfare state. Conferences sloganize about ‘the end of Subjection’, at the same time as global developments guarantee its long-term extension.

Many contemporary artists are showing a considerable appetite for millennialist morbidity, as a state-of-the-art exhibition which opens at the Tate next week, Rites Of Passage, indicates. Today’s installation artists take lugubrious pleasure in portraying the last days of the 20th century as a cosmic pile-up. Their work is full of submerged religiosity, dismembered and pierced bodies. The exhibition includes Miroslaw Balka’s early scarred figures and John Coplans’s huge segmented self portraits.

Aids was converted into a symbolic plague before its awful reality had really even been registered. Meanwhile, the catalogue writers ransack early 20th century anthropology to find an amenable rhetoric of rites of passage, threshold states and fetishization. The idea that art should ‘make sense’ may be as incurably passé as truth and beauty, but the more knowing approach, which sets out only to ‘stage the condition’ of the world can easily end up by affirming it.

Meanwhile, time seems to be running out on the idea of transgression, which has gone through several generations since the early 20th century gestures of Marcel Duchamp. It was one thing to ‘challenge perceptions and transgress the norms of society at the height of bourgeois culture, but what becomes of such an endeavour now that history has pulled so many of those ‘norms’ apart?

As for installation art, the whole world seems to aspire to this condition nowadays. It is not just in the art gallery that we find a profusion of information combined with a loss of conventional meaning; or a tendency for things, both living and dead, to appear in unprecedented and apparently arbitrary relationship with one another.

Doubtless, there are considerable artistic opportunities here, but there is plenty of room for abject failure too. There is already too much stylized doom and gloom around. And there is a new academicism too: a retreat into the self-referring world of the gallery where one installation quotes another while defensive critics reinvent the once-hated enclosure of ‘art’ to protect them from the rude world outside.

One response is just to turn up the transgression. As the curator and critic, David A Mellor, remarks: ‘Something very disturbing is going on with the body in contemporary iconography.’ It may be ‘extremely difficult for artists to trump media images’ nowadays, but history has actually been outrunning the avant-garde throughout the century. The futurists were overtaken by the Somme; and surrealism had no answer to Auschwitz.

As for the postmodernists who were so enthusiastic about the collapse of the imperfect ‘grand narratives’ of the western enlightenment, their confirmation now goes by many names—including Bosnia, Algeria and Rwanda . . .

Charles Saatchi may continue to collect heads of blood and dancing chicken legs, but outside his influential freezer the idea of transgression is acquiring the quaint look of a mannerist gesture preserved from a lost age. Come the millennium, there will certainly be some artists peddling semi-apocalyptic kitsch and smirking from the sidelines. But the better ones will sorely feel differently inclined. Perhaps they and their theorists will have tired of the joys of disintegration and realized that neither the recovery of norms nor the derided difficulties of ‘making sense’, are safely abandoned to the fundamentalists.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, June 10th, 1995 at 12:00 am and is filed under Art & its applications, Articles General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.