At its core conceptual art has always been, and will continue to be, all about revolution. Whether the revolution is against injustices committed around the world, or simply against current cultural status quo, you can guarantee that the artist will be on the front lines, creating works to make the viewer ask questions. This quality can be seen in Duchamp’s upturned urinal entitled Fountain, which rocked the foundations of the art world; it can be seen in Picasso’s Guernica, a gigantic canvas vividly documenting the horrors of war. It can also be seen today in the work of Maurizio Cattelan, the notorious Italian satirist whose works are currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery.
Since the mid-90s, Cattelan has been creating works that have given him a reputation as the trickster of the art world. They are created with a gleeful humour, but more often than not contain a wicked twist of darkness. Popes being crushed by meteorites, Hitler dressed as a schoolboy, and giant hands giving the middle finger have all been included in his work. The pieces featured in this exhibition may be on a smaller scale, but still demonstrate his sharp wit.
They are created with a gleeful humour, but more often than not contain a wicked twist of darkness
In one of the corners of the room there is a small diorama of the kitchen Cattelan grew up in. The sink is piled with dirty plates and at the centre of the room, slumped against a miniature yellow Formica table, a squirrel has committed suicide. The gun lies on the floor. An empty glass rests on the table. The viewer is left to make up their mind on why the squirrel chose to end it all, but the title of the work Bidibidobidiboo, a garbledreference to the song that transforms Cinderella, adds another edge to a work already dripping with black humour.
Whilst the squirrel may form a more personal reflection, the majority of the works in the room are attributed with some kind of political commentary. Lullaby initially appears as a giant fabric sack, at the top of which one can see fragments of brick poking out. The description attached to the work explains that the bag is filled with rubble from the 1993 terrorist attack on Milan’s Pavilion of Contemporary Art, which left 5 people dead.
At the centre of the room is a rug, whose design has been based upon the casing for a wheel of cheese. The jingoistic sentiments surrounding a map of Italy, which may have seemed quaint when simply used to advertise cheeses, become reminiscent of language used in Mussolini’s Italy, and brings on a deep sense of unease.
On the adjacent wall hangs the sign of the Marxist Italian terrorist group the Red Brigades but this too has been subverted. Made up in garish neon, it has become a Christmas greeting; the infamous star becomes the one leading the faithful to Bethlehem. This subversion of ideas is at the heart of Cattelan’s work, and is one of the key tools in his satirical arsenal. Some may dismiss it as shock tactics, but the pieces certainly hit the viewer to the core.
One of the many criticisms that modern conceptual art faces today is that it takes itself too seriously. Those of you who feel fed up in trying to find meaning in Hirst’s pickled cows, or despair at the Turner Prize’s lack of humour, would do well to come down to the Whitechapel Gallery. Although the exhibition is tiny, totalling only eight works, it is steeped in humour and irony, leaving the observer smiling all day.
Those of you who feel fed up in trying to find meaning in Hirst’s pickled cows, or despair at the Turner Prize’s lack of humour, would do well to come down to the Whitechapel Gallery
Meanwhile, on the floor below, the Gallery is staging a retrospective of the American painter Mel Bochner, who helped cement New York as the conceptual art capital of the 1960s and 70s. His raucous, wildly colourful paintings form a counterpoint to Cattelans’ on the floor above. Upon entering the gallery, the first thing that greets one is a gigantic painting entitled Blah, Blah, Blah. As the title suggests, it consists of the word ‘Blah’ written repeatedly across a black canvas. The lettering is in a multitude of colours, which ooze and drip down the canvas in heavy smears. This acts as an official introduction into the mind of Bochner, an artist who is obsessed with colour, artistic theory, and the power of words.
The first rooms of the gallery document Bochner’s attempts to represent different artistic theories. His Theory of Photography consists of a progression of small cards upon which quotations from Mao, Zola, and other great thinkers are written. However, not all of them are genuine; Bochner created three of the statements himself, and the work becomes a meditation on whether photography is a genuinely truthful medium. Does the camera ever lie?
Lines of different lengths are painted on the walls, along with a bar to mark where Bochner’s eye level is, representing the idea of proportion within art. In the centre of the gallery is Bochner’s seminal Theory of Painting, in which he explores the limits placed upon painters using newspapers and brilliant bright blue paint. It perfectly portrays Bochner’s fixation with order and colour, and it is my personal favourite in the exhibition.
Bochner’s work is uplifting and, as a conceptual artist who has bridged the gap between the art worlds of the 1960s and today, deserves a special place in history. Contrary to what the opening work may suggest, this exhibition is certainly not all Blah, Blah, Blah
Continuing upstairs we are treated to a series of ‘Thesaurus Paintings’. Bochner paints out words upon the canvas in glorious colours, starting with a word such as ‘Lazy’ before finding a synonym for it. These word chains play out like Chinese whispers, starting with phrases such as ‘Win’, flowing through into ‘Crush ‘Em’ before ending with ‘Kick Some Butts’.
In these works the role that the written word has in art is juxtaposed against the role of colour. However, rather than being at odds with one another, these two features of art form an unlikely harmony, creating a series of beautiful paintings.
Bochner’s work is uplifting and, as a conceptual artist who has bridged the gap between the art worlds of the 1960s and today, deserves a special place in history. Contrary to what the opening work may suggest, this exhibition is certainly not all Blah, Blah, Blah.
Mel Bochner is on until 30th December; Maurizio Cattelan is on until 2nd December. Both at the Whitechapel Gallery; free entry.