Richard Salmon, 12th February – 6th April 2002
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. I’m not sure who came up with this aphorism, or what intervention they were so averse to, but it serves as a catchphrase for all those who would prefer not to examine the contradictions inherent in a situation, if it can be helped; for as long as it more or less does the job, better not complicate things by trying anything new.
‘Exchange’ is a curious and intriguing project in this regard. Initiated by artists Henry Coleman and Rupert Norfolk, they invited nine other artists to provide some sort of initial proposal or concept for the production of a new work to be exhibited. These proposals were circulated anonymously amongst participants, and the work on show is the outcome of their responses to the suggestions they received. The motivation, apparently, was an interest in the gap between talking about and imagining a possible work by another artist, and then witnessing the realised work. The result isn’t a biting and rigorous critique of authorship, or a damning indictment of the commodity status of the art object, or a fierce attack on the ideological constraints that define the individuality of the contemporary artist. ‘Exchange’ doesn’t appear to be riding any particular critical high horse, but neither is it entirely innocent of these concerns. Instead, it sets up a fairly informal proposition that, perhaps despite itself, creates all kinds of entertaining ripples in the normal business of individual artistic practice.
At its base the project tends to reaffirm the individual nature of artistic production, if not the exchange of artistic ideas and interests that circulate in within a group of friends and acquaintances. ‘Exchange’ makes literal and explicit a distinction which in most exhibitions of contemporary art remains hidden; upstairs from the primary ‘exhibition’ space is a smaller room in which the original suggestions and ideas have been pinned to a large display stand, itself a gesture that suggests the common-room socialising of the artworld; the pub, the party and the private view.
This is not an incidental question, because there’s no particularly good reason why artists work and produce art as individuals, it’s an entirely conventional set-up, the main by-product of which is countless group shows. In the era of process fabrication, there’s really very little that’s inherently the province of the individual, apart from the intention and the control of its realisation. Everything in ‘Exchange’ could conceivably be produced by any other individual, group or third party following directions. Coleman and Norfolk are aware of this, as their press release specifies that the initiating ideas should not be instructions, and so ‘Exchange’ avoids a programmatic exposé of this situation in favour of complicating, rather than suppressing, the normal functioning of professional convention.
It’s through this complication that both the strengths and the weaknesses of ‘Exchange’ lie, though even the weaknesses turn out to be interesting. By forcing highly idiosyncratic individual artists to negotiate the idiosyncrasies of their peers through their own activities as individuals, and making this a mutual condition, the project throws up both notable successes and enjoyable failures. The failures, though this isn’t a comment on the quality of the works themselves, turn in that orbit of non-negotiation and refusal of the original suggestion, so Roger Hiorns’ response to Peter Fillingham’s “Something with stretchers, blankets, curtains, boxes, cabinets, paint” gets turned into Im Winter, an assemblage of Hiorns’ signature elements that obdurately avoids the use of any of the listed materials. Similarly, David Musgrave’s interpretation of Karin Ruggaber’s elegiac text on a the experience of some classical modernist structure found in a forest, come across as a little passive-aggressive: His Drawing, beautifully rendered in graphite on paper represents a scatter of torn fragments of paper. Only in the other room does one discover that the subject might be the torn fragments of the original text; Musgrave’s interest in material transmutations and the fragility of their physical and conceptual identities, are as usual elegantly balanced, but here the artist’s processing of his material is tainted by the inferences of the context and the encounter with another artist and their interests.
Equally enjoyable are the responses that yield a kind of out-of-control energy. Mark Titchner’s Listen Little Man is a quite insane structure that reprises Coleman’s suggestion of a table or bench in the mode of Frank Stella’s stripes. Titchner perhaps dislikes Stella’s form of fascist modernism; anyway his concrete trolley, supporting the sign ‘In Eternity all Eyes are Open’, above which a video monitor displays an unblinking eye on the background of Stella’s Die Fahne Hoch! is both sinister and a bit cracked, but has a force that isn’t always present in his recent work. Elsewhere, Hiorns’ extended list of sardonic statements and questions, and a few graphic references of Bauhaus and modernist graphics, provokes and enthusiastic variety of painted posters and diagrams of DIY scientific esoterism from Dave Muller.
Other exchanges develop a more discreet and polite distance from their references, even though they still produce interesting works. Peter Fillingham’s Untitled boxes filled with old blankets and furnishings somehow follows Musgrave’s ‘Sculpture in Darkness’ to the letter, where as Coleman, Norfolk and Elizabeth Kent each distil some poetic element from their suggestions that allow them to produce objects that satisfy their own inclinations, yet contain an uninflected interest in the original material. Coleman’s Chequerboard Cheshire expands a small element of Norfolk’s drawing into Vorticism-via-IKEA, whereas Norfolk’s shimmering Day Dream seems to pick up the sentiment of Sorensen’s anecdote about the coloured stripes on a woolly hat. Kent’s Drift (After the Instant City) elides Simon Patterson’s demand to ‘Find ancient/lost civilisations/ cities in London’ with a crystalline floorscape of translucent acrylic. Conversely, Patterson and Glenn Sorensen return the literal directness of their suggestions with due respect and attention.
Coming out of some personal desire to ask ‘what if’, ‘Exchange’ reveals the opportunities of different forms of creative dialogue, as well as the limits of adhering to the conventional terms of artistic practice. Those limits are a dialogue between technical, institutional and ideological conventions, and how individuals define themselves in confirmation or antagonism to them. Even without the old myth of the romantic genius, art still privileges the individual, which is peculiar because other types of contemporary culture - pop music, film, theatre and design - have no problem forming different collaborative systems for the production of work, which is not to say that individual creativity doesn’t play a significant part in all of these activities. And even when in contemporary art it appears that collaboration is involved, be it Gilbert & George, the Wilson Twins, A.K. Dolven or earlier BANK, the content ends up being focused on the identity of the collaborating artists as a single unit, or the simple fact of their collaboration. But then Pop groups don’t endlessly write songs about how they collaborate writing songs, and film crews don’t make films about what it’s like being a film crew. What ‘Exchange’ gently hints is that the boundless potential of creative dialogue whilst present in artists’ ongoing interactions, isn’t always matched by the restricted terms through which it’s realised. If it ain’t fixed, try breaking it.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated