‘Go Away: Artists and Travel’

Visual Arts Administration MA final exhibition April/May 1999, Royal College of Art

Go Away is as good a title as any for your end of year show, especially when instead of joining the massed ranks of funky young British artists, you are assuming the honourable, if slightly dull office of the Visual Arts Administrator. Although attention grabbing and just a tad cheeky, Go Away doesn’t quite match up to ‘Fuck Off’ as a title, but then the aspirations and objectives of these new curators have little in common with that other creative curatorial collective, BANK. Comparisons between the Kensington chic of the Royal College MA course and BANK’s east-end art-geezer provocations are of course futile, but the fact that both exist points to the wider reality of the fundamental changes that the business of making and showing art has undergone in recent years.

As shows go, Go Away: Artists and Travel wasn’t that bad, but then the student curators weren’t exactly playing for high stakes. Shows based around an easily digested theme, like ‘Sex’ or ‘Shopping’ have the advantage of exhibiting a certain degree of superficial coherence, without getting their hands dirty with the business of explaining what is so important about ‘Sex’ or ‘Shopping’ that we should all go and see a great big show about it. Unlike retrospectives of particular artists or movements that have to defend their subjects’ enduring significance (such as the recent Pollock show), or group shows of up-to-the minute talent that try to establish a trend at the risk of being just laughed at (Painting Lab, or Die Young Stay Pretty), the thematic show simply has to set up a proposition, gather a group of artists whose work (more or less) fits the bill, make a few stabs at how the theme might variously be interpreted, and then let the audience get on with joining the dots between works.  In the case of Go Away, the decision to go with such a loose theme could be interpreted as a symptom of the problems inherent in design by committee, or as a pragmatic desire not to rock the boat at your final assessment, or maybe just as sheer critical laziness.

The organisation of Go Away probably involved a little of all three.  Orchestrating an exhibition of thirty international artists is a difficult business at the best of times. If curatorial agenda and organisational responsibility is dispersed across a group of thirteen, this no doubt makes things even worse.  It’s clear that adopting a relatively anonymous overall theme allowed the curators to bring together personal favourites without having to relate them to other works.  As the introduction to the smart catalogue states ‘the selection process was organic, growing from the conceptual and visual associations between works…through chance encounters and on the basis of individual enthusiasms and mutually shared interests…’ Unable or unwilling to impose more that a superficial program to the exhibition as a whole, the show was finally held together by the quality of individual works, and by the grouping of works according to shared preoccupations and concerns.

In effect the exhibition broke down into the various ways that the ‘notion’ of travel could be brought to bear on other art-critical preoccupations.  So ‘travel’ could encompass post-colonial interests in cultural identities, ethnography, geographical boundaries and migration.  The video diary of Oladélé Ajiboyé Bamgboyé’s African homecoming, and the documented travels of Francis Alÿs and Miguel Calderón address this with varying success.  Alÿs’ The Loop, made for the American-Mexican artist’s exchange project inSITE, documented his circumnavigation of the Pacific, in order to get from Mexico to America without crossing the American/Mexican border.  In a similarly ironic protest, Calderón spent inSITE’s production fee on the cab ride across the border, photographing the ever-increasing fare, and his various stops along the way with his cab driver companion.  The punch-line being that inSITE’s fee was on no accounts to be spent on travel costs.

Travel as biographical diary/holiday journal also featured strongly.  Lisa Milroy’s small oil paintings of her American Holiday recorded an empty, intolerably sunny and desolate trek through motels, truckstops, smalltowns and filling stations, whilst Tristan Wolski’s rolls of picture-collage-diary followed his daily activities and observations as Tristan fucks ‘n’ drinks his way round various international metropoli.  Most arresting however, were Frantisek Skála’s watercolours, produced on an 25-day backpacking trek from Prague to the 45th Venice Biennale.  With the express condition of ‘avoiding motorways’ his outrageously romanticised sketches of the lush valleys and rural peace of southern Europe evoked a mediaeval idyll that you started to think might really be just around the corner, just as long as you avoided the soulless headlong modernism of the autobahn.

Most unfortunate, and hilarious, was the juxtaposition of the walking works of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, with the art-hoax antics of the Leeds 13.  The fine art group from Leeds Uni. provoked predictable media outrage last year with their meticulously staged holiday hoax.  Inviting their tutors and others to witness their supposed return from a package jaunt to Spain, paid for with donations intended to finance a more traditional ‘art exhibition’, they subsequently revealed that the arrival was a put-up job and that their holiday snaps were from nowhere more exotic than Scarborough. In the accompanying video Sian, Leeds 13’s photogenic front-girl, battles in vain with the relentlessly common-sensical questions of the BBC’s News 24 presenter.  Why, he asks, didn’t the Leeds 13 actually spend the money, hmm? To which Sian responds that, well, the Leeds 13 aren’t just scrounging layabouts, and that they are in fact moral people.  An earnest response from idealistic young artists, only slightly marred by the adjacent presence of work by Long and Fulton, two artists who have turned walking holidays in the South of France into lucrative artistic careers.  And they spent the money!

However interesting the work on show, the final question is really what purpose is served by the new administrative courses such as the Royal College MA.  Curators used to be drawn from those with proven expertise in a particular field, and the business of putting on exhibitions used to be divided between the commercial interests of private galleries and the historiographical concerns of public museums and galleries.  By contrast, a defining feature of the past decade has been the blurring of such clearly specified roles.  The DIY attitude which spawned Freeze and its many successors, and the parallel proliferation of artist-run spaces throughout the decade mark the ascendance of the footloose, entrepreneurial art-professional, whose successful mediation of corporate sponsorship, media interest and the demands of public and private galleries shifted power away from the increasingly shaky self-identity and legitimacy of the traditional institutional structures.  By preference or necessity, art institutions have increasingly tapped into the influence the new curator-artists have established, which is why these days the phrase ‘curated by…’ functions as the stamp of artistic authenticity, as much as the painter’s signature would have a century before.

Faced with the rise of this new independent professional, it was only a matter time before those with their hands on the art-world’s levers of power made an attempt to bring this new class of wayward intermediary into the fold.  The Royal College course, amongst others, institutionalises the new reality of the professional art-mediator, offering field-trips, work placements and contact-networks galore. Theresa Serota’s finalists might not all get a first this summer, but then as Go Away shows, academic success was never the point.



First published in Untitled no19, Summer 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated