Sunday, 15 March 2009

Time and Relative Dimensions in Space

I wish I could remember which Big Issue seller to thank.

I wasn't going to buy a copy. I smiled, said sorry, walked past - and then had second thoughts. There was enough money in my pocket, I had a train journey ahead and the Big Issue seller would probably be cheered by a sale. I walked back and bought one.

I was already planning my trip to London. I'd have an afternoon free, starting in the Victoria area. Perhaps the V&A, I thought - free admission and I could enjoy treasures I'd loved in childhood, from the Bayeaux Tapestry reproduction to Tipoo's Tiger. But then I saw the picture of Mark Wallinger's TARDIS and read the review of the exhibition he's curating: The Russian Linesman. I looked up the cost of admission to the Hayward Gallery. £9. Quite a lot by East Midlands standards. But I hadn't been to a major London art exhibition for a couple of years.

The South Bank was peopled by large green lizards and faceless queens. That is not a metaphor. These were living statues and I don't know what had drawn them to congregate by the river. They sparkled in the March sun. Passers by and tourists stopped to marvel.

I'm less familiar with the South Bank than I was and briefly forgot which concrete walkway would take me to the Hayward. I found myself at the bottom of a damp-streaked stairwell stacked with rubbish where two young people in the bright uniforms of catering staff clung together in an intense embrace. I doubt they noticed me. From there I saw the way I should have gone and reached the Hayward entrance.

I hadn't realised there were three exhibitions. Before reaching The Russian Linesman, I had to pass through a retrospective exhibition of Annette Messager. I wasn't familiar with her work and at first I wasn't sure I wanted to be.

Messager uses all kinds of ordinary materials including pictures cut from magazines, soft toys, gloves, pencils and, disturbingly, dead birds to create sculptures and installations. Her early work was evidently influenced by the Women's Movement and concerned with how women were seen. People who look back on the Women's Movement tend to assume it simply criticised men for seeing women in sexual ways. But that wasn't the main problem. The real difficulty was that a particular way of seeing women had become so dominant that it was hard to establish any other way of seeing. The male view of women was so dominant that it influenced all areas of life: work, education, culture - even the way women saw themselves.

Messager's early work challenged this. She created alternative selves, presenting herself as a trickster who played with how women were seen (as mothers, lovers, objects of desire) and how women might see men. This was exciting - even dangerous - in the 1970s but I couldn't feel the raw thrill of it any more. I wanted something that challenged me now.

I found the first challenge in Messager's treatment of childhood and motherhood. Dead sparrows, dressed as dolls, fastened to miniature carriages for outings, pinned down for punishment reminded me of the cruelties that are taken for granted in conventional children's games. An exhibit called (I think) Children with their Eyes Scratched Out suggested that women's relationship to children and motherhood was less easy than society supposes.

The bigger, later works combined beauty and horror. Soft toys were dismembered and hung up like the kind of votive offerings I've seen in Mediterranean churches. And three room-sized exhibits were in motion. In Gonflage/Degonflage (Inflation/Deflation), huge body parts - pastel-shaded and cushiony soft - did what the title suggested: inflated and deflated. That wasn't frightening but filled me with awe. Casino (a section from Messager's Pinocchio-themed installation for the Venice Biennale) represented the interior of a whale. Movements of cloth, changes of light and the gradual descent of small shapes from the ceiling created an entrancing experience that simulatneously warmed and disturbed. Finally an installation triggered by mad cow disease created the kind of scene Hieronymus Bosch might have dreamt up if all he had at hand was a selection of human-size soft toys.

Disturbed by Messager's work, I fled up the stairs to the exhibition that had brought me to the gallery.

At first glance, The Russian Linesman looked small, restrained and sane. There was a lack of brightly-coloured soft toys. Instead there were sculptures, videos, frames. Most of the frames contained pictures. But there were also door frames (two frames, one door) and frames that were fragile outlines of thread, creating borders for empty air.

Borders were one of the themes of the exhibition - those fragile lines that contain us. But related to borders was the bigger theme of uncertainty and lack of knowledge. Some of the works exhibited were caught in history. No-one could see the Joseph Beuys lithograph, in which the twin towers are renamed Cosmos and Damian (for two saints killed because they refused to profit from good deeds) without recalling the destruction of 9/11 and the destruction that followed. There was no picture of Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the towers but there was film from a CNN helicopter showing the thin cord still linking the towers, recalling what came immediately before as well as what occurred years later.

The exhibition showed how easily the brain processes and organises contradictory information - how we impose order on what is disorderly and incoherent. The most obvious way this was shown was the stereoscopic photographs, in which two different two-dimensional pictures - one seen by each eye - together create, in the brain of the viewer, an impossibly sharp and three-dimensional image. The photographs themselves were disturbing: including Nazi propaganda pictures of Hitler and a border post between Germany and Russia. But there were also films shown in parallel: East German feature films screened beside recreations in the same street twenty years later. It was hard to work out what I was seeing.

Everywhere the exhibition disconcerted me. There was raw footage from the recent conflict in Sarajevo - footage discarded by the BBC. It was shown in silence so that I was suddenly aware of how news footage is edited, and shaped by the commentary offered. When I watched film of a corpse clumsily taken from a river, I just saw that the man was dead and didn't know what side he was on. Somehow I was even more upset by the group of happy young people, relaxed and laughing in a bullet-pocked cafe.

There were tricks everywhere - old-style trompe-d'oeuil and Thomas Demand's Poll 2001, a huge photograph of a facsimile of the desk at the Palm Beach count which determined the United States election. There are no people, there is no writing, there are no numbers and the photograph has the same hyperreality as the stereoscopic images.

I wandered into an impossible maze, stood in a sound installation, looked at the 17th century painting by an unknown artist. It showed a dead, unknown soldier - so unknown that no-one knows what war he fought in nor what side he supported - only that he is quite young and wears the clothes of a wealthy man.

Finally I approached Mark Wallinger's stainless steel TARDIS. From a distance it looked disappointingly solid but, as I approached it, the shining, mirrored sides seemed less substantial. I walked round it. At times I caught sight of myself in the shining steel. At others, it seemed on the point of shimmering into nothingness. I walked away and found myself listening to the voice of James Joyce, reading from Anna Livia Plurabelle, in which words and meanings blur to make language anew.

I was losing track of the world. Between them, two exhibitions had skewed my visions so much that I'd find my way home if I stayed much longer. After two and a half hours it was time to leave, while I still could. Perhaps I'd return later, I thought, and asked if that was allowed. But once out, I knew I couldn't go back. I needed to reflect on what I'd seen.

On the way out, I spent time in the Hayward's third exhibition, an installation by Ujino and the Rotators. 1950s furniture and domestic appliances performed a cross between noise music and 1970s disco sounds. It seemed sensible and I listened for a while, feeling I'd returned to a safe, normal world.

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