In one of the most uncanny revelations in science fiction, the protagonist of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine
awakes from his anthropic slumber: the museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his future
. From here the very notion of history, of memorandum, retrospection and the artefact is called into question. The Time Traveller has become lost not in space, but in time, and nothing will ever be straightforward again.
Like the Time Traveller I too am a wanderer of ancient museums in unfathomable lands. From my perspective, having just visited The Tate Britain’s 4th Triennial exhibition, history and future have coalesced, time has become space and space time in the most explosive of reversals. For I have seen the Altermodern
, a series of new works by roving, mainly British, artists.
If Altermodern’s curator, Nicolas Bourriaud, is to be believed, the time for Altermodernism is not now, but everywhen. Starting from the Latin alter
, for ‘other’, Bourriaud’s insistent exhibition spreads outwards, not like the spokes of a wheel or the branches of a tree, but like a spider’s web, it’s silken threads tending to overlap, to bind in globules of infinite stickiness. In the literature for the Altermodern exhibition, Bourriaud uses phrases like “the struggle for diversity”, “a positive experience of disorientation” and “trajectories [that] have become forms” to characterise a mode of ‘modern’ art wrapped in a cocoon of its own definitions. The modernist museum has long since crumbled - so Bourriaud suggests - leaving us to mistrust its linear notion of progress; to deny the inevitability of cultural (r)evolution. In its place arose postmodernism’s looped perspective of time and the artefact, where the narrative journey through the museum became like an acid-trip of self and meaning.
But postmodernism too was a dream (or maybe Bourriaud’s nightmare) destined to destroy itself. Our schizophrenic humanism has become globalised and, like the internet’s digital cobweb, grows in complexity by the nanosecond. Into his Altermodern maelstrom Bourriaud has cast a series of works orchestrated with this complex network in mind. As one ponders the Altermodern museum (The Time Traveller’s Tate Britain perhaps?), one encounters a voyage through Liquid Crystal landscapes; a fictional archaeology and the concrete head of a God; the lost desk of Francis Bacon, corrupted by digital transmission; a series of animatronic heads, depicting an artist in chorus with himself; a nuclear plume of soldered cooking pots; a gigantic accordion; an epileptic hashish bar; and a brand new global language for the Altermodern generation.
Walead Beshty’s Fedex Sculptures
was a favourite exhibit of mine. Unimposing, cracked glass boxes sit on the Fedex packaging that housed them during their delivery to a Los Angeles gallery. The glass boxes became ‘sculptures’ not through the physical craft of Walead Beshty, but through the sheer, brute force of their trans-Atlantic journey. In their revealing, the damaged boxes ask us to question the notion of identity through movement. Their original mishandling by Fedex caused them to exist as artefacts, yet from now onwards they will be handled with the care given to every ‘refined’ work of art.
Aligning the walls of an adjoining gallery, and kept in the same space as Charles Avery’s God-like, concrete Aleph
, is a row of textualised photogravure prints. The prints are of principal photos from history, called up by the bluff of artist Tacita Dean. Through a kind of hypertextual transfiguration Dean’s surreal and often very witty annotations incite a violent conversion via the rhetoric of cinema. Once again, time becomes space and space time as the two-dimensional celluloid moment is sent reeling in filmic antithesis.
Elsewhere in Tate Britain’s 4th Triennial, Marcus Coates develops the iconography of shamanism to its Altermodern conclusion. Wearing the carcass of a badger on his head and with a stuffed hare poking from his Adidas tracksuit, Coates attempts to appease the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indigenous animism meets modern monotheism in this short video-work by the artist.
As one wanders through Altermodern one is lead to question the specific location of certain works or exhibits. Works by artists such as Peter Coffin, Loris Gréaud, Katie Peterson, Seth Price, Lindsay Seers and Spartacus Chetwynd demonstrate signs of cause and incident that extend far beyond the gallery walls. Altermodern denies the linearity of modernism, passes through the hall of mirrors fabricated by postmodernism and emerges as a process rather than an identity; as a chain of causes, the effects of which are still playing themselves out - somewhere, somewhen - on a globalised planet. Like the future museum in The Time Machine
, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Altermodern switches around the arrow of time and sticks its finger in Einstein’s cosmic eye. Like The Human Genome Project or the interwoven pages of Wikipedia, Altermoden places us outside of ‘the now’, remoulding modern culture as an explosive momentum rather than a stationary moment.
Whether one runs screaming from the monstrous figure of Altermodern or simply tweaks its nipples in defiance will largely depend on the kind of Triennial experience you desire. Don’t expect to grasp Altermodern on its first, second or even tenth viewing. Just try and remember The Time Traveller’s dilemma as you ponder and hope - beyond all hope - that your future does not become Altermodern’s past.
Altermodern runs at The Tate Britain, London until the 26th of April : www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/altermodern
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