Having clarified my position regarding the Museum of Everything (click here) we can move on to the review of The Alternative Guide to the Universe that is currently showing at the Hayward Gallery. Curated by Ralph Rugoff it features ‘artists’ that work on the fringes of art, architecture, science, and philosophy. I guess this means that they are NOT artists and that their ‘produce’ should be understood under a different set of rules and it is that ‘vibration of meaning’ that the show feeds.
Alternative physicist James Carter (born in 1944) makes wonderfully intricate models, diagrams, charts and drawings that to a layman look like true or at least plausible calculations.It’s only when you learn that all his conclusions are predicated on his theory that gravity is an illusion caused by the doubling of the earth’s size every 19 minutes that you may well decide that he is gloriously, harmlessly bonkers. So this show aesthetises his marginality.
French civil engineer Jean Perdrizet (1907-1975) designed a machine that he was convinced enabled him to communicate with the dead in an invented language he called ‘Sidereal Esperanto.’ American mystic Paul Laffoley has designed a gun that shoots prayers to an electrically powered Messiah. In both cases the difficulty for most of us is not the belief in life after death but the use of mechanical means to put into tangible form beliefs that belong in the realms of thought and speculation. Again, more asthetisation of madness to the point of asking oneself if this is ethical at all. I would not like my father, to give an example, to be commemorated for how beautifully crazy he was, would I? Besides, there is an ethical aspect of all this ‘beautification’ that has to do with what the show is pushing aside in its ‘museum-like’ distillation.
More difficult to interpret is the work in the show that falls into the category of art. The reason is that in art the maker’s intention is all important, and in many cases the motives of the people who made these works remains unfathomable. Morton Bartlett (1909-1992), for example, made meticulously detailed plaster dolls of children, each half the size of life, anatomically complete, and dressed in clothes he designed and made himself. What makes his dolls different from those sold in toy shops was that they not only had the physical characteristics appropriate to children aged from about seven to 14, but realistic faces that express fear, misery, sensuality, and distress.When Bartlett then photographed his creations using dramatic effects of light and shadow the results are so lifelike that you sometimes have to look twice to determine that these are not real children. This is not art, this is mimesis. Since Bartlett never married, it is possible that his motive may have been sexual, or perhaps merely the expression of a lonely man’s desire for the children he never had. We simply don’t know. So what are we celebrating then?
Likewise Eugene Von Bruenchenhein spent 40 years taking photos of his wife both nude and clothed, in poses and costumes of his own devising. He shows her as a glamour model, a Hollywood star, a circus performer or country lass, transforming her appearance so that she is unrecognisable as the same person from one photo to another. Are his photos blueprints for Cindy Sherman’s investigations into appearance and identity, or just a loving husband’s innocent hobby? Is it only me feeling awkward even talking about this? What is wrong with post-Victorian England?
What does ‘outsider art’ show and which can of beholder is constructing? I am referring to the suffering, the messy, the ‘not-showable’. Of course, this forces us to move our angle in order to see ‘The Alternative Guide to the Universe’ as a possible answer for the following question: Are these efforts a conflation of an allegorisation of many middleclass hypocrisies and of the glamorisation of misery that characterises the culture (and fashion) of the world in times of crisis and instability. Are these shows about our own fears of becoming….‘that thing that they we have become’ so we can laugh at ourselves instead of crying?
Until August 26. Tickets:0844 875 0072 or southbankcentre.co.uk