Art, both the raw and the cooked, made for a particularly nourishing media menu last month as Channel Four took a look at objects from beyond the perimeter of officially sanctioned art and BBC 2 visited a new breed of young collectors for whom purchasing contemporary art is a badge of arrival. The South Bank Show, meanwhile, profiled the sculptor Anish Kapoor as he prepared for a major French exhibition.
Like “primitive art”, the term “outsider art” is entirely inappropriate to what it sets out to describe, but despite its shortcomings we seem resigned to using it anyway. Hence the string of laboured qualifiers which invariably follow in its wake.
It was an inspired idea to make a television programme on the world’s wackiest outsider art projects—those crockery-encrusted palaces erected by introspective postmen or eccentric millionaires from LA to Chandigarh—but it was a lame idea to get English rock-star Jarvis Cocker to present it. Journeys into the Outside (Channel Four) had the Pulp front-man touring around in a four-wheel drive Jeep (you’ve got to drive like the common people), coaxing monosyllables from a series of reluctant interviewees. By virtue of their outsider status, most had long since opted for the language of cement and broken china over normal social discourse, so we were on a losing wicket from the outset.
Rock and roll
Evidently bewitched by the idea of outsider art since his days as a disillusioned film student at St Martin’s School of Art, it was, paradoxically, only by virtue of Cocker’s insider status as a rock musician that he landed the job of presenting his own television series on the subject. As is usually the case when television allows celebrities to doggy-paddle out of their depth, Jarvis was all too often left gasping for air. For someone who has been nurturing an interest in marginal art practices for some years, he proved surprisingly bereft of insight, as in the first programme he drove from one location to the next, practising his pidgin French on a series of increasingly reticent bricoleurs in berets. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the roots of the compulsive-obsessive behaviour which seemed to underpin many of these projects remained beyond reach, but one also quickly realised that outside is a relative position. On one typical occasion the outsider remained stubbornly inside as Cocker vainly attempted to winkle the shamanistic Chomo from his bolthole deep in the forest of Fontainebleau. Judging from Chomo’s twenty-four-hour film, “Spiritual disembarcation”, it was a blessed relief that he failed.
It soon became clear that Chomo’s multi-stranded activities—sculpture, film-making, bee-keeping, free music, religion, life, death and “the corridor of dreams”—were hardly representative of common or garden outsider art, much of which seems to involve an an archaic variant of stone-cladding over makeshift architecture. A rough mosaic work of sea-shells or broken china, not unlike Gaudi’s trencadi-covered surfaces, has emerged as the medium of choice in a good deal of outsider assemblage, usually combined with some form of home-made concrete. Foraged from domestic or municipal debris, junk mosaic has the virtue of being both cheap and plentiful and of allowing limitless extension of the original vision. Some form of epiphany—be it tripping over the right stone in the road, receiving spiritual instructions in a theophanic visitation, or being covered in a cloud of butterflies—emerged as another key theme.
Most of us are familiar with the Watts Towers, Simon Rodia’s magnificent spiralling monuments in South Central Los Angeles, and with Edward James’s Mexican jungle palace, both of which have defied the bulldozers and the tourists to remain as heroic emblems of outsider vision, but it was a revelation to learn that Nek Chand’s Rock Garden in Chandigarh, Punjab, is India’s second biggest tourist attraction after the Taj Mahal. Chand’s garden, constructed from the debris of demolition that cleared a space for Le Corbusier’s adjacent development, now sits in curious counterpoint to its modernist neighbour.
“The less premeditation the better”, says British sculptor Anish Kapoor, whose entire project springs from a wellspring of outsiderdom. Born in India of an Iraqi-Jewish mother and an English father, and educated in Britain, Kapoor’s trans-cultural identity invested him, he says, with “a curious condition of uncertainty, perhaps one of the reasons why I’m interested in uncertain objects.” Sarah Wason’s excellent film for The South Bank Show (BBC2, 27 February) followed Kapoor as he prepared his uncertain objects for a major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bordeaux.
It has become something of a cliché that sculpture is above all a bodily art, but Kapoor’s work succeeds better than more overt body practices in referencing the mystery and ambiguity—what has been called the “hidden profane”—of the body’s internal landscape. “One of the big problems with sculpture is that it isn’t a picture,” he says, “it is the effect on the body that counts.” His recent pieces, exploring uncertain spaces, play on the vulnerability of the onlooker. “It’s that little moment of tension that asks what it is that I’m looking at” that drives Kapoor forward, “the condition of darkness, the darkness of the interior of our bodies if you like.”
Talking of the body’s dark interiors, a dentist appeared as one of the unlikely stars of BBC 2’s Close Up series on The Collectors later in the month, which eavesdropped on young buyers of contemporary art.
Damien Hirst’s dentist, one Adrian Mullish, has for some time been offering treatment in exchange for spin paintings (“Beautiful dental brushing full mouth rehabilitation mullish thank-you painting”) and other works by his star client. However, a dental surgery may not be the best place to display Hirst’s blue-chip medicine cabinets which tend to disappear into the general clinical ambience, but evidently it keeps visiting pharmacists on the back foot. As we watched Adrian burrowing down among the molars one couldn’t help thinking that Mona Hartoum would be a good client to chase.
So much for dental therapy. For Victoria Branson, collecting offered a different sort of rehabilitation following the trauma of divorce. “If you’ve known pain, art takes on a new meaning,” she says. A Stefan Balkenhol caught her eye on a bad day—“I bought it and felt instantly better.” Victoria gets a thrill from the cut and thrust of buying at auction. “Christie’s have been very clever,” she says of the auction house’s decision to hold contemporary art sales in the chic loft-land of Clerkenwell, where “the art looks very seductive.” Nevertheless, she is also aware that a certain caution is required when buying under the hammer. “You’re never quite sure what‘s happening. That’s why they’re so clever at auction. You just get done.” Damien Hirst agreed: “It’s Oxfam. It’s a second-hand shop.”
Fear of the second-hand shop might have been a factor motivating John Prime, who eschews auctions in favour of personal contact with the artist. John and Joanne Prime were happily married until John’s love affair with the work of Callum Innes began to intensify. Try as she might, Joanne just couldn’t get the point of those all-white paintings as she watched helplessly from the wings while John transformed their Victorian semi into a suburban white cube. Forging a friendship with the artist enriches John’s understanding of the work he is buying while allowing him to bypass what he sees as an alienating gallery system. “Galleries need people like me to keep the business going in times of recession”, said John, clearly resentful of being made to feel like an outsider, “they need to embrace and welcome people.” Damien Hirst agreed: “They’re the most boring shops in the world and the hardest place to buy anything.” Robert Tibbles, on the other hand, who reckons his collection is “museum standard”, loves the sheer snobbery of it all and goes to Cork Street for a damn good flattering. “It was the most fabulous sensation”, he recalled of his first visit to Waddington, whose staff treated him like a visiting potentate. “There is a huge viewing room and you are given a chair and asked what kind of coffee you like and when it comes you are asked if it’s the right temperature and four people bring the pictures in and all this activity is extremely enveloping and absolutely delicious.” They don’t do that at Oxfam.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Pulp aesthetics'