Previewing the Folkestone Triennial

Last night I went to the official preview of the Triennial, a welcome attempt to involve the local population, though it has to be said it was the local creative population and the chasm revealed between the presentations and the expectations of ordinary people is something I want to reflect on.

From what I can see so far (I have yet to look at the actual work, and I’m assuming that not all of it will be available before the official opening tomorrow) there’s a predictable mix of interesting and depressing things. What’s worrying is that from her performance yesterday Andrea Schlieker as curator of the Triennial isn’t capable of telling the difference, reflecting the myopia of the art establishment. There was a telling moment as she described Martin Creed’s “composition” for the Leas Lift – a simple falling or rising scale played by the Sacconi Quartet … which Schlieker described as “almost banal” and I couldn’t help thinking she just needed to ditch the first word and we’d be getting at the Emperor’s naked truth. I suspect the ordinary people of Folkestone are quite capable of seeing immediately the banality of what’s being presented for our contemplation, and right to do so. The problem isn’t that the people are somehow missing the point. They “get” all too readily what’s being offered, and can be excused for thinking it’s not worth having.

This meshes interestingly with the ideas put forward in the second half of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, which I happen to have been reading recently. His thesis reaches in two directions, first to fellow neuroscientists, asking them for a little more philosophical rigour in the claims they may make about brains and mind, but then into aesthetics. It’s a fascinating book in many ways, but the single most powerful thing he draws from his observations about the respective capabilities of our left and right brain hemispheres is a humane and generous insistence on the possible richness of our experience, a richness only fully delivered when both hemispheres are working together (he gives plenty of evidence to justify his characterisation of typical activity from each hemisphere). He argues then that from the 20th century our political, economic, philosophical and aesthetic culture has been driven by unbalanced left brain thinking about the world – a way of thinking that is deliberately narrow, over-simplistic, authoritarian, utilitarian and ignorantly materialist. He emphasises that it’s not a question of right brain = good, left = bad, nor some reactionary opposition of traditional and contemporary art. He accepts that left brain analysis can advance our thinking in many ways, but argues that once done the analysis has to be reintegrated with the right hemisphere’s capacity to make richer connections, to deal fully in metaphor and higher values than banal utility. He acknowledges that this synthesis continues to be evident in the hands of modernism’s great artists, their greatness marked by their ability to transcend the limits of contemporary thought and practice.

In contrast I think it fair to say that the mainstream of contemporary art has become bogged down in a facile self-consciousness, then a limiting cynicism, a limited view of human possibility, which McGilchrist would say is vividly characteristic of unbalanced left-brain thinking.

Stepping back from the neuroscience, I think we can say the result is an art that offers less than ordinary experience, in doing so begging the question of why we should bother (which in essence is the populist, “uneducated” response to much contemporary and particularly conceptual art). At the Triennial launch Schlieker patiently explained to us the significance of Cornelia Parker’s mermaid, a life cast from a local woman. The point we were told, is to show us that real bodies are different from idealised traditional representation, but equally worthy of celebration. That’s fair enough, but since I’ve already “got” that point, what more am I going to get from looking at the cast on the beach? Because it’s a lifecast Parker has removed her own consciousness from the piece. Similarly we are told that Ruth Ewan’s ten hour clocks are an “intervention” designed to make us think about the French Revolution, about time and the presence of history in our reality, for which I’m duly grateful, but I can do that sitting at home. What is it about my encounter with the clock object that’s going to qualify or enrich this thought? What is there in the object that’s not immediately obvious?

What seems to be going on, in terms McGilchrist himself adopts from other writers, is that I’m being invited to stare at the “art object”, as a starting point for reflection, but all the object itself, reified and insistently itself, will yield is a further enclosure for me in the self of my own thoughts, through my sense of the impenetrable distance between myself and the object (that’s what reification too easily can do). Without the sense of the artist’s consciousness (visible in some intervening and shaping hand) in the work there’s nothing to draw me out of myself, to draw me forward to an experience which is different from me sitting on my own staring at the fireplace, or a cup of tea (which whatever else it might be, is certainly not “art”). And if the art establishment wants to say that this hopeless self-consciousness is honesty, a reflection of how the world really is, and that we are doomed to an atomistic flit from birth to death, I want to say that this is a dreary and easily falsified insight. If that’s what you believe you need to get out more.

Why does this need saying? It’s because that same art critical establishment, unlike everyone else, doesn’t seem to understand what’s wrong with the terms it’s using. The grimmest joke of all is that if we go back to the beginnings of conceptual art, to Duchamp’s “ready made” urinal, the gesture was intended as a sardonic reproach to the idiocies of the art establishment. Perhaps Duchamp would have laughed till he cried to see that the same establishment has turned this gesture against itself, adopted it and made it its own, a mantra for practice, or indeed non-practice. This is bad faith born out of a historically-specific despair. Life and art are both richer than this collapse into self-consciousness allows, and one of the reasons why we have always valued art is its ability to lead us out of that limited self-consciousness. Ironically an art which only takes us back to self-consciousness has lost sight of its own possibilities.

As if to bring this home, walking out last night from the preview into a sudden shower Folkestone was arced by an astonishing double rainbow, the colours of the full parabola rich against a glowering grey sky and a golden sunlight on the wet brickwork of the town’s towering viaduct.

Here was the wonder of direct experience, and art can bring a further dimension to that wonder, a dimension which draws us forward through the possibility of a shared consciousness. It’s hard to see that an art which offers the opposite offers anything worth having at all.

This is not an argument for a return to more traditional representational art. It’s a plea for artists to reintegrate the insights of abstraction in a fuller vision of human possibility. All the same I suspect that in the process the concept of the “ready made” needs to be consigned to the dustbin of art-history: for art to take us beyond the dreary limits of self-consciousness my intuition is that a little more making needs to be visible.

For all I know at this point, some of the reintegration I describe may be going on in the work on display at the Triennial, but if so it will be in spite of the curatorial decisions rather than because of them. Fortunately too, this year the Folkestone Creative Foundation has encouraged a vibrant festival fringe, so there’s a lot to look at, and certainly there’s a buzz in the town. Once again the quality is going to be very mixed, but that’s always going to be the case. Ironically it’s only the essentially elitist proponents of conceptual art who seem to think that art can be easy.

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