TATE BRITAIN 9.5.11
‘ 'You could describe art galleries as the history of the rejection of the domestic’, said Andrew Brighton in a study day on the AT HOME WITH ART exhibition at Tate Modern in 2000. After all, a work of art is unfathomable and you can interact with it forever. But an object has a beginning, a middle and an end. You select it, use it – and walk away. Closure.
What then are Richard Wentworth's two chairs doing in Tate Britain? They’re joined by a cable threaded through their seats, from which hang two lead balls, weights at the end of interconnecting cords. South American gauchos (cowboys) use bolas (balls) like these to capture animals by entangling their legs. Here each chair ensnares the other. What we most ask of a chair is stability, and these are useless. All they can do is roll against each other.
But there’s more. These are mass-produced functional stacking chairs (though now they can’t even do that properly). John Ruskin ‘look at the (furniture & objects in) the room about you & denounce mind-numbing mass-produced perfection which came out of man’s slavery (to a machine)’. Oscar Wilde said ‘you should have nothing which was not a joy to those who made it & a joy to those who use it,’
Is it true that we prefer to have around us things with meaning? Are goods things to think with? Do clothes, for example, have an instrumental function (keeping us hot/cool/dry) AND an expressive function, (telling the world who we are)? Until the 20C chairs were often passed down through families or crafted by someone you knew. They had an auto biography and you shared their history. Not any more. Walter Benjamin pointed out as early as the 1930s and 40s that ‘new furniture and houses celebrate glass and materials which are hard and flat, nothing settles on it. It makes for rooms in which it is difficult to leave a trace, so eliminates domesticity.’
Wentworth has played a leading role in New British Sculpture since the end of the 70s. 'I live in a ready-made landscape', Wentworth remarked early in his career, 'and I want to put it to use'. His work has changed traditional definitions of sculpture. By putting together things which bear no relation to one other and by taking everyday objects and materials out of their original context, he breaks down our traditional classifications and stretches our understanding.
Wentworth gave up making sculpture for a while in the 1970s, thinking that it had become 'as dry as broken biscuits'. He said 'humour is trying to find pockets of breathable air in a stifling atmosphere...I hate the way I work, the anxiety in waiting for enthusiasm to meet method, material to meet image, idea to meet language'.
Amen to that. Sometimes ‘being creative’ works, goes well. More often it’s a diet of dry biscuits. But as long as there are people around like Wentworth to point out things like ‘a plate is the only object where you get your own & the minute you have finished with it it’s someone else’s’ (which he said at the study day in 2000 which I began with), life will never be dull.