Monday, February 2, 2015

Don't Feed the Animals: A Visit to Serpentine

Walking through Hyde Park this past Saturday I had one of those “now this is English” type of feelings and thoughts. You leave the tube, it’s gray, it’s rainy, it’s not that cold so you shouldn’t complain but it is that certain London cold that seems to seep slowly into your bones like tea in a pot. I head to the gates and voila; you are in a true-blue English park. There is grass, there are trees plopped about, there are fountains and ironworks and a certain open flatness that seems earned versus manicured. There are paved walkways that meander and there are polite directional arrows to lead you this way or that and it was by one of these arrows that led me to my destination, Serpentine Gallery.

The arrow pointed me to walk on a path near a pond/lake of sorts and near this lake there was an assortment of birds. Walking further along the bird cluster gets denser and denser and then I see why. There are some people feeding the birds what I think is bread or some other carbohydrate from a plastic bag. In front of these living human feeders is a spectacle of birds. Three adult swans, a gaggle of geese, mallards, birds with wobbles near their beaks, birds with orange streaks, small birds, stout birds, and screeching birds. There is a mass of birds and they are fighting and swarming for the carbohydrate delights. Okay, so it wasn’t a Hitchcockian level of birds but it was still startling to see. It felt akin to the rushing of stores on Black Friday or the frenzy of a free t-shirt being shot out during a sporting event. Regardless it made me very queasy and leaving that scene that queasiness stayed with me throughout the day.

Serpentine is less a gallery and more like an institution. It acts like, serves as and has programming that reflects these public versus commercial concerns. This Das Institute like feel has been largely out of my aesthetic radar because I just assume that it functions and is a necessary type of place that in general doesn’t actually concern me. Lazy I know but now that I’m in London I knew I had to get to know this space for real. In a funny way, going to a place like Serpentine or to other galleries, museums, art fairs etc. is like a strange blind date. You know it in this superficial, topical way. You have been looking/thinking about it from afar but alas, it is only when you are face to face with it, in it, surrounded by it, that all those reproductions of things you saw and all you associated with it becomes revealed and more personal.

Anyways, into the main gallery we go which is a lot smaller then I thought it would be and a lot more preserved in its Kensington Gardens setting. This I appreciated but the scale was really surprisingly small. Inside there are some sculptures by Reiner Ruthenbeck, which was basically forgettable, as I have a strict no upside down furniture art policy (sort of serious here because honestly, when have you seen good upside down furniture art?). Amongst this show was the main reason I came which was a performance by Beth Collar. Within the show, like actually in the current exhibition, there were people sitting and standing making a sloppy C formation and to the opening of the C were two women, one I am assuming was Collar; young female, white, brown hair, glasses, slouched body and another women; older, grey hair, glasses, straight posture. They were taking turns reading from a script and the performance was called, Like a Mellon Rolling off a Table: Part II. I arrived after it had started so maybe I missed a framing structure of the work but from what I did see I was not very happy with it. The “mellon” is I think referring to a head as by Collar and the other women on the floor are two silicon, flesh colored, cauterized, bald, male heads. They were talking about the heads and other ephemeral thoughts. Collar in a seemingly forced awkward mumble and stutter of words and the other women in a cool, firm, authorial voice. Collar said things like, “It is not a head, it’s the middle of a tree,” and her constant injection of the phrase, “Or something,” nearly had me rolling my eyes off a table.

It was not my cup of tea to say the least. It felt so familiar in its vague poetics and predictability of mumble-core Dadaism. Also, those heads on the floor I just could not metaphorically swallow especially in our current time when beheadings are televised and the separation of the body and humanity seems to have such theoretical popularity. The whole Deleuzian ‘bodies without organs’ is yes, an intellectually stimulating exercise but there is this line where heads and bodies and lives and rhetoric and trauma and real blood versus painted on blood is not a theoretical turn but an actuality. Anyways, the performance just did not do it for me and it added to my already queasy sensations and quickly lowered many of my expectations at the gallery.

Next across the way into some fresh but rainy air was Julio Le Parc’s exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler. Here was a moving, vibrating, strobing light show with direction white lights reflecting off motorized metal sheets. I think it was supposed to be hypnotizing and possibly meditative but I found it claustrophobic and cacophonous. That’s probably just me though. I have sensitivity to strobing light effects so this is obviously not a good situation for me. It was interesting though and the kids seemed to love it. Like toddlers and small children playing with, touching and running around within it. That is I think a big part of Serpentine’s vibe, the ‘for the public’ feeling, and here you can see that is well taken into account.

So lastly, off to the café for a wind down. It’s called The Magazine Restaurant and it’s associated with the gallery and that can’t be confused as it is literally a stones through away. It is white, futuristic and was designed by, you guessed it, Zaha Hadid. It is so Hadid that you just think ‘Hadid’ the entire time you are in proximity to it. It is very airy inside and has that money smell mixed with airport cafeteria holding zone vibe. The staff was punctual but robotic. The pastries, lemon poopy seed cake and chocolate sponge, were dry and clearly not made with love. There was an Artforum waiting at the table and luckily free wifi so all in all it wasn’t a bust but sigh, I have been sadly convinced again that the art/restaurant model is not a good partnership.

Leaving the restaurant I passed some dogs, a black and a brown Labrador.  They were lounging around in the grass and they seemed like permanent fixtures of the grounds. They had a disinterested laze about them and the unfruitful preoccupation with digging a hole in the ground with their nose. Seeing these dilettante dogs, walking back through the park, thinking about the heads being kicked around like soccer balls, remembering the nausea in the light rooms, and tasting the residue of the dry cake in my mouth I had only this one thought: Don’t Feed the Animals. I’m not sure what and why that’s a flashing sign but it somehow makes sense in reacting to a day at the park and in visiting Serpentine.