“I do not think,” my friend Jay once said to me, over a network connection, “that you can possibly write me an email with the subject line ‘Empty shells, ghosts’ and escape with your dignity intact. Unless you were planning on using up your entire 1998 stock of irony now, I think you might want to reconsider.”
At the time, I was hurt. Retrospectively he was quite correct, and I wonder what Jay would say if he could see the rubbish title I’ve given this post. Oh, it fits, of course – but aren’t you, he’d say, in that Estuary English voice he has, in danger of devolving into that pretentious idiot you once were? To which I’d shrug and say “Perhaps he never really left”.
Anyway, artistic pretension is kind of the topic. And we’ll start here.
What was I doing at the Tate Modern? We were on a Cultural Visit. I’d pulled the boys out of school (all pre-approved, of course) and we went on one of Emily’s Grand Excursions, all timetabled and planned to the last detail so as to avoid long periods of inactivity and waiting around – not because either of us are impatient but because the boys get restless when they have to queue. It’s the way of things for us, and something I’ve learned to tolerate. It was the reason we didn’t go to the Natural History Museum and the start of the chain of events that led to me threatening to delete Thomas’s Xbox profile.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the converted power station. Visiting the place was an experience – a good one, by and large, but the sort of thing that has you scratching your head. I’ve decided, in the first instance, that I will never understand Marcel Duchamp.
I mean, it’s a bloody toilet. I don’t care that removing it from its intended setting and labelling it ‘art’ gets it a glass case. If I was to nail a door handle to a piece of chip board and call it art, would you give me a wing to myself? I don’t bloody think so. What’s that? A snow shovel? Oh, very well. Just let me deal with the burglars first.
One floor down, and we found a room full of enormous Polaroids where people’s heads had been exchanged with different fruits. It’s supposed to be a statement on rejoining with nature. It looked like something I do in Fireworks for the sake of a cheap pun. This person had a gallery to themselves. A gallery! In another room, we found twelve TV sets, each displaying a different piece of looped footage; the installation was entitled Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades, and included scenes from Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (thought to be the first film ever made) through to Dancer in the Dark, a film I’d hoped never to see again. Bjork’s lovely, but I still don’t understand how David Morse ever got his equity card.
On the other hand, there were some wonderful pieces. They have Warhol, which Thomas (who developed something of an interest after a school topic) refused to believe was genuine. They have a large, primal-coloured Lichtenstein taking up most of a wall. They have a magnificent stack of radios, floor to ceiling, designed to emulate information overload. And in a darkened screening room they were running loops of Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen, which was simultaneously bizarre and, I think, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.
Oh, and they have this. It is thirty feet high and it reminds me of the last time I had to clean the bathroom wall.
“I mean, seriously,” I said. “You could have done that.”
Josh glanced up at the thing, clearly interested. “Maybe it’s supposed to be a cyclone.”
“…You know, it does look uncannily like a cyclone.”
“Or my bedroom.”
What does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well we’ll get to that another day, when I’ve processed the myriad ideas I have in my head about how to reconcile Doctor Who and modern art. In the meantime, we should be grateful that the TV show was never quite so pretentious.