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May we suggest

Interviews / October 29, 2009

Adrian Searle: Interview in Toronto

Art critic Adrian Searle

There is perhaps no better or more authoritative voice on contemporary art than that of British critic Adrian Searle. Whether it’s in the print edition of the Guardian or in his videocasts and Private View audiocasts on the paper’s website, you can count on Searle to deliver a keenly perceptive, no-holds-barred take on the art that matters. Searle was in Toronto recently to deliver a keynote address—”Bribes, Threats and Making Things Up: A Critic Speaks”—at Art Toronto. In this exclusive interview, Canadian Art’s Bryne McLaughlin caught up with Searle to talk about art fairs, a rebounding art market and the importance of thinking big at the Tate.

Bryne McLaughlin: We’re here at Art Toronto and it seems impossible to speak about art fairs without first noting the effect of last year’s economic downturn on the art market. One recent report in the Guardian cited that contemporary art prices had risen 313 percent in the two years prior to September 2008, but have since dropped by 63 percent. Despite this general tone of doom and gloom, the art market seems to have shifted ground and found its feet. You touched on this in a videocast from the Frieze Art Fair noting that galleries at the fair had brought in not only affordable works, but also massive and expensive pieces. The atmosphere at the fair was, as you said, “buoyant and alive.” What do you make of this seemingly conflicted new reality?

Adrian Searle: It’s funny, isn’t it. One of the bigger pieces at Frieze was this huge tree by Ugo Rondinone that, as far as I understand, was actually bought by someone who is a dealer but who also collects art. Someone who is actually showing at the fair. So you wonder how much of it is just sort of short circuit really. There is a certain Protestant feeling that before people were buying without looking. This whole thing where collectors fly around in droves…they don’t go and see shows in galleries, they don’t necessarily attend the museum retrospectives—unless they’ve got a work that they’ve loaned in it. There’s a kind of group mind at work—the hive mentality of the collector—and they fetch up at all of the big art fairs. I don’t know if they’ll fetch up at Toronto or not.

I actually don’t pay all that much attention to the market. I don’t follow it with any assiduousness, really. I pick up a lot of tittle-tattle and I try and dismiss it and not let it interfere when I’m writing. I do think the market was definitely overheated. Frieze is now a bit smaller and they have this section called Frame, which is younger galleries doing one-person shows on their stands rather than just setting out all of their wares. It’s very good. And the balance of galleries, plus artist projects, plus younger galleries…it seems about right. It’s manageable and you know there’s something at every turn. Toronto is very different. From my quick once round it in the middle of the opening, which is obviously not the best way of seeing it, the fair is a more heterogenic collection. There didn’t seem to be much filtering. I saw a couple of stands from London and you think, well these are galleries that never get into Frieze, they just wouldn’t make the cut. I’ve only been to Art Basel Miami once and Miami was so hideous I just thought, I never want to be here again.

I don’t pay all that much attention to the market. I pick up a lot of tittle-tattle and I try and dismiss it and not let it interfere when I’m writing. I don’t really hang out at fairs. I mean Frieze is in my hometown and I’ve been associated with Frieze magazine since it began and the Guardian is now a media sponsor of the fair. But in the first year of Frieze, the Guardian wasn’t particularly interested in covering it and it took a lot of persuading, partly by me to the arts editor, and partly because a gallery director managed to get the editor of the newspaper to go around the fair and he asked “Why aren’t we covering this?” Suddenly a sidebar column I was supposed to write became the big story. But we don’t really cover art fairs as a rule. They’re not perfect places to look at art for anybody. I took a quick look in at Trout Unlimited yesterday. I can understand that in a way and it works because you know the trout aren’t there, they’re out there in the rivers, you just get the stuff to go fishing for them. Whereas you’re supposed to have some sort of communication with the artworks upstairs, which is kind of difficult when you’ve got someone breathing down your neck telling you what to think and why you should buy. Having said that, I’ve been invited to talk here and these kind of peripheral things—talks lectures, panels—I think they’re good. Fairs are not mini-biennials, they’re just not. But they do get a lot of people in one place and they are good places to have discussions.

BM: You also mentioned in your Frieze report that there can be serious finds at fairs…

AS: Of course, a bit difficult though they might be to see properly. I don’t know, some gallery might put up a Bill Viola video and people might start crying or something, God forbid. But at Frieze, there in a corner was this terrific film by Manon de Boer and it was just a little Belgian gallery’s stand but they actually built a false wall and got a projector and you could watch it properly and it was terrific. So things do make waves beyond their market.

BM: Another thing that struck me was your comment about the impressive number of people at Frieze, and the variety. As you observed, it isn’t just a crowd of committed art people or professionals, it’s really the general public that show up.

AS: The hunger is definitely there. It is in fact not all that new of a phenomenon. I remember happening to be in Madrid in the late 1980s and going to ARCO and it was like that then. Even though you have to pay to get in, maybe somehow people feel more willing to go to an art fair than a monographic show in a big museum. Those exhibitions obviously draw a lot of people too, but not quite in the same way. So it’s interesting. I haven’t got to the bottom of it at all.

BM: There’s an event that happens earlier in the fall in Toronto called Nuit Blanche, and according to the numbers they publicize it’s gone in three years from having an audience of 425,000 to near a million in one night. I don’t think anyone’s quite figured out how to explain it. For instance, the queues to get into certain installations were an hour and a half or an hour and 45 minutes…in the middle of the night. I can’t imagine that the public would do such a thing at a museum or gallery. What’s the expectation?

AS: It’s what we would call “the buzz.” There is a sense in which you feel that art has become part of the mainstream entertainment industry and it runs the gamut from being massive spectacles and fan fair rides to freakshows. It’s extraordinary really. I suspect artists probably want to claw back some of the deeper sides of their work from that and I think everybody’s probably a bit uncomfortable. But then again, artists also become uncomfortable with the “museumification,” if you like, of their work. When works get put in big shows in museums they come with the explanatory wall panel which tells you what to think and usually says something like “This work challenges your perceptions” or some other cliché like that. I think artists feel a bit gelded by it all. But this is an old story, isn’t it. I think Susan Sontag said somewhere that museums both accept the dissident and the radical and by doing so they tame them. Or as some American curators from the 1980s said, the galleries are both midwives and castrators, which is a terrifying compound.

BM: With that in mind, let’s talk about the Tate. In many respects it sets the art-world agenda…

AS: The way the MoMA used to.

BM: Yes, but I’m thinking particularly of two marquee exhibitions: the Turner Prize and the Unilever Series in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. This year’s Turner Prize exhibition just opened at Tate Britain and you wrote in your review for the Guardian that “the show is a meat-grinder.”

AS: Well I don’t think it’s the exhibition itself, it’s all of the attendant attention that the artists get.

BM: Which has become part and parcel of the Turner Prize phenomenon.

AS: It has certainly become so over the last 20 years. Before that it was a rather quiet affair and not very good either. So yes, it seems to have turned into a bit of a monster, I think in several ways. To begin with, it affects the artists who get chosen. Having been a judge myself, the question does arise early on in discussions about who’s been nominated, whether the artists proposed could deal with it, whether they are equipped and whether it will actually harm them if they’re pushed into it. So they’ve got to have a bit of resilience. And there are artists who have refused to be in the show. That affects the kind of exhibition you get. And then artists are nominated for what they’ve done in the previous 12 months, which is a bit of a loose description really because obviously you are looking at their back histories much more so. Who should win becomes driven by the exhibition they’ve put on rather than the things they’ve done that have led up to that. And so they have to really perform and they go too far sometimes. Instead of showing their best work, they show a Turner Prize work. That’s a bit strange, but maybe prizes are always a bit skewed in that way. And then, this is from my experience, in the discussion you have about who should be given the prize—having already discussed whether one artist or another is equipped to deal with being in the show in the first place—you have to consider how well they’ll do with not winning it. So that’s complicated.

I think most of the artists now take the Turner Prize for what it is without blowing it out of proportion. They’re not going to break down into tears and say, “It’s the proudest moment of my life.” It’s not like those hideous Oscar things. Most artists accept that it will change your life, possibly in bad ways. And then you get artists who were nominated and didn’t win it, whose careers then blossomed. Peter Doig never won it; Tacita Dean never won it. Tacita went on to win the Hugo Boss Prize in 2006 and has now just won the Kurt Schwitters Prize in Germany. But it isn’t about awards, is it. Artists who worry about getting awards are a bit like critics who wonder if one day they’ll get an OBE or something.

It has become a phenomenon, obviously. Nothing’s pure and there is a way in which it has certainly helped the reception of contemporary art in the UK and probably beyond. That’s why other countries have emulated it.

BM: As we have here with the Sobey Art Award, which was just given out last week to David Altmejd.

AS: A set designer really, isn’t he. I mean he’s all right, but where would he be without silicone glue?

BM: Perhaps, but his exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale did bring significant international attention to a young Canadian artist, which can be a rare thing.

AS: Janet Cardiff got it, didn’t she? And Rodney Graham’s Vexation Island was one of the big hits of that particular biennale.

BM: The Turbine Hall has a mass appeal that rivals the Turner Prize phenomenon but its effect on audiences seems to be different. People have epiphanies, it’s more thought provoking…

AS:They can break their arms on a slide…

BM: It seems as though it’s become the big art venue.

AS: I think so, and that also leads artists to make a major spectacle. I think last year’s installation by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster was not one of the successful ones. It was the wrong work for the space. And it was too much of a concoction as far as I could see. In Olafur Eliasson’s installation people laid under this artificial sun and had picnics and all the rest of it. With Miroslaw Balka’s How It Is, which is just this great black box, people kind of destroy it by use. They increase the light levels by using their mobile-phone cameras. I know Miroslaw wanted it to be a rather dour experience. I don’t think he wanted it to be an evocation of the Holocaust, although those associations are unavoidably made partly because he talks about them all the time. It was meant to be a somewhat Beckettian experience, to just go walking into a volume of dark. In a way it is a bit like a Richard Serra made of antimatter. Instead of you and the object, you’re inside it.

The French have done their own Turbine Hall project in the Grand Palais’ Monumeta project, which Serra did magnificently a year ago with a piece called Promenade. The next one in January is by Christian Boltanski. There you’ve got an architecture that is even more insistent than the Turbine Hall, this great beaux arts cast-iron pavilion. An enormously difficult space if you’re going to use it in a way that respects the architecture. That too seems to have had a similar effect on the public. I went back to the Serra on two different occasions. Again, there were people who were looking rather doleful and lost in their thoughts. But I think big exhibition spaces like these allow people a certain space. Artworks can be destroyed by too many people. It’s like the Mona Lisa, too many people have looked at it and it dies. There is a relationship of people to space that has an intense psychological effect. It gives you a chance to measure yourself against things.

BM: How is being selected to do the Turbine Hall a measure of an artist’s career?

AS: It must be, in a certain respect. But obviously you wouldn’t ask a miniaturist to do it, would you. You wouldn’t ask Morandi to do it, for example. And it isn’t a project for a painter. If he were alive you might well imagine Robert Smithson spilling several thousand tons of goo down the ramp. And I’ll bet you there are artists who will never be asked to do it because it would be too predictable. I’m thinking of Anslem Keifer. He did the equivalent at the Opéra Bastille in Paris a few months ago where he broke through the back of the stage into the rehearsal halls behind. It was almost as long as the Turbine Hall and you’re sitting in the auditorium and watching people 150 metres away wandering about on the stage until another load of ash falls.

BM: Any Canadian artists on your radar?

AS: I’m sure there are without me really being too much aware of their Canadian-ness. I suppose the one I’ve known longest is Peter Doig because he was my student at Saint Martins in the early 1980s. Of course, Rodney and Jeff and all those people…Joni Mitchell [laughs]. I hated the whole promotion of Brit art because it was Brit art. I feel that about wherever artists come from, whether you’re a Mexican, a New Zealander or a Canadian. Comparatively, there may be more artists with world reputations living in Toronto than there are in Madrid or Barcelona or Rome, or perhaps even in Paris. Not as many as there are in Berlin or in London at the moment, but Toronto is certainly not a moribund place by any means. As far as I know, and it’s not just to do with General Idea or things like that, there’s a very lively scene here in artist-run spaces and so forth, which you don’t get in certain European capitals, partly for socio-economic reasons and partly because people have never thought of it, which is strange. You’d think there’d be more alternative spaces in New York, but there isn’t really. So all of those demographic things are kind of interesting in that some cities—maybe it has to do with their layouts, the geography, available building spaces—lend themselves to the kind of activities that go on here that don’t go on in Barcelona. I suppose in a way, and it might be Toronto itself, or the weather, but I keep thinking of Glasgow for some reason, which is another extremely lively city where things go on despite official culture and the money that the city might put into them as much as because of them.