Anyone still wondering with Paul Mason whether contemporary art is in any way declining in power or relevance really needs to get to Nottingham Contemporary‘s new exhibition. The, at first sight, unlikely pairing of Mika Rottenberg and James Gillray makes for one of the most interesting and inspiring exhibitions I have seen in a while. It also provides an object lesson in what the word ‘contemporary’ might mean.
Mika Rottenberg is contemporary in the conventional sense, but in an extraordinary way. Her short films, many including a set of almost cartoonish/porn star-like characters, manage to be hugely entertaining, funny and poignant all at the same time and without being overtly political or preachy. To describe them in too much detail would not do them any justice, any more than still images taken from them. What really ‘works’ (for me at least) about them, however, is that they combine a profound seriousness with a playfulness very much in the long tradition of artistic and literary paradox discussed in earlier posts on Cairo and money. They are also extremely beautifully made – with strong echoes of the films of Jan Svankmajer or the early Quay Brothers – particularly the most recent Squeeze. To say that Squeeze is essentially a feminist take on economic globalization and the unexpected intersections of women’s lives around the world is to make it sound like a manifesto, which it most assuredly is not. It is, rather, an often claustrophobic, fleshy, sweaty, visceral exploration of the landscapes of contemporary industrial capitalism, in which bodies, objects and commodities (rubber, lettuces, cosmetics) meet and interact in peculiarly fragmented ways. It is also stands as a nice coda to the Uneven Geographies: Art and Globalization staged at the gallery in 2010.
Rottenberg is a revelation to me personally: I must confess that I went to the exhibition primarily to se the Gillray prints. There are about 40 of the latter on loan from the V&A print collection, all hand-coloured and in pristine condition. In a very different way (not to mention a different century) Gillray also combines biting political satire with a highly entertaining poke at the gross corporeality of his protagonists – especially William Pitt, Napoleon, and assorted members of the British aristocracy and monarchy. Like Rottenberg they are serious, playful and stunningly beautiful – indeed the images are often so strong that it can be quite hard to see past them to the exquisitely crafted detail they all contain (take a magnifying glass). My only very slight disappointment was that the selection did not include my absolute favourites – Gillray’s prints from 1797 onwards, savaging the decision to suspend Sterling convertibility into metal. If that sounds dry, this is Pitt as Midas, complete with asses ears, swallowing the nation’s gold and farting and belching worthless paper in return:
The most striking thing about the Nottingham show as a whole, however, is how well these competely different artists’ work sit alongside each other. Bringing together a late-18th century curmudgeonly Tory with a 21st century film-making feminist would not be the obvious choice for a contemporary art gallery, but it works. And it works because both operate within their own visual worlds that are both completely separate from their ‘real’ environments (they are self-contained visual xenospaces, in fact), but are also transcendent in the issues, themes and problems they explore. As a consequence, both bodies of work are ‘contemporary’, irrespective of the period in which they were produced.
The fact that I was fortunate enough to be able to see them on the day that the local election results in the UK revealed the mauling the electorate had given our government of arrogant, plutocratic, male (predominantly), bankers and other charlatans gave the whole thing an additional and delicious relevance.