Sunday, February 08, 2015

But Capitalism is Realism

I got to learn to love Rothko. I was taught to appreciate Beuys, Baselitz, Balthus. I am not sure if the letter B was a coincidence but it wasn't difficult to fall in love with Bauhaus anyway. I always had a thing for orderly shaped structures. In my first ever visit to Berlin in a cold August day in 2005, the Bauhaus Archiv was amongst my first stops, along with Neuenationalgallerie. The efficient linear geometry must have appealed to what my friends regard as my highly analytical mindset. In Turkish, there are a few sayings on people with perfectly "cornered" (or rather right-angled) attitude/mindset/life view -- they are a bit "thick". And so was I, perhaps. That is why Kandinsky came along rather easy, and so did Malevich (and I am sure this is blasphemous).

In any case, this is not about throwing in some major 20th century modernist artists names out there to prove a point. It is about the feelings and thoughts that crossed my way today when I went to see the Sigmar Polke exhibition at Tate Modern, on its penultimate day. It wasn't a perfectly planned day and in fact I had no intention to see the exhibition. A former opportunity I had with Z. was quickly replaced by heavy indulgence in cheese and wine at Gordon's Wine Bar. The exhibition's posters had not appealed to us (and in fact, I now think they are poor representations of the contents of the exhibition) and I for one, had almost no information on Polke and his work. Maybe I'd heard his name in passing in one of those Uni. courses where I was taught to appreciate everything Beuys had to offer to the world -- Beuys, whose disciples (and amongst his fierce critics) included Polke himself, of course.

Today's programme came out of the blue, as well -- or rather out of my wardrobe necessities. If the Argos branch in the Cannon Street Underground Station (yes, there is an Argos on the Underground/Rail Station, which I believe is a good way of utilising some spare storage space) wasn't the only Argos in the vicinity to keep some much-needed wooden hangers in stock, I would have never gotten to write any of this. When my flatmate O. said he'd go see the Polke show and enjoy some fish & chips near Waterloo, I could not think of a better scenario in which I could burn some much needed post-battered cod calories one a journey on the bicycle back via Cannon St. where I could also pick my hangers up... Little did I know, I'd end up indulging myself in deconstructing my own myths on the superiority of the post-war artistic movements, including American take on abstract expressionism, which of course followed from my deepest appreciation of the modernist arts and design movements, at the core of which sat the inter-war period preceding, but not necessarily rendered irrelevant for Polke's references. Wasn't it at Tate Modern, some years ago, I saw works of Otto Dix and others and re-established for the xth time that times of hardships bring about some of the most sincere and sensical pieces of art --- well, all generalisations aside, Polke's 1960s welfare, baby-boomer, West German fuelled art came as a slight refreshment and a cure to a stomach consumed by deep-fried crisp.

There are a few benefits to studying history and sociology for four years: you know (to some extent) what happened at certain periods of time in certain parts of the world and you can most often find discourses, trends, contexts to link things with one another -- especially if you are a bit "thick" like I am. So, it is of little wonder that I usually enjoy the contextual framework of major art exhibitions the most, and there is as much context as there is history. With some decent descriptive guidance, it is very easy to appease me with any exhibition Tate Modern would put together. 

After that due introduction, I should strive to explain why what I got out of Polke's work was still so significant in its own right: First of all, what I learn from Tate Modern's description of Polke's work and its carefully curated sections that include one on "Modern Art" where he criticises the works of Malevich, Pollock, and the American Pop Art, yet by utilising some of their distinctive forms (and at this point, I have no other guidance into Polke's thinking than what I am reading on the descriptions at the exhibition and what I am seeing), is at least a challenge to some of the artistic values I have been taught to appreciate. Moreover, perhaps, it is one of those great intra-art-scene playfulness that these "great artists" played amongst themselves. Polke, to being with, is hardly outside the establishment, something neither he nor the exhibition has any attempt to disguise. It is his critical approach to what he is dispensed at Kunstakademie D├╝sseldorf that creates the much celebrated artistic figure by the end of the 1960s. And it is this celebration, amongst what the dawning of the post-war West German society brings to convenience his later departures from the urban, from the mundane, and towards the spiritual (by way of experimentation of drugs, of course).

Polke's subtle but unsettling relationship with his predecessors and contemporaries and some of my "artistic heroes" is at first satirical. Ridiculing the African interest in early modernist painting, undermining the t-square is all entertaining and provocative but, as can be expected, Polke is very much moved by the very tools of the great works and he is no short of implementing similar methodologies both during his earlier and later years. What is most impressive is his experimentation with new methods -- whether that be unique materials deployed on his canvases, or the break away from the standard canvas as we know it -- yet Polke's outputs, as compared to his contemporaries has but got the thinnest boundaries to tell them apart.

The crux of my unexpected date with Polke is how I seemed to find myself appreciate the methodologically subtle but visually strong response Polke had to his contemporaries, which, in turn becomes his own undoing. Polke, in my opinion, is another one of those great post-modern artists before the dawn of post-modernity and is a great modernist long after modern movements (as we know them, in this geography) have been abandoned. Not that Polke has any claim to any of these entitlements anyway (my information is solely based on information boards and the curation with which I am made to appreciate his work) -- the artist seems to have successfully avoided unnecessary publicity.

What is left, then, is all the emotions one goes through when you see the progression from his small-scale drawings and sketches of the early 1960s, to reach levels of certain transcendence in 1970s and depiction of paths beaten to Afghanistan and Pakistan and engagements with peoples and produce of a new geography and semi-experimental videos to gigantic canvases spanning East-West German borders to Papua New Guinea. And as personal as they are, how I took in all of that is much harder to describe and share --- for all I know, the more accommodating I become in my own fallacies, the wider the spectrum becomes. Polke certainly gave me a good nudge with that.