The Secession building in Vienna is a magnificent example of Jugendstil architecture. It was built in 1897 for a group of rebel artists seceding from the long-established fine art institution in the city and features the stunning 'Beethoven Frieze' by Gustav Klimt. The 'Frieze', painted by Klimt in 1901 for the 14th Secession exhibition, to honour the composer, has been on permanent display since 1986 in a specially built climate-controlled room in the basement.
But, on my visit to the Secession a few years ago, I discovered something significantly less inspiring on the top floor of the building. In a dimly lit room there was just one item on display. Illuminated by an Anglepoise lamp, a plain white plastic cup went round and round on a record turntable. I looked for an explanation – what on earth was this all about? What was it supposed to represent? There was nothing, not a single, helpful explanatory note – just the endless, tedious rotation of this cup.
In the basement I was able to admire the work and undoubted skill of a great Austrian Secession-style artist. On the top floor, I was encouraged to admire the juxtaposition of lamp, cup and turntable – and rendered totally bemused. Not 'getting' that which we are told is 'art' is a sure-fire way of being labelled a philistine. If you are unable to summon deep and meaningful thoughts about a rotating cup then, clearly, you operate at a very basic level of cultural appreciation.
I recalled that cup this week when I read the story of the upcoming 'art exhibition' at GoMA, the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. The exhibition, which will occupy the main space at GoMA in the heart of the city centre, will for the next five months consist of absolutely nothing at all.
Dutch artist Marlie Mul, who had been commissioned to provide something for this important space, has requested that there will be no exhibition whatsoever, and that the area be deliberately left empty, calling the event: 'This Exhibition Has Been Cancelled'. The accompanying blurb suggests that the idea is 'to force us to question the value and function of cultural institutions such as GoMA in contemporary society today'. Utter claptrap.
Will Cooper, GoMA's curator of contemporary art, adds, in yet more emperor's-new-clothes-speak: 'By removing what would traditionally be considered an art object, we are instead presenting the gallery as an empty space, giving us a moment to question the value of turning over exhibition after exhibition after exhibition.' But surely this is what people want in a gallery – to see an actual exhibition, some real art, and not an empty space with a succession of billboards (the one tangible contribution of Mul), announcing the exhibition's 'cancellation' and inviting members of the public to come up with their own suggestions about what might fill the space.
Mul, born in Utrecht in 1980, has some impressive credentials. She studied architectural history and theory at the Architectural Association in London and fine arts, fashion and textile design at Maastricht University, where she was also awarded a BA in sculpture. She lives and works in Berlin and London – and can afford to. A couple of years ago, following her exhibition 'Boneless Banquet for One', she sold sculptures which looked like dirty puddles for a cool £3,400 each. These sculptures, suggests the ArtNet website, 'did little to inspire confidence in the value of her work'.
Glasgow Life, the arm's length charitable organisation which manages GoMA for the perennially cash-strapped city council, is coy when it comes to disclosing how much Mul has been paid to stage this non-exhibition. All that a spokesperson would confirm was that her commission fee was 'in line' with other artists who have exhibited at GoMA.
Will Cooper claims he is 'excited' about the different types of activities that might be on offer during the cancelled show – so far yoga sessions, life drawing classes, film screenings and carpet bowls have been suggested. 'I even think my daughter has got bounce and rhyme scheduled in,' he says. Whatever that may be. But aren't these sorts of activities already provided perfectly adequately in local and more appropriate venues across Scotland?
GoMA's own website promotes it as 'Scotland's most visited art gallery, highlighting the interests, influences and working methods of artists from around the world'. As far as I can see, Mul's interest, if this 'exhibition' is anything to go by, is money for old rope. And it looks like she's pulled it off.
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