Commenting on the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997, curator and art historian Norman Rosenthal suggested, “It has always been the job of artists to conquer territory that hitherto has been taboo.”
I was reminded of this quote when a new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery in London showcasing the work of American photographer Leigh Ledare opened at the beginning of October (till Jan 5 2014). Ledare is known to be quite an exploratory artist – being likened to Nan Goldin for his candid and raw photographic styling. But his latest collection Pretend You’re Still Alive – photographs of his mother in the throes of sex is not for the easily offended. Capturing the loud sexuality of his mother in his attempt to explore the complex mother-son bond over an eight-year stretch, his work is disconcerting, but equally liberating.
But what I noticed above the blatant Oedipus complex, was the distinct lack of brouhaha which normally followed the opening of a particularly shocking art show. Yes, there was definitely an online blip with reviewers and papers like The Guardian questioning the content, but far less than the wincingly prude reaction of Joe Bloggs in the past.
Even Sarah Lucas’ self-titled exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (till December 15) has not come up against much resistance considering her bawdy sexual euphemisms.
Some of my favourite artists are those that attempt to stretch the imagination of the viewer – and often they accomplish this with less than savoury themes. Take the work of Chinese artist Yongbo Zhao, whose take on traditional portraits result in depictions of the Mona Lisa as a fly-ridden construct of gouged animal flesh. Or perhaps you might prefer Marilyn Monroe, her legs pinned behind her head, exposing engorged genitalia hounded by little penises with wings. His work is creepy but it is also exhilarating (if you like that kind of thing).
In his 1897 book What is Art? Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy defined art as “an infection” in the way that any good story might infect an audience with the teller’s emotion and ideas. Life is hard. And so art’s storyland should be fun, or scary, or erotic – whatever you need it to be.
But back in the late 90s, when we arguably saw the largest injection of shock art thanks to Saatchi’s Sensation the public was less inclined to agree. Young British Artist Marcus Harvey’s Myra, an 11ft tall replica of the Moor’s murderer Myra Hindley, was met with outrage and was subsequently removed after vandalism. Hindley’ infamous mug shot was reproduced by a collation of children’s hand prints, signifying the harrowing ordeal of her infant victims and the loss to the families in question. A piece like Myra would offend many, but the vast majority failed to see the cleverness of the piece. Harvey himself agreed in an interview with The Guardian at the time, it was “uncomfortable” and it is this presence of emotion, that story (no matter how horrible) that makes us feel more deeply about it. Myra didn’t glorify murder; it aimed to disgust.
But can we still be shocked by art in an age where a quick search on Google offers up videos of Japanese girls draped in live octopi defecating into each other’s mouths?
At last year’s Art Basel art show in Switzerland I had the privilege of coming face to, uh, face with a live piece by performance artist Marina Abramovic. Standing in the archway of the entrance to a gallery, a naked man and woman stand facing each other in complete stillness and quiet. To access the contents of the gallery, visitors were forced to pass in between the two naked (did I mention they were naked?) artists, engaging in the awkwardness of the silent nude exchange. As much as the spectacle drew giggling and inspired candid iPhone snapping, the piece was moving and well received by critics – an indication of a continued growing acceptance for art’s provocation? Perhaps.
I personally believe that sex no longer shocks, or nudity, ditto gay sex, or even octopus porn (don’t Google it). Turner Prize-winning British artist Grayson Perry agrees with me, suggesting in an interview with The Radio Times recently that shocking art has become “hackneyed” and that we are in search of something newer, fresher.
So if we’ve become unshockable, how are artists striking a chord with modern audiences?
One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in recent years is the growth of art that seeks to involve the viewer in an experiential story. Spearheading this movement is artists like James Turrell, who bathes each exhibition space in controlled tones of bright colour – exploring perception and depth. Or let’s remember the exquisite Rain Room installation by rAndom International, which saw thousands queue up in both London and New York over the summer to experience the sheer delight of its magical sensory raindrops.
Others, like Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka, work with natural elements such as crystals to create faceted forms and architectural work that inspires awe. His current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo Crystallize (till January 19 2014) features an abundance of white crystal pieces such as paintings, sculptures and a tornado (yep) that envelope the space in sci-fi-like wonderment. British artist Roger Hiorns created something similar with his piece Seizure (currently at YSP) where a council flat room was bathed in liquid copper sulphate to produce a dazzling blue crystal landscape which visitors can interact with.
These experiential pieces are fresh and intriguing. Just look at British artist David Shrigley, whose piece in the current Turner Prize 2013 exhibition is set up like a life-drawing class, inviting visitors to produce their own sketches of a 3D model. Ok, the model is a sculpture of a naked man pissing into a bucket but it wouldn’t be Shrigley if it wasn’t vaguely weird.
You could argue that the media has taken over in its quest to shock – think Miley Cyrus and her performance at the VMA’s. That horror fest was so “shocking” and set the internet-a-clucking to the degree that the arguably more important issue of Syria barely made purchase.
Thankfully in terms of media shock fests we are still a slightly naïve and bashful audience ready to wag a finger at blatant narcissist offenders. Well-hung photographer Terry Richardson has found himself the subject of a petition on Change.org calling brands to stop using him in their campaigns. Turns out that not only is his work filthy, but his behaviour towards models is too. The world won’t suffer without Richardson… to quote Perry, his work is “hackneyed”.
Words by Lisa Payne
TagsDavid Shrigley, Grayson Perry, Leigh Ledare, Lisa Payne, Sarah Lucas, Terry Richardson, Tokujin Yoshioka,