Portrait of the artist as curator

Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection.

 

A question: what links the following three individuals? Hans Ulrich Obrist. Daniel Birnbaum. Matthew Higgs. I'll give you a clue, it's what all three do for a living. On the tip of your tongue, right? I'll put you out of your misery: they're curators. The three most influential curators in the world, in fact, according to Art Review's 2009 "Power 100" list.

Obrist,"co-director of exhibitions" at the Serpentine Gallery (among many, many other things), actually topped the list. The most powerful figure in international art. And you didn't recognise his name.

There's a reason for that. Like cinematography, set design, or even sub-editing, curation is a noble profession, defined by craft and hard work rather than celebrity, utterly lacking in the household names that populate apparently more glamorous (but arguably no more creative) career paths in "the arts". A truism which means that my immediate reaction, when confronted by a project such as "Unpopular Culture: Grayson Perry Selects from the Arts Council Collection", which opened at Warwick Arts Centre's Mead Gallery this time last week, is one of suspicion and cynicism.

"Less recognised [by the international art scene] is Perry's role as a curator," the exhibition literature announces proudly. "This exhibition highlights this recent aspect of Perry's practice."

Perhaps. Does a single exhibition ("The Charms of Lincolnshire" in 2006) a curator make, though, just because he's a Turner Prize-winning artist? Does the world think of George Clooney as an actor/screenwriter just because he co-wrote (as well as directed and starred in) Good Night, and Good Luck?

Like the American constitution, visual art invariably benefits, as does most culture, from a separation of powers -- from artists working with curators working with gallerists, all experts in their field, to construct exhibitions. Which does mean that when those categories become blurred, there is a risk that something might be lost.

 

"Taste on the line"

This is the case, I fear, with "Unpopular Culture". Physically winding its way around Queen's Bitter and Head of a Fallen Giant, two pieces Perry made in response to the work on display (this a curious paradox, I think), it feels less like a collection of work in its own right than it does a sustained reflection on the potter's processes and interpretations, an almost biographical account of his relationship with 20th-century British art.

So, a Tony Ray-Jones photograph, Brighton Beach, 1967, becomes something that "very much reminds me of family days at Southend or Clacton . . . I could be the little boy on the breakwater in the cardigan." And a complex, disturbing piece by Jack Smith, After the Meal, is accompanied by an altogether reductive caption: "When looking at this painting, I feel I take on the viewpoint of a working-class patriarch."

The problem might have been partly sidestepped, of course, had Perry been more willing to adopt the anonymous stance of the curator even to a partial extent. He isn't. At all. Mischievous little references to his own experiments with individuality -- photographs of Sixties and Seventies transvestites, more complex depictions of transformation (such as Ray-Jones's Blackpool, 1968, which features a couple seemingly melting into a gaudy neon attraction), a number of twisting Paolozzi, Caro and Elizabeth Frink brass sculptures frozen in the middle of an act of metamorphosis -- these are fair enough. Continuous attempts to entrench one's working-class credentials with references to the Kitchen Sink School and so on, perhaps less so.

Certainly not fair enough is the way an Arts Council video detailing how Perry came up with his curatorial ideas booms out over the second half of the exhibition, obliterating one's opportunity to appreciate a magnificent Frank Auerbach. Perry looms over "Unpopular Culture" -- hardly surprising, considering that shameless displays of his own identity have always been at the heart of his work.

That irritating video also offers a solution to the problem, however. "Here is my taste on the line . . . It's more interesting what I leave out than what I leave in," he explains at one point. "I don't know if it's all mixed up in my nostalgia . . . In a way, I've edited [the collection] to reflect how I see the period between 1940 and 1980."

This is an exhibition about choice, rather than curation. About mischievous subjectivity, rather than formal dexterity. The biggest joke of all being that, behind Perry's highly characteristic and self-focused choices is the desire to evoke a period when, "unlike today . . . stories about art did not feature daily in the broadsheets or contemporary artists crop up frequently in gossip columns".

Framed in this way, the show is considerably more successful. And its simple, personal structure ensures that visitors can enjoy its varied pleasures without Grayson getting too much in the way: a peculiarly elegant Barbara Hepworth -- Spring, say -- or Edward Burra's "Winter", like a surreal watercolour take on thermal imaging, or a couple of hilarious Martin Parr photographs. Yet if I were a professional curator working for the Arts Council, I'd be a little irritated by the way this eccentric collection is being advertised.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear