By Gallery Girl
As the leaves fall melancholically on my Karl Lagerfeld full-length cardigan with top and bottom stitching, my mind turns to the precariousness of power. My favourite philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (yes, he of the Guildford Loafers – a snip at £149 a pair), defined power as an individual’s ‘present means, to obtain some future apparent good’. Alas, I fear that the artworld’s definition would run slightly differently: ‘a desperate attempt to stay in the limelight for as long as possible’. And yet, just like the phenomenon that was Miguel Adrover military chic, sometimes power and prestige mysteriously drain away. When I started work for the West End gallery that has sustained me all these years, New Neurotic Realists were the thing. My boss would storm around the office shouting, “Who is my Martin Maloney?” But by the time we’d got our technician to knock up some knowingly bad figurative scenes, the boss had moved on. He emerged one morning wearing a pair of Mexican winklepickers poking uneasily from beneath a David Beckham-style sarong. “Let’s look serious! Okwui Enwezor is the most powerful curator in the world and he’s heading this way to have a Documenta Platform on unrealised democracy with 15 art historians, Alfred Taubman fresh out of prison, six Eskimo documentary-makers and Nicky Haslam.” Those of course were the days when art historians mattered, when a figure like Benjamin Buchloh might find himself in the mid-60s of the Power 100 and inundated with eager young students asking him to sign their copy of Art Since 1900. These days it’s sadly impossible to pick up a copy of October at any British outlet aside from Mags’N’Fags on Loampit Vale in Lewisham, and art history has declined to the extent that it is merely offered as an optional module on the University of Birmingham’s golf management degree. It seemed just a matter of months before we dumped globalisation for emerging art from groove-tastic London. And then a year on from that we went big on China, before a brief foray into relational aesthetics. But it proved hard to sell a project involving 10 East European builders and a jazz orchestra, so we raided the show Greater New York for a few Brooklyn postironic painters. We then turned to India for some months, before switching to ‘unveiling’ (geddit?) the Middle East. Then we sunk ourselves into elderly British artists who had previously been ignored. Now older Chinese stuff is where we’re at, although we can’t really afford it, so we’re dusting off the new Chinese stuff we had previously and just redating it.
Our gallery is known as one of the most potent intellectual hothouses (all our directors got their MA qualifications from leading auction houses), but even we struggle to keep a handle on what’s powerful in the artworld. It is a world where what was big and powerful one year can drop out of view as quickly as platform flipflops. What ever happened to Jenny Saville, for instance? Just ten years ago she was feted as one of the world’s most important painters of large naked ladies. Or John Currin? Today, like Sienna Miller’s boho chic, both seem locked into a totally different space and time continuum. Other phenomena just simply strangely pass into the winds of history and no one can remember why they quite existed. Who cannot forget chowing down on fusion food with Anthony Fawcett at an Oliver Peyton eatery decorated with Gavin Turk sculptures? Or hanging with Bill Drummond in the Foundry thumbing through the latest issue of Point d’Ironie? And then there are those who go out explosively – winner in this category is Indian art dealer Bodhi Art, who, in a short but eventful stay in the artworld, wildly drove up the prices for Indian artists of limited ability before managing to close down every single one of their outposts in Delhi, Mumbai, Singapore, New York and Berlin almost simultaneously.
Pretending to renounce power doesn’t really count. Take Anthony d’Offay, who relinquished his position as Britain’s highest-profile art dealer and later sold his collection to Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland. Generously he did this for a fraction of the collection’s true value so that grateful punters around the nation could feast themselves on Bill Viola and other delights. But d’Offay’s renunciation of power was of course nothing of the sort: with 19 exhibitions and various snippets of his collection in 17 venues around Britain next year, in fact we will all shortly be indoctrinated into the cult of Uncle Tony and his spooky habit of wearing blue V-neck jumpers every day.
And then there are the cases of renouncing power in order to prepare for a big comeback. In 2005 Chris Burden got into an awful tiz about a student of his who dared to use a gun as a prop in one of his artworks. Burden, who was famously shot in the left arm in a 1970 performance took affront and resigned his long-standing post at UCLA, and then set about working on a kinetic sculpture called Metropolis II for four years. That piece, involving 1,100 toy cars, is on view at LACMA this autumn, but what’s Burden going to do if he finds out about Solihull-based artist Ian Cook, who also uses toy cars? I shudder to think of the years of isolation Burden will now impose on himself while shouting obscenities at the walls.
At least Burden will be able to console himself with the fact that, while fame and power are temporary, style is permanent. For every shooting star that fizzles out oh-too-quickly in the artworld there are the slow-burners that are launched with minimal publicity but eventually come to be seen as epistemological shifts in the history of art. That’s right, readers, I’m thinking of Pharrell Williams and Takashi Murakami’s 2009 collaboration, The Simple Things, which included a can of Pepsi, a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Lotion and a packet of condoms lovingly recreated in diamonds and metal. Who is to say that this work, universally derided when first presented, will not come to be seen as the Guernica of our economically troubled times?
But enough speculation about the future. The true heroes of artworld power are in fact those who choose their own moment of renunciation Bas Jan Ader-style. I’m thinking for instance of all those who have heroically given up their powerful positions in the Western artworld to assist in the struggles of the Arab Spring. Thomas Krens, for example. Back in the day, Krens launched Guggenheim Bilbao and was instrumental in securing cash for Guggenheim Berlin. Then, nobly, Krens gave it all up to work in the far-off country of Abu Dhabi, before mysteriously giving all that up as well and retreating into silence. Or I think of those of us who have selflessly given up the artworld and devoted our lives to the leisure industry in an attempt to stimulate the global economy. Take Jérôme Sans, who gave up being at the helm of the Palais de Tokyo and has recently expressed an interest in introducing a new scent to be piped through guestrooms in the Le Meridien chain of hotels. As Sans revealed to Wallpaper* magazine: ‘When walking in a hotel, the first ten minutes are the most critical.’ These men are the true giants of power, knowing when to use it, when to flaunt it and when, most importantly, to get rid of it entirely and think about air freshener instead.