“When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art ?”
There is an absolutely fascinating exhibition now on at the Hayward, home of fascinating exhibitions. This one is called “the Alternative Guide to the Universe”. It features a number of works (sculpture, video, photos, paintings, scribblings…often all at the same time) that can only be described as totally weird, bizarre, other-worldly. One review described the exhibition as “celebrating the undiscovered, the undefinable and the unclassifiable”
The exhibits are the works of fringe, mainly self-taught artists (many of whom I think have but a fragile toe hold on reality). These outsider artists are unlicensed architects, visionaries, bogus physicists, photographers and robot tinkerers: obsessives all.
Here are some of the exhibits that visionary curator, Ralph Rugoff has on display:
Jean Perdrizet has created a machine and a language (Sideral Esperanto) which helps him to communicate with the dead
Alfred Jensen’s works seek to channel and leverage the potential offered by combining Goethe’s analysis of prismatic light, Mayan beliefs in magic with numbers theory, into a sort of holistic rethinking of the universe.
Using scrap metal, sewing machine parts and steel wire, Beijing farmer Wu Yulu has built a number of robots, the one in the exhibition was developed apparently to chase people and clutch at their clothes. Fortunately he – it?- was sleeping when I was there.
Congolese Bodys Isek Kingeles is one of many of the artists on display who have re-imagined what architecture could look like in his vision of Utopia. The proto-models bear no relationship with anything ever seen, or even physically possible for that matter.
Morton Bartlett has made a number of anatomically correct half scale mannequins, which he has dressed and photographed in a creepy voyeuristic way, making you wonder whether pedophilia extends to images of the inanimate.
Paul Laffoley’s mandala-like creations represent detailed diagrams and drawings of imagined objects and realities; they evoke altered time states.
All art, in its need to shrug off the warping influence of society (how others see things), is essentially existentialist. This exhibition takes this thought to the Nth degree. For here we see not how artists interpret reality – be that external or internal reality – but the creation of entirely separate realities, unmoored by anything we might remotely consider to be everyday.
The aptly named exhibition is really a journey into the minds and psyches of a group of creators who, I suspect, would by many standards, be considered absolutely barmy. So, whist on the one hand, you have to simply submit yourself, judgment-free, into their gravity-free worlds; on the other, you have to wonder whether there’s ever any possibility of a Joycean epiphany to be had from all this.
In the end, visionary art (Blake? Chagall? Yeats?) has the potential and the power to blow away the cobwebs that form from the encrustations of daily life…and lead us to re-evaluations and startling out-of-body (in the sense of seeing the world through the lens of the artist) re-appraisals of reality. But you wonder whether this work, though fascinating has the potential to lead you anywhere further than the gasping encounter with wildly off-kilter consciousnesses.
Thus defined, it’s an exhibition of “things”, of obsessive visions. You feel that you’re intruding on someone’s private conversation with a deviant universe.
But is it art?
What is quite clear, is that these items are all expressions of absolute, unqualified honesty. The megalopolises shown, the frenzied, neurotic, jibberish-like markings that seek to supposedly describe the activities of protons and electrons, the meandering lines and squiggles that filigree their canvases… are all cynicism-free, passionate attempts to describe, frame and plumb ideas of the meaning of the life and the meaning of our lives in a larger cosmos.
And that kind of commitedness, that almost primitive desire to tell a story, to recast a creation mythology, to deliver whole narratives in every frame, lift the works beyond the artless eruptions of neurosis to an interesting dimension of art. Art without artifice. Before the Greeks came along to create our modern sensibility and understanding of art – a representation of some form of reality, abstract or mimetic – what we now admire so much in Museums weren’t representations of reality but tangible manifestations of worship and wonder. The stone statue of Isis wasn’t a stone statue, it WAS Isis. So too, you feel that the objects in this exhibition aren’t visions of an alternative universe; to their creators, they’re its manifestation.
And, hey, that’s art.