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The International Writers Magazine Tate St Ives - Cornwall

Heimo Zobernig and the Tate Collection
Mary Colvin

‘Please ensure you do not sit on the golden chairs,’ the attendant implores us in reverential tones, ‘they are part of the installation.’ Expectation intensifies. I feel pleased that I have cajoled my husband into ‘doing some art’ with me. And not just any old art. We are at the Tate in St Ives; a gloriously converted gas works rapidly gaining a name for itself in the art world.

The first gallery is perplexing. Here we see a pebble painted white (helpfully entitled ‘Painted Pebble’), a vast rectangle of chipboard also painted white with the exception of the final few inches making it look remarkably like - unpainted chipboard, and a series of toilet rolls stuck together in Blue Peter fashion. We look to the guide for enlightenment and learn that: ‘Zobernig, perhaps frustratingly makes no definitive artistic statement with these works; on the one hand they remain ohne titel (Untitled) looking like vehicles for the analysis of where art has come from and where it could potentially arrive, on the other hand they are works of art made by an artist for the purpose of exhibition.’ I avoid catching my husband’s eye. We move on.

A golden chair heralds our arrival into the second gallery. Detecting a theme here, I am not surprised to see that the ornate throne of my imaginings is in fact a standard canteen chair painted golden. Our preconceptions have clearly been challenged again. The centrepiece is an empty Ikea Billy bookcase. ‘The bookshelves’ we are told ‘are appropriated by the artist to echo the modular forms of minimalist sculpture…extending painting from two to three dimensions in an attempt to reject the ‘illusionism, literal space and space in and around marks and colour that were the last relics of European art.’ My husband, who has had rather too many close encounters of the Ikea Billy kind, snorts audibly.

I hope for redemption in the final gallery with its promised video installation. A tall, thin black haired man in painfully tight jeans is staggering barefoot across a well-manicured park sporting a long blonde wig. I watch the tape twice in case I missed something the first time. But no, he doesn’t fall over, he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t do anything except stagger. We are told that ‘this early video portrait of the artist…apes the nascent experiments of early video artists exploring notions of ‘the self’ with a new medium. The low-tech camera style captures repeated jerky actions in a reduced format of one viewpoint, shot in real time with no effects.’ My husband, in similarly real time and with unrepeatable jerky actions, disappears.

I return in a rather melancholic frame of mind to the first gallery and the exit. A group of art students earnestly clutching folders are now gathered round the toilet roll tower. They listen reverentially to their tutor who exhorts them to tell him what they see. I wait with bated breath. They see power, movement, continuity. Not one of them mentions toilet rolls. I feel like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes. Why are they paying homage to Zobernig’s overweening ego? Why can’t they see that he is naked? That a toilet roll stuck to another toilet roll looks remarkably like a toilet roll stuck to another toilet roll?

Undoubtedly I would be viewed as the philistine not understanding the power of art to challenge, that I have not grasped the fundamental issues involved in the ‘What is Art?’debate. It may be so. I do not expect art to be comfortable, easy. I like a picture or a sculpture to challenge my senses but I don’t expect it to leave me feeling cheated. I join my husband in the coffee shop at the top of the gallery. We look out over the spectacular views of St Ives. Finally we find a picture that speaks to us.

© Mary Colvin November 2008

Mary is studying for her Masters at the University of Portsmouth

Many Happy Returns
Mary Colvin
Party dresses. I had party dresses when I was little. With sashes, rainbow sashes. And party shoes. Shiny red t-bar shoes that winked at me as I danced

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