Serpentine Culture, London, Saturday.
It was my day to see some new exhibitions at the Serpentine Galleries in London. First task though was to fuel up – a flat white coffee for good flavour and plum tart for sweetness and energy, at The Magazine Bar and Restaurant by the side of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.
In this modern-domed cafe I switched off my phone so as to be completely present; to be open to this bit of the world, to this experience, to the ideas and reflections evoked by the art works; to exchange the digital world of the ‘virtual’ for the real, and to be disconnected from people for a while. [By the way, my map app didn’t work, so I asked two lots of humans how to get to the gallery, smiled and thanked them; and my friends I treasure and feel privileged to be connected with, but here and now I was having a moment apart].
As I sipped my coffee and enjoyed the soft, sweet plum tart, I spied on the table a description of a piece of art right here in the cafe. Drinking Bird Seasons, by Tabor Robak. At first I didn’t recognise it as a piece of art; it was a large flat screen like an enlarged mobile phone, with the time and date displayed on it in the same font as my phone, but with an ever-moving, never still background. The ‘fictional holidays and constant live news updates’ I did not see at first. Apparently it ‘serves as a commentary on the intrusiveness of digital information and the reliance on technical devices’. But I had switched off my digital device! It was this one that I couldn’t escape from! Then I saw the news update, although the couple eating their lunch at the table directly in front of the screen, stared back at me as I strained past them to see the display! Is this art work a commentary on the intrusiveness of devices and information, or just another example of one?
In the gallery next door there was an exhibition of an artist I had not come across before, Simon Denny. And I learnt a whole lot of new words, or familiar words used in unfamiliar ways: ‘Tribal’ – a new style of leadership and organisation; ‘Collisions’ – which I think meant getting people to bump into each other in the workplace so that there could be ‘serendipitous meetings’ – and buildings were designed accordingly to have fewer doors and more courtyards and walkways; ‘Agile’ – used to describe the way offices are arranged – ‘agile team environments’, ‘agile space’ giving openness, connection and flexibility; Holacracy – a management system that turns everyone into a leader, as set out in a book by Brian J Robertson. What had I gone to see?!
Denny’s exhibition contrasted Products for Formalised Organisations, such as the Government, GCHQ, and some major companies like Zappos, with Products for Emergent Organisations, particularly those to do with the ‘hacking’ community – not criminal masterminds who want to drain our bank accounts, but people who have got some ideas about who holds and controls the ever increasing amount of digital information. The ‘hacker’ exhibits were fascinating, some gadgets designed by really clever, anonymous, people who you couldn’t help but feel were really on the side of all us little people rather than servants of big corporations – a whistle given away in cereal packets whose pitch was of such a frequency that you could make phone calls free! They even had a Hacker Ethos whose main tenets were decentralization, openness and world improvement. Demonstrable ability was what counted in that world rather than school certificates, having the right face or being the right gender. Perhaps the strength of this exhibition was the thought that for an open society to remain strong in its freedom, opposition has as important a role as the mainstream. And things that give rise to thought and public debate are the sentinels of a democratic society.
A short walk back over the bridge to the Serpentine Gallery to see the work of Michael Craig-Martin. This exhibition was entitled Transience. The objects painted in bold, brave colours were everyday objects in either full view or part. The sports shoe (above – no surprises why I asked a girl to take my photo at the side of that one!), the lap-top computer, the smoke alarm, the play-station gaming control. There were also objects from a while ago that are now largely defunct such as a cassette tape (remember them?!). In the 1970’s Craig-Martin had wanted to paint and document the ready-mades of ordinary life which he regarded as fairly stable objects. His work reflects how that stability has been undermined by consumerism that always strives for the new and the different – this insatiable enterprise that makes things obsolete so rapidly as well as bringing innovation. We might ask, can this craving ever be satisfied?
I thought about the idea of ‘transience’ – temporary, for a short time only, it will be passed over soon. Some of the objects I had seen depicted had indeed been temporary – this is what fascinated the artist. Craig-Martin’s work made me think of the transience of stuff – of things, of objects that are consumed and then done. ‘Do you remember when we had …?’, I heard people at the gallery say to each other. Or ‘I’d really like a pair of shoes like that – even if they are pink’, said the teenage boy to the teenage girl. And I thought about consumerism, briefly, and then … Then I moved on. But Craig-Martin’s paintings might remind us of the tradition of still-life paintings in former centuries that took mundane objects, arranged them in a composition, and facilitated the artist to render them with consummate skill. In that tradition, such as in the work of Juan Van Der Hamen in the seventeenth century, the works inspired contemplation not of the objects but of the transience of life: the figs on the platter that will wither or be eaten, the fragile glass that could easily break, and the earthenware pot that could fall over and break apart. The brooding colours used to depict such a table-top scene, might make us think about our life, here in the present – and remind us that our lives are marked by transience. But rather than that being a morbid thought, it can give us great wisdom; wisdom to live well and thankfully, and wisdom to know that if we find love and joy on our journey then we are doubly blessed.