Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The integrity of curation: Cornelia Parker slaughterhouses the Government Art Collection at the Whitechapel

An upstairs room at the Whitechapel currently (till 4 December) houses Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain, a selection of 70 plus works from the Government Art Collection, curated by artist Cornelia Parker, exploder of sheds and installer of collected objects. I usually admire her stuff, but this has been a miscalculation.

Parker has famously declared that “I resurrect things that have been killed off”. In this case she has simply managed to kill them off. Staring at her random cull, she “hop[ed] for potential connections to present themselves”. Apparently they didn’t. So instead she settled for an arrangement based exclusively, and lazily, on colour. Yes, everything that is predominantly red is hung together, and so on. The result is an incoherent, postmodernist cabinet of curiosities that betrays a complete lack of respect for the works themselves. There are no captions, so the viewer is forced to identify pieces from the little booklet necessarily provided. Frames climb and crowd the walls, with some smaller items hung at a height well above any realistic viewing distance. But one suspects that we are not really invited or expected to take an interest in them, merely to bask in the spectrum of Cornelia Parker’s concept..

“It’s a great opportunity to recontextualise the works”, she claims. “Butting them up against each other … allows them to engage in new dialogues and for a new set of meanings – however tangential or oblique – to emerge.” Tangential or oblique aren’t in it. The works are simply decontextualized and left to die off. Penny Johnson, GAC Director, says that she had “a sense that [Parker’s] selection would result in an installation in its own right.” This suggests some disdain for the material in her keeping. Or maybe, to be charitable, just a loss of faith. The result is what happens when, surfing the fad of art-about-art, installation and curatorship become confused. Please leave other peoples’ artwork alone, Ms Parker, and stick with dust.

The one benefit, I suppose, is that the public gets to see things it owns that otherwise would stay behind closed doors at the High Commissioner’s Residence in Nairobi. A selection of official photos in the little booklet shows a few of the pieces in their more informative previous contexts, popping up behind Nigel Lawson or Gordon Brown like intrusive wedding guests. And it’s interesting to note where some are housed. Kitaj’s screenprint of the cover of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss, his 1903 account of East End low life (Whitechapel included), apparently hangs in the offices of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Now that is the sort of context that does indeed spark meaning. At the Consul-General’s Residence in New York sits a monumental Warhol screenprint of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom – monarchy commodified as celebrity; Her Maj re-colonised as Marilyn.

Of Parker’s selection, besides Grayson Perry’s intricately witty three part etching Print for a Politician, I most liked this easily ignorable Sickert oil of 1914, The Integrity of Belgium, which normally lives in the Cabinet Office. This strains eerily at our sense of the decades. A Belgian officer, representing the gallant little nation of 1914, peers through field glasses over the heads of a line of infantrymen. Given that Sickert was no nearer the battlefront than Camden Town, this must have been transcribed from a clipping of a newspaper photo, and anticipates by two decades the majority of his paintings produced this way. The result is a sort of post-impressionist pop art, though there is no sense that Sickert intended the title anything less than sincerely. Just when you think you have Sickert taped, he takes you by surprise. And he is closer to Bacon than we might assume.

The painting is a quote, an “echo”. Its slack camera ephemerality succeeds in a slightly off-kilter way, which is more than you can say for Wilhelm Sasnal’s anaemic attempts at something similar, to which the Whitechapel has recently made over two vast areas.

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