Life's a riot with Man versus Art

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's festival blog

And so begins my blog for Scotland’s Cultural Bible from the beating, garish heart of the Edinburgh festival. I’ll be updating, with semi-regularity, on what I’ve seen, heard, touched, tasted, felt and drank. After, all, something had to stop me going to see The Dark Knight again, and that something is probably prepared to mug me with a flyer on my way to the bathroom as I speak. The Star Wars trilogy enacted in Shakespearean idiom by actors in fox heads?. Not tonight, darling, I’ve got a headache.

First a little bit of context. I write some of dem Scottish novels that we hear so much about these days – boyracers, Falkirk superheroes, y’know, all the clichés – and recently I’ve turned my hand to theatre. Writing books takes me about four years and I get kinda exhausted, and having just finished one I don’t quite have the appetite for another just yet. So thought I’d write something I could hammer out a bit quicker than the time it takes between Olympic Games. Like a play. Or a blog. This blog.

Problem being: not much of a theatre goer, me. Too expensive, too pretentious, the nearest theatre is, like a 12 minute walk from my flat. I’ve used all the lame excuses. But I figured that, since I’m writing plays now, I should really be going to see them, and Edinburgh at this time of year has more plays than The Dark Knight has cool explosions. And that’s a LOT. So check in here if you want to watch me learn, fumblingly, about the world of people pretending to be other people for money. Some sick perverts get off on that. We can but wait to see if I am one of them.

Fri 1st August

Shock! My first festival experience is not a play at all, but an exhibition!

Now, I’m quite ameneable to all forms of that business which we call ‘show’. Mould me a story into prose, stage, screen, graphic novel or song form and I’m reading, watching or humming along with gay abandon. Unless it’s by Chuck Palahnuik. When gay abandon just isn’t appropriate. But I’m still quite the refusenik when it comes to modern art.

My tastes in the visual arts are quite simple: I like paintings that look like the thing they’re supposed to look like, an attitude which, I realise, probably places me somewhere in the late-Victorian era. But hey, everything was cutting edge once. My view on this was bolstered by the John Carey book What Good Are the Arts? a seek-and-destroy-pretentiousness mission which exposes a charlatanism at the heart of the visual arts. My objections are two-fold: modern art depends for its value on a separate economy of critics, investors, exhibitors, scholars and other artists, and has absolutely no regard whatsoever for the public. What an actual audience thinks of any given installation is utterly disregarded; indeed, a large public appreciation for an artist is a sure sign of low-standing in the art world, as the late Beryl Cook could no doubt tell you if she wasn’t late. I can’t help but read this impluse as an act of aesthetic war against the masses. Call me paranoid.

Secondly, you could argue that an art-form which needs a statement explaining what it’s supposed to be about actually makes it inferior art. We don’t, after all, need Dylan reminding us what the Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is supposed to symbolise, and I can’t remember a text after Citizen Kane informing me that, ‘In case you don’t get it, the sledge is key to understanding Kane because it – y’know – represents all he’s ever lost in the world.’ Etcetera. Modern Art, existing in a paralysis of self-consciousness, wears its own critical apparatus on its sleeve just to remind you how smart it is, and perhaps because it knows, quite frankly, that chances are you won’t ‘get it’ otherwise.

If you need to explain to me why a joke is funny, then it’s not funny.

In such a frame of mind, I made my way to the Fruitmarket Gallery determined to take modern art to task for the benefit of List readers. This blog would be the place they’d come to for wank-free insight into the shallowness of modern art! Give me your unbelievers! Together we will burn the posturing imposters and replace all art with IKEA-bought Vettrianos!

I might have saved myself a lot of embarrasment then by picking an easier target than Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

This was ACE! Am clearly a philistine! Modern art! Fuck yeah!

Three of the six works on show in 'The House of Books Has No Windows' are staggeringly good. ‘Opera For a Small Room’ initally seemed like one of those deliberately-baffling installations: a small ramshackle house is set up, with a variety of record players offering a soundtrack of soul, country and opera. A megaphone intones a short story about the man who lives in the house. A train goes thundering by in a startling aural effect.

It was the chandelier. Not only does the inhabitant of this room have a fucking chandalier in his little log-cabin (as a novelist I couldn’t help but admire that little nugget of characterisation) but it even shakes as the train goes by.

What I like about this is the implied presence and story. We can imagine a lonely, Tom Waits-like figure, retreated from the pain of the world into the comfort of his record collection. His opera reaches a crescendo, a phantom audience applauds, and we imagine him – star of his own miniscule one-man show – bowing and going back to his scratchy old records. This was beautiful and sad. An extraordinary feat of suggested narrative.

Even more effective, in this respect, is the upstairs piece, ‘The Killing Machine’. The viewer is invited to push a red button on a Stasi-issue desk. An empty dentist’s chair is lowered. Two robotic arms begin a slow, graceful, terrfiying ballet. Their needles flash into the invisible presence on the chair. A mirrorball splashes garish light while Psycho-like strings whine. You watch this knowing that you pushed this button; you set this torture in motion; you are implicated in a political system which allows this to take place. The queasiness was increased when I looked up and saw my own face, watching in a mirror. Imagine yourself in Kafka’s nightmarish ‘The Penal Colony’, in which sentences are inscribed into prisoners, or recall the feeling of a dentist’s drill invading your tooth. Chilling.

Such was my relief, then, on entering ‘The House of Books Has No Windows’ itself, an approachable and user-friendly piece of sculpture. It is, literally, a house made of books, no more, no less. You can walk through its door, breath in the silence, the dark and the smell of musty old libraries. For a reader like me, the message is clear: books are a world you can make a home inside. A simple and charming piece of work.

None of these pieces needed a text to tell me any of this. It was a sort of reassurance to read the statements and find that I had, in fact, ‘gotten’ all of them.

Take that, obscure art! Biff!

The other three pieces moved me less, however. ‘Road Trip’ was a slide-show containing frankly stunning shots of American scenery. The stark beauty of these was undercut, however, by Cardiff and Miller discussing what sort of art they could make out of the shots. There was too much process on show for me here, and I wanted them to just trust the images. Neither did I respond to ‘The Muriel Lake Incident’, in which a tiny cinema is showing an unintelligble Noir-cum-Western, and offering a hint of some drama or other being played out in the audience. Some spooky effects are created by ‘The Dark Pool’, an attic set up to suggest a Miss Havishmam-like spectre who haunts it. Gramophones, old dresses and saucers of dried orange peel create a rustic, shadowy netherworld, but it lacked ‘Opera For A Small Room’s intensity of focus and narrative drive. It was atmospheric all right, but I found myself drifting in and back out of it. Perhaps that’s the point, though: so does the person who lives there.

The first three pieces are worth the price of, er, free admission alone, and so, emboldened by the idea that I’m not too stupid for modern art and that, y’know, it can tell stories too, I set back out into the Edinburgh afternoon, this time actively looking for people with flyers. Shakspearean Star Wars? With fox heads? I’ll take it!

Alan Bissett is the author of the novels Boyracers and The Incredible Adam Spark. He lives in Glasgow.