24 Jun, 2009

Art at Tate Britain: it’s classified

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Recently acquired works by Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers, believed to be the best of British art in the last 20 years, go on show at Tate Britain

Naeem, a checkout operator at a north-London branch of Morrison’s, may not have realised it at the time, but when he was putting through groceries for a demanding customer on a Tuesday evening earlier this month, he was creating art. Yesterday, it went on display for the first time at Tate Britain.

It is, basically, a till receipt stuck to the wall – although more is revealed on closer examination – and it is among works by artists including Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers that the Tate believes is some of the best art from the last two decades.

Monochrome Till Receipt (White) by the artist Ceal Floyer is in the first room of the show. The original 1999 receipt is in the Tate archives, acquired this year for a sum that will be disclosed in the next annual report. For this version, Tate curators went to a supermarket and followed Floyer’s instructions on what to buy. The shopping cost £70.32 (although they received a 24p multi-save discount on tableware).

The show’s curator Andrew Wilson, who went on a dummy run, told the checkout operator “that we were constructing a work of art”, and to put the goods through in a certain order. One of the themes that emerges is the colour of all the goods bought – Alka Seltzer, rock salt, pickled eggs, swing bin bags – all of which are white, and can be seen as a monochromatic still life.

The exhibition, Classified, showcases recent additions to the Tate collection. Wilson said: “I sincerely believe that this art is amongst the best work that has been made in the last 15 years or so.”

Fourteen artists are represented in total – including Jeremy Deller, Simon Starling, Martin Creed and Tacita Dean – but the daddies of the show are Hirst, with four works including Pharmacy, and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

At the core of the show was a desire to show the Chapman Brothers’ Chapman Family Collection – “one of the most important works of the last 10, even 20, years,” said Wilson – and from that, a theme evolved around collecting and classification. “It is about how it brings order to the world around us,” said Wilson. “We weren’t, in this exhibition, trying to identify any trend as such.”

The Tate bought Chapman Family Collection in 2007 for £1.5m after a fundraising campaign. The smell of incense hits you when you enter the room and tour the 34 wooden carvings, masquerading as rare ethnographic objects from the colonies – artefacts you perhaps might see in your local museum. Look closer and there are references over and again to McDonalds – even the Chapmans’ classification numbers are, it is said, the real telephone numbers of branches of the burger chain.

As well as Pharmacy – Hirst’s famous life-size recreation of a chemist’s shop that Tate bought in 1996 – there is The Acquired Inability to Escape, which consists of a chair, a packet of Silk Cut, an overflowing ashtray, a lighter and the cigarette about to be smoked, all contained in a vitrine.

The works have been bought with public money, so the exhibition is free. Of course, critics of contemporary art will find works to scoff at such as the Morrison’s till receipt or Gillian Carnegie’s rsXXII, which is a close-up painting of a woman’s bum, part of her series known as the “bum paintings”.

Tate Britain’s director Stephen Deuchar, who this week announced he was stepping down after 12 years to take up a new job heading The Art Fund, described acquiring new works as “a huge challenge”, adding “every one of these works has a saga behind it”.

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