One of the best perks available to art critics is the chance to see important shows before the crowds pile in. It’s a privilege, of course, and allows us to view art in the quiet circumstances in which it generally works best. One such opportunity presented itself at the recent press opening of the Gauguin show at Tate Modern. The show was superb, but the view was a rather awkward occasion. Because two of my long-standing colleagues, Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard and Tom Lubbock of The Independent, both turned up in wheelchairs.
Both are seriously ill; Sewell with a spine condition, Lubbock with a brain tumour. I watched as they wheeled themselves effortfully through the fine Gauguins, and the dark thought struck me that someone up there seems currently to have it in for art critics, and is cutting a swathe through our ranks.
Brian, who is 79, has at least had plenty of time to have his say. We all know where he stands on most things, and, although walking may be difficult for him now, I see no sign of any imminent cessation of his unique way of thinking, talking and writing. But poor Tom is only 52. He recently wrote movingly of his battle with the brain tumour, and, as always with his writing, so much that was so original poured out of him on a supremely difficult subject.
Tom Lubbock has been the most unusual art critic at work in British journalism in recent years. I rarely agree with him about the final worth of any show, but enjoy reading his wacky attempts to persuade me.
Now, as if to back up the idiotically optimistic human hope that good things always come of bad things, his illness has suddenly borne some unexpected fruit. The critic has intriguingly decided to out himself as an artist.
Regular Lubbock-watchers will already know something of his artistic talents. Between 1999 and 2004, he provided a weekly illustration for The Independent. Spooky, off-centre, weird, confusing and, on most occasions, rather profound, these weekly ruminations on the state of the modern world were so unlike other illustrations by other newspaper artists that we ought immediately to have clocked them as the work of a particularly surreal imagination.
Conscious, perhaps, of the need to crack on with achieving all his ambitions, Lubbock has now jumped over the barrier that separates the tasters from the suppliers and mounted a show of these surreal collages at the Victoria Miro Gallery. Bit of Magritte, bit of Dali, bit of Bertrand Russell, bit of German expressionism, lots of signs of impending insanity: these gnomic wonderings were always too dark and elusive to wrap chips in.
I love The Campaign for Real Royals, which shows two mighty blocks of ancient British kingship, one of stone, the other of wood; one with a sword embedded in it, the other an executioner’s axe. Today’s royals, this spiky display of Brit-dada seems to hiss, are such wusses compared with those of old.
Lubbock can be obvious. Gargoyles, from 2002, shows a pair of dark surveillance cameras looming like vultures over a modern English skyline. But, at his best, he isn’t. The Human Genome features a pub sign on which different bits of the human body have been disassembled into a comic mix of inner and outer organs. All those millenniums of complex human evolution and look what we have become: the beery bits on a pub sign.
The collages seem to me to explain where much of Lubbock’s original thinking about art sprang from: all along, he was tribed with the creatives, not the critics. Another fascinating revelation here is the extra heft that art can acquire from a change of context. Put an illustration in a newspaper and it will always bat with the weight of an illustration in a newspaper. Place it in an art gallery, however, and you give it wings, a launch pad and rocket fuel.
Being an interesting art critic for years in order briefly to become an interesting artist is a strange use of the creative compass. But a route is a route.
To give Philippe Parreno his due, he too thinks in rhombohedrons rather than straight lines. The Serpentine Gallery’s display of new and old film pieces by Parreno — arranged into a single, multiscreen cinema experience — is a thoroughly unpredictable event. So unpredictable, it almost tempted me to forget the unbreakable law of film pieces at the Serpentine: watching them to the end is never worth it.
What happens here is that four separate screen works by Parreno, playing on four separate spaces, have been interlaced into a single gallery-wide experience. As you watch one piece in one room, another starts in another room, and a member of the gallery staff advises you when to move on to see it. As the second piece finishes, a third begins, and so on.
On its most rewarding level, the show is, therefore, an imaginative reconsideration of how a film exhibition can be viewed. By linking the pieces together in a single daisy chain, Parreno is treating the entire show as his artwork. All of which is new, commendable and even impressive.
Where it falls flat is in the films themselves. One features a hazy cast of protesting schoolchildren, whose indistinct chanting finally coagulates into the unlikely war cry “No More Reality”. Another, Invisibleboy, shows a Chinese toddler encountering an alien life form in the cupboard under his sink. The most ambitious of them, playing on the biggest and most dramatic screen, shows a train puffing through small-town America, watched by a spooky congregation of frozen figures dressed in the fashions of the 1960s.
Apparently, the train retraces the journey to Washington undertaken by Bobby Kennedy’s body after his assassination in 1968. At one point, the frozen watchers arranged on a hillside adopt that eerie witness formation popularised by the giant heads on Easter Island. Thus, a moment of history has disguised itself as a slab of eternity. Unfortunately, even this, the best of the film pieces, suffers from the usual film-piece failing: someone forgot to pack the payoff.