And so, last week, at the ICA, a veteran American feminist called Martha Rosler filled the downstairs gallery with junk that the public was invited to bargain over and buy in a huge and shabby car-boot happening. Meanwhile, at the Serpentine, Rirkrit Tiravanija has re-created his apartment in New York, twice, right down to the half-empty baked-bean tins in the fridge, and invited in an audience to live there as he does. There is even a working toilet. More successfully, on Hampstead Heath, an Italian former footballer called Giancarlo Neri has installed a giant table and chair at the bottom of the hill where you fly your kites, as if the heath were his patio.
What is going on? Why, suddenly, is the everyday so special, the mundane so unmundane? To recognise the origins of this weird artistic ambition, and to understand fully what a depressing impulse it is, we need a brief historical résumé. For the whole of the 20th century, art was determined to distinguish itself from the tastes and ambitions of the general public. Achieving separation from the quotidian was a tangible 20th-century artistic obsession: a badge of honour. Every modernist “ism” there has ever been, from cubism to conceptualism, has been accused in its time of obscurantism, pre- tension, snobbery, emperor’s-new- clothes syndrome and all those other marks of separation that the public has sought incessantly to scrawl on art’s forehead.
Why did art feel it was so important to distinguish itself from the general public’s tastes and motivations? That answer is also obvious: because art believed that public taste was betraying the pro-cess of civilisation, letting down our species, making a mess of the world. The incontrovertible proof of this collapse of public judgment was the two world wars. As art saw it, if you trusted the public’s motivational rhythms, you ended up with the Somme and concentration camps. If you trusted art’s motivational rhythms, you ended up with Matisse. Which was the surer sign of civilisation? Thus, art’s elitism was a deli- berate oppositional strategy, a direct response to the perceived failings of the public appetite. For the whole of the 20th century, art hoped that its audience could be lured upward, onto a higher civilisational plane. Fat chance. The majority is always greedier than any minority, and always wants things exactly where it can understand them. Just as television has cravenly rewritten its rules to reflect the tastes of the watching millions, with the invention of Rolf Harris and reality TV, so art has given up believing in the higher ground it has lusted after since the Renaissance, seeking instead to put on jumble sales at the ICA and to present its audience with fridges full of half-open bean tins. As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Reality art, like reality TV, assumes that you are an oik and that oik food is all you can chew. And so, having spent 30 years of my life transfixed and transported by the ambition of Michelangelo, I now find myself doing the washing-up at the Serpentine, in Tiravanija’s pretend kitchen, admiring his rice cooker and tut-tutting at the state of his fridge. Allow me a moment’s doubt, please, before I accept this as normal gallery behaviour. I could be wrong, but isn’t there a huge gulf in civilisational ambition between a Michelangelo drawing and a deliberately uncleaned salad compartment? But it is here to stay, until the next fad, at least, so we had better throw open the fridge door and take a closer look.
Tiravanija’s show consists of two matching re-creations of his modest New York apartment. Each of these identical flats has a Young Ones-style studenty kitchen, a mattress on the floor with black sheets, a cramped bath-room and a dead sitting room, dominated by the telly and a settee. If these dull re-creations really look anything like Tiravanija’s actual New York pad, nothing he says on the subject of aesthetics could or should be trusted. Shame on any artist who chooses to live in such joyless surroundings.
The walls are made of cheap plywood; the woodwork gives you splinters. If the point is to intrigue and puzzle your senses with a display of excellent domestic mimicry, that certainly isn’t achieved, because the whole thing looks so casually assembled and tacky. If the point is to make you feel as if you are involved in a tense social experiment, it fails because the environment is too B&Q to be serious.
It is also unclear why the apartment needed to be repeated. This certainly doesn’t lead to a sense of mystery or spookiness, as it did when Gregor Schneider fashioned two identical murder houses for us at that marvellous Artangel event in London’s East End last year. Nor is the detail here startling, as it was with Michael Landy’s full-size family semi, rebuilt inch- perfectly at Tate Britain recently. If you really must fish as obviously as this for an audience’s attention, you surely need first to acquire some actual DIY skills.
While Tiravanija’s Serpentine tribute to banality is too banal to transcend the effort that went into making it, Neri has done something splendid on Hampstead Heath. The giant table and chair he has erected at the bottom of Parliament Hill is called The Writer, and its ambition is to evoke the isolation of the writer’s task: a very Hampstead thing to do. As a hardened writer, I have never felt any of the sublime loneliness that Neri claims to be visualising here. If this piece were accurate, it would cover Parliament Hill with coffee rings, huge piles of books arranged in no order and discarded Everests of crumpled paper. The empty, isolated desk is a totally inaccurate literary fantasy.
As a piece of sculpture, though, it works really well. It puts a smile on everyone’s face. It animates the landscape amusingly and interestingly. And since nature hereabouts has long been tamed into dullness, how encouraging to see art doing nature’s job for it, and coming up with a proper landmark.