If you are not gay or into bondage, if your days of being slipknotted to the roof while sucking on an orange are now behind you, and you no longer belong to the Conservative party, is there any point going to the ICA? On the evidence gathered for us at the grim new show there, I would have to say: no, stay away, don’t bother. So niche are the aesthetics being explored in Dispersion, even Max Mosley might consider himself a little too old and respectable for these particular tastes. Certainly, I was right out of the picture.
Dispersion is billed as an event that “explores the appropriation and circulation of images in contemporary society”. That is a decent, if not innovative, theme. You would have to be very old and blind – or perhaps zipped up in a black PVC hood without any eyeholes – not to have noticed long ago that the world we live in has entered an “appropriation” phase. Borrowing images from other images has become the default mode of huge swathes of our urban culture. I cannot remember the last time I saw a television advert or a poster on the Underground that did not remind me of a parallel example. As for pop music, sampling has grown so fierce and creative that I have begun to lose track of entire pop eras. It’s as if everything from then has been turned into a multivalent now. Were Abba yesterday? Or are they today? Mamma mia, I just can’t tell.
Anne Collier encapsulates these dilemmas clearly but tediously with a series of photographs of other people’s photographs. The best-known image she has “appropriated” is probably Steven Meisel’s glamorous look down on a naked Madonna, lying in bed puffing on a fag, taken in the early 1990s. Collier has pinned this alluring poster to a wall and rephotographed it with its creases showing and the pins visible in the corner. So, whereas Meisel’s original image tried only to make Madonna look sexy and cool, Collier’s version seeks to take you outside the actual impact of the picture and into the space of whoever has it pinned to their wall. The fan. The nerd. The typical ICA artist.
At the time Meisel took his photo, Madonna herself was passing through her Marilyn phase, superblonde and bed-bound. So, even before Meisel sampled her, and long before Collier sampled Meisel, Madonna herself had already sampled Marilyn Monroe, who was, of course, actually Norma Jeane Mortenson, who became Norma Jeane Baker, and who later sampled the platinum blonde. If I hungered for a doctorate in sampling from Harvard, I might even attempt a thesis here on the number of prior borrowings being referred to in this one “appropriation”. But as an art-lover, pure and simple, with no quasi-scientific agenda to limit my responses, I note happily that the most potent contributor to this mix is not Collier or Madonna or Marilyn or either of the two Norma Jeanes, but Meisel, whose splendid eye for a sexy angle survives the different levels of appropriation. The star of the new artwork is definitely the old artwork.
Collier is not an exciting artist, but at least her pictures have a purpose, which is not an accusation that can be levelled at any of her co-exhibitors. The biggest clot in the crowd is Henrik Olesen, from Denmark, who, in the world- view of his blurb, “engages in a critical investigation of the notion of the archive”, but who, in my world-view, has collected some old postcards of gay and lesbian artists, then stuck them to a cheap notice board. In fact, the gay and lesbian artists pinned to the cork are not even necessarily gay and lesbian. Entire books have been written about the intriguing sexuality of John Singer Sargent or Thomas Eakins, and their ambiguity has survived enough serious scholarship to shame thoroughly this cornflake-packet approach to information. Olesen enjoys collecting postcards. So what?
Maria Eichhorn has ensured she is the artist to notice in the gathering by encouraging you to select and project your own porn. Or, rather, that is what I thought her idea was. An old-fashioned Super 16 projector stands in the middle of the room, and next to it are some shelves holding cans of film. A list on the wall encourages you to select from “Food Sex”, “The Mouth”, “Masturbation”, “Coitus” and assorted unmentionables. I went for “The Mouth”, only to find that the film – once it had been taken out of the can and loaded carefully onto the projector – consisted solely of a close-up of a mouth. “Love Bites” was a disembodied face sucking at a disembodied neck. True, “Coitus” was a no-nonsense close-up of anal sex being energetically performed – which isn’t technically coitus, is it, as there is no procreative possibility? – but even here the art-film whirring of the projector and the church-hall flicker of the Super 16 gave the spectacle the nostalgic air of a night round at a Health and Efficiency collector’s. Once again, what counted was not so much the film itself as how you were made to feel in your space as you sheepishly informed the projectionist of your choice. It’s the experience of skulking around a video shop in Soho – made virtua