Gardener's Tale

"Days like these", Tate Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary British Art 2003, at Tate Britain, London (Pimlico), until 26 May, Admission free.

For me "contemporary" generally means at least "quite new", if not "current". My suspicions were confirmed by the Oxford English Dictionary, which says "belonging to or occurring in the present". Perhaps someone should tell the curators at Tate Britain.

Many of the pieces were at the Tate anyway, at least in the past. Is art that's already been hanging for 25 years or longer still "contemporary" - I'd say no. But that's not really the point, because if what's on display makes much sense - and is enjoyable to look at, who cares?

Perhaps this exhibition was timed as a spoiler operation against Charles Saatchi's new gallery in County Hall, only a stone's throw away, because while the Tate's effort (when combined with the Tate Modern at Bankside) does contain the odd pieces by the likes of Damien Hurst, Rachel Whiteread and Tracy Emin, Saatchi's collection - who after all, did make them famous - contains the prize pieces, leaving the Tate with the left-overs. "Sensation" this isn't.

For a start, the exhibition is massive, in three and a half hours I managed to see probably less than a third of it, which probably had something to do with the video installations being near the beginning. The leaflet is a bit like a tube map, marking out the art with the names of the artists, which is not very helpful.

The entrance to the exhibition contains a piece by Jim Lambie, who has transformed the floor using multicoloured vinyl tape. Children attending the exhibition are rightly taken into account, with an activites box which includes strips of vinyl so the can make their own art รก la Lambie. The question is, would anyone notice the difference between the two? It looks nice, but is it art? This question would come back repeatedly.

A number of DVD installations were unsurprisingly present, video art being a trend. But did they belong in the Tate? What were they trying to say? A short (but oh-so long) film on public lavatories in London with unintelligable sound; a display of videos of old people having difficulty getting up; a sprinkler in a garden. I'm not really sure if these belonged anywhere. What was the point, what was the idea?

Addictively interesting but more suited as a training film for
psychologists or as a long documentary was film director Kutlug Ataman's four-part DVD (when I was there unfortunately only three parts were working) display based on visits to South Harrow to visit a lonely woman
who devotes her life to looking after the national collection of Amaryllis bulbs (hippiastrum hybrida). And I wasn't the only one mesmerised by this very personal - and also cruel - look into her life.

Would the subject have agreed to have been filmed if she'd suspected the reactions of awe, laughter and worry caused by the video portrait and what appeared to be her obsessive-compulsive addiction to cleanliness, going as
far as to peel and wash the bulbs in her washing machine (removing their resistance to disease, leading to them all getting mites, dying, and to her presumably psychosomatic illness)? Obviously not. But she seemed to have a need too for Ataman's visits, playing the role (very well, with
enthuasism and real interest) of a new Gardener's World presenter, who is on the side a bit of a Nazi.

In one sense the film was quite sad, she refused to answer many of Ataman's questions, and it also gave away much of the documentary filmmaker's tricks, nothing being cut out. ("Shall I go outside now and then come back in?"...etc.)

But what made it "art" was the way it was projected onto four screens in a darkened room, otherwise it would have belonged on BBC2.

My other highlight was George Shaw's oil paintings, produced using only seven colours in Airfix enamel paints of his council estate (pub, parks, garages) in Leicester.

The exibition is worth going for just to learn about Amaryllis, and perhaps, if you don't care much about gardening, the other two thirds will contain some gems amongst the dross too.

Link: Tate
Score: 6/10
Reviewer: Matt Heaney

Publications: 

Culture and Reviews: