Bourriaud's Altermodern marks expansive Tate Triennial

By Ben Miller | 27 February 2009
A picture of a mushroom cloud made of stainless steel

Subodh Gupta , Line of Control, 2008. Courtesy the artist, Arario Gallery and Hauser & Wirth Zurich London. Pic courtesy Tate Photography

Exhibition review: Altermodern, Tate Britain, London, until April 26 2009.

Nicolas Bourriaud’s grandiose plan to create “an in-progress redefinition of modernity” under the buzzword umbrella of Altermodern sounds staggeringly ambitious.

In his notes, the Gulbenkian Curator of Contemporary Art credits his addition to the dictionary as the combination of an “other” (Latin) or “different” new modernism in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Pretty much everything in the show could come under either or both of those categories, but if you’re going to start a movement to replace postmodernism, you might as well make it as vast and wild as its predecessor.

As with the exhibition itself, it’s hard to even know where to begin when trying to describe this avalanche of smut, fetish, kaleidoscopic multi-culturalism, subversive visions, experimental noodlings, otherworldly theorising and limitless expression from artists who, in stark contrast to previous Tate triennials, arrive from all over the world.

Subodh Gupta kicks things off in the Duveen Galleries, cramming the central space with stainless steel tins, triffins and pans running from floor to ceiling in a symbol of contested borders between disputed territories from Bosnia to Kashmir, a bursting mushroom cloud of peace formed by kitchen utensils in a stunning structure.

A picture of multiple screen shining in the darkness

Onlookers slouch on a cushion to witness Spartacus Chetwynd's hyperactive and seedy Hermitos Children installation

Places of Rebirth, a film billboard by Thai artist Navin Rawanchaikul, captures the eye on a personal journey through characters and historical figures inspired by his first visit to Pakistan, but as a colour binge it’s a relatively tame compared to Franz Ackermann’s Gateway, where sickly neon oranges, pinks and green cover a spinning slab, suspended over glass jars and flags of various hues, set next to a giant cage. It feels like entering a crayon jungle.

A huge cinematic style billboard full of colourful figures

Places of Rebirth is a personal and historical journey through Pakistan

Step back outside the doors and there are dozens of people lounging on cushions, gawping at Hermitos Children, where a sex crime detective investigates the curious case of death by dildo, flickering across a multitude of screens in a death metal soundtracked orgy which, inexplicably, takes a Jewish restaurant and a performance club night among its locations.

A psychedelic picture of a black and white figure in blue and green space

Spartacus Chetwynd, Hermito's Children, TV Pilot (promotional material), 2008.© the artist

Doncaster audio-visual artist Nathaniel Mellors presents a bunch of actors rehearsing a play about being swallowed by God in Giantbum, a crazy video installation which hypothesises “the relationship between word and effect” but is actually a cavalcade of linguistic jokes and immature crassness. This is not necessarily a bad thing – a gaggle of giggling children in the vicinity seem positively enthralled by it.

There are quieter, more serious moments within the whirlwind, though – in a room full of shadows, we hear Tris Vonna-Michell describe a trip to Detroit Hunter S Thompson might have enjoyed over headphones, and Extramission 6, by Lindsey Seers, is a sad little autobiographic memoir of a life overwhelmed by sensory elements.

Seers turns into a camera, evolving into a video projector later, supplemented by recollections from her heartbroken mother. It’s powerfully played enough to be genuinely moving, if you can avoid crashing over the canyon of surrealism it tilts on.

Charles Avery has created his own island in one room, full of drawings and centred on the enormous head of some sort of mutation between a dinosaur and a parrot in the middle of the room.

It looks like the kind of thing Ralph Steadman might dream up if he devoted his life to the imagined parallel universe Avery clearly has. It is not clear whether this was the cause for his expulsion from The University of the Arts’ Central St Martins College, but you can’t fault his commitment to the novelty universe.

Mike Nelson presents a paranoia-inducing installation of conspiracy theories, and Olivia Plender takes Robin Hood as a starting point for a dash through social schisms and ensuing movements.

Matthew Darbyshire explores commercially-driven state architecture in a colourful outburst, Simon Starling invites everyone to feel like they’ve completely missed whatever point he was trying to make by way of a desk with tenuous connections to Francis Bacon, and projection extraordinaire Gustav Metzger offers a crystal light show which, it must be said, is easier on the eye than many of the surrounding escapades.

A picture of a giant sculpture of the head of a creature in the middle of a gallery

Charles Avery , Aleph Null Head, 2008, and installation of drawings, 2009. Courtesy the artist

The London artist working under the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith has a placard about Barack Obama on display in one corner, one of a series to be made in response to the Triennial throughout its run, and Marcus Coates creates a heartfelt but unintentionally slapstick documentary, donning his blue and white tracksuit and heading off to Israel to lecture a bemused but accommodating small-town mayor about the precipice that small, supposedly vulnerable countries work on.

A picture of a stand with the words I Wish I Could Have Voted For Barack Obama daubed on it

Bob and Roberta Smith , Off Voice Fly Tip, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery

The quality of each participant’s work in this show is so subjective that, unless you suffer outrageous misfortune and stumble upon a selection of works you loathe within the first few artists you examine, sheer stamina and open-mindedness should allow you to find your own value.

A picture of a man in a blue and white tracksuit with sunglasses and a badger on his head with a rabbit coming out of his tracksuit top

Marcus Coates, Firebird, Rhebok, Badger and Hare, 2008. © the artist 2008. Picture Jo Ramirez

The scope and generosity allowed by the premise of an entirely new movement means there is something for everyone to enjoy and, at the very least, it’s absorbing enough to entice a repeat visit.

Admission £4.90-£7.80, family ticket £19.50. Open 10am-5.50pm, last admission 5pm. Call 020 7887 8888.

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