Calling all art illiterates

Posted on December 30, 2011

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Living in East London you’re never short of opportunities to check out contemporary art, and believe me a lot of it is spleen rupturingly awesome. Plus you get to wander around crumbling old warehouses deep in the underbelly of Hackney, and stare at trendy art types clad in ironic hats, which is always entertaining. However, all too often, instead of engaging with a brilliant piece of modern art I find myself confused and faced with a dilemma – is it total crap, or am I just too uneducated to ‘get it’? And should I admit any of this to the trilby brigade?

Sound familiar? If, like me, you’ve ever sprinted excitedly to a contemporary art exhibition as if someone’s dangled a Kit-Kat in front of your nose the whole way, only to be thoroughly underwhelmed by what you find, then you’ll know this kind of anticlimax well.

Well it happened to me again recently. Upon hearing about the Exchange Series – a festive collaboration between shopkeepers and designers on Dalston’s main high street – I was excited. The project comprises bespoke installations by artists and designers in the shop-fronts of eight local businesses, and what better place to showcase creative talent than this east-end hub of eccentricity and quirk.

Or so I thought.

Picture the scene. Standing outside a cafe participating in the project,  onlookers gaze through the shop window at a rotisserie chicken and a couple of lamb chops, genuinely contemplating whether or not this could, maybe, possibly be something we were supposed to be looking at as ‘art’. It wasn’t. It was a rotisserie chicken and a couple of lamb chops.

Before you soil yourself laughing at our stupidity, let me explain why it was even conceivable that a fowl carcass could be masquerading as art. This is what happened outside Diamond Car Service, one of the project’s participants…

‘So where’s the art then?’ – my friend Wanda

‘This is it. This is the art.’ – Diamond employee

‘Really?’ – Wanda

‘Yes.’ –employee

‘Oh…’ – Wanda.

Which really wasn’t a shocking reaction considering what we were confronted with. Some blue placards advising us ‘how to get quickly to New Year’s Eve’. Groundbreaking stuff, no?

Diamond Car Service's collaboration with artist Alexandre Bettler

That’s not to say that we didn’t see some interesting work. I particularly liked the drawing pressed up against the grease specked window in Arthur’s Cafe – homage to Arthur himself in a monochrome recreation of one of his old family photos. But as for being able to understand the project in general as ‘an interaction between retail and design, between service and artwork – that is situated in time and place,’ well, it just didn’t happen for me.

I like to think I’m capable of appreciating art, but I’ve been caught out at so many of these projects or exhibitions with a very distinct ‘I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.’ look on my face. Picture Karl Pilkington meets Anne Widdecombe and you’ve just about grazed the parameters of my gormlessness here.

Luckily, this time, there weren’t any artists loitering around to shame me into keeping my uneducated opinions to myself, with their oversized bespectacled glares. I think this art illiterate may have, for once, just about gotten away with her pride intact.

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Posted in: Art and Culture