The Alternative Guide to the Universe, currently on at The Hayward Gallery will, I suspect, evoke different reactions in those who have an education in art from those who don’t. I’m only guessing how the cognoscenti approach it from reading various reviews in the the press, whereas, as I fall squarely within the second category, I can tell you exactly how this naive viewer looked at it.
It appeared to me to be indistinguishable from any other art exhibition I’ve ever seen: some things engaged me, I wanted to look more closely at them, to see the detail, the marks and the colours, and I wanted to know more about the story of the person who had created them; other pieces didn’t engage me at all and I walked on by without needing to know anything more.
So much for the concept of ‘Outsider Art’ then. It’s a concept that’s important for the people who know about ‘art’ and talk about ‘intention’ and ‘context’, and who therefore refer to the people whose work is represented in this eclectic exhibition as ‘untrained’. If the person who made the piece had no artistic training or intent, can it be ‘art’?
I don’t have the answer to that question, other than to observe that many of the pieces in this show made me stop and look and think, they were fascinating and without any practical purpose other than to express what was in the mind’s eye of the person who made it…….which sounds a bit like art to me.
Many of the people whose work is on show existed in the hinterland of society, some in menial jobs, or in living in institutions, but what seems to have characterised them all was an obsessive desire to create something to communicate their ideas. There is one who saw patterns in numbers, so made patterns out of numbers so complicated that they will only be deciphered when a computer sufficiently large is developed in the future, another drew intricate diagrams and made mathematical models proving his theory that there is no such thing as gravity. One man made anatomically accurate models of pubescent children, dressed them, gave them emotional facial expressions and then photographed them looking alarmingly real. He had apparently learned to sew specifically for the purpose of making their clothes.
If it all sounds a little mad, is it any more so than systematically destroying all your belongings in a shop front, or embroidering the names of everyone you’ve ever slept with into a tent, or dressing up and photographing yourself in automatic photo booths? Can we always tell the difference between the ‘outsider’ and a member of the Royal Academy? I certainly can’t.
My particular favourites were the models made by Bodys Isek Kingelez, intricate designs for impossible buildings; shaped like butterflies and Chinese temples, shapes which might fit well along side the creations on the Las Vegas Strip, all constructed from offcut cardboard and discarded bits and pieces; and the ink drawings of Marcel Storr, imaginings and diagrams for the rebuilding of Paris after the nuclear was the artist believed was coming. They marks on the paper are so dense and detailed, and covered in luminous ink, each work glows with a golden light, part temple part dystopian cityscape. They were beautiful as well as fascinating.
It’s well worth a visit. There’s a robot and the alphabet reshaped as skateboards too.