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Contemporary Artspace
London 1997-2000

Text taken from the catalogue Phoenix
ISBN 0 9581792 0 4


Essay written by EDWARD LUCIE-SMITH

EDWARD LUCIE-SMITH is an art critic, curator, poet and photographer who has written books on contemporary art published in many languages. Among his best-known titles are 'Movements in Art since 1945', 'The Visual Arts of the 20th Century' and 'Art Today'. He recently curated the survey exhibition
'New Classicism in Art', at Palazzo Forti in Verona. Among his recent books are monograph on the American feminist artist Judy Chicago [published in May 2000], and 'Art Tomorrow' [published in October 2002], a survey of the most recent developments in contemporary art which includes work by Tim Maslen
and Jennifer Mehra.

Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra belong to a new generation of experimental artists who are both extending the boundaries of contemporary art and at the same time questioning the assumptions that prevailed in the 1990s. In Britain, where much of Maslen and Mehra's work has been done, the experimental art of the 1990s was largely ego-driven. By this I mean two things. First that much of it was directly autobiographical, and centred on the adventures and traumas of the artist's own life. Cases in point are Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Second, that it often refused to look beyond the boundaries of the artist's own physical being. A celebrated example is Mona Hatoum's 'Corps Etranger', where the artist recorded the results of introducing an endoscope into her body.

Artists now establishing important reputations appear to be looking in a very different direction. They are more idealistic, but also more interested in scientific ideas, which can be looked at in an objective rather than a purely personal way. At the same time they recognise that contemporary art now plays an important role in what can be described as the 'culture of entertainment', and that it is no longer the property of an elite, but accessible to a large audience.

In a series of brilliantly imaginative installation works, made from the year 2000 until the present, Maslen and Mehra have been pioneers of this new approach. Their output has been marked by scrupulous craftsmanship, but also by poetic sensibility. Their installation projects include 'Gorge' [Void Gallery, London, July 2000], 'Woodland' [Sydney Law Courts, September 2000], 'Interior Landscape' [European Forum for Emerging Creation, Lyon, France, January 2001], 'Drift' [Dilston Grove, London, August 2001], 'Terra Incognita' [Artspace, Sydney, April 2002], and 'Glimmer' [Chaos Exhibition, London, July 2002].

These installations show a steady progression in terms of complexity, but also an equivalent progression in fusing ideas with the possibility of poetic experience. In a certain sense, what they do can be regarded as paradoxically retrogressive as well as being progressive. Let me try to explain what I mean.

In the late 20th century the great Modernist experiment finally seemed to come to an end with the Minimalist Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Minimalist theoreticians held that art could have no subject: art objects existed by and for themselves. The real situation, however, was that Minimalist works did indeed have a subject, which was the nature of art itself, which they attempted to confine within a purely formalist set of rules. The attempt failed, and the result was the apparent chaos of late 20th century Post Modernism. Post Modernism was at first celebrated for its apparent disjointedness, its refusal of consistency of any kind. Gradually, however, certain things became clear. An important part of the Post Modernist rejection of Minimalism was a return to identifiable subject matter. Works of art once again started to address issues outside of themselves.

This, in effect, meant a return to most of the things that the Modern Movement had categorically rejected. Works of art were once again a vehicle for the discussion of moral and social issues. They even started to re-acquire a quotient of narrative.

All of these tendencies are contained in Maslen and Mehra's installations, but they are not the most prominent elements. What one finds in these works are other things which would also have been familiar to the pre-Modern audience for art, and in particular to the audience of the 19th century. There is a strong element, as I have suggested, of scientific curiosity - the narrative is the narrative of how nature works - in other words an analysis of natural processes, of a kind made familiar by Darwin and his heirs. At the same time there is something that stems from the earlier part of the century - a rapt communion with nature.

Though the idiom is apparently so different, there at things here which are inherited from the tradition of Romantic landscape - from the work of artists such as Samuel Palmer and Caspar David Friedrich. In fact, what the artists do is to construct a magical realm that the spectator/participant is invited, not merely to look at, but actually to enter.

There are, of course, significant differences from the work made by the artists whom I have just named. These are not small, portable objects on a domestic scale. They are not possessions; the are, instead, temporary events. What they offer is not the satisfaction of ownership, but simply an experience that must be, by its very nature, transient.

People are sometimes tempted to think that this is a new phenomenon in art. In fact, the opposite is true. The part of the art of the past that we now possess represents only a very small part of what artists actually made. When we look through Leonardo da Vinci's drawings, for example, we note a number of designs for elaborate masquerade costumes. 16th and 17th engravings record court and municipal festivities designed by leading artists that must have had a great impact on the spectators of the time. There are even a number of oil sketches by Rubens that are preliminary visualisations of parade floats made to celebrate the victories of his Hapsburg patrons in the Low Countries.

In the 18th century, painting and the stage were closely allied. Hogarth's 'The Rake's Progress' and 'The Village Marriage Contract' by Jean-Baptiste Greuze are scenes from unwritten dramas, and the art critics of the time, Denis Diderot chief among them, often discussed paintings purely in terms of their dramatic content. The installations now being made by Maslen and Mehra offer yet another twist on this long-established alliance between the world of the drama and that of fine art.

There are, nevertheless, also significant differences. The installations make skilful use of modern lighting and of materials that are characteristic products of contemporary technology. Artists of the generation to which Maslen and Mehra belong differ from their immediate predecessors in their concern for solid craftsmanship. Deliberate crudity in handling materials is no longer a distinguishing mark of avant-garde activity. The free handling of space in a number of these works suggests the influence of the cinema even more than that of the stage.

The most significant difference, however, is psychological. The pageants and other quasi-theatrical events I have just referred to were concerned to limit meanings as much as they were to open them up. They were allegories, often with elaborate programmes devised, not by the artists themselves, but by scholars employed for the occasion. The whole point of an allegory is that it proposes precise equivalents. This symbol is the counterpart of that abstract idea.

The installations made by Maslen and Mehra and their peers are not like that. They certainly propose ideas, and interest themselves in what is intellectual as well as in what is emotional. Yet they also exist to trigger a process of free association that will take the willing spectator into another sphere. In this sense they are directly descended from the installations made by members of the Surrealist Movement, and still more so, perhaps from the intellectual and emotional world of the Symbolists. This is logical enough. Going in the opposite direction, descending the ladder rather than climbing it, one finds that Palmer and Friedrich, whom I have already mentioned, anticipated many Symbolist attitudes.

The more closely one examines these supposedly radical works, the more one tends to find that they are also embedded in pre-Modern traditions. Yet this in no way compromises their originality. The preoccupations they express are increasingly things that are being recognised as fundamental to the whole question of human survival on a threatened planet. The poetry they embody is entirely individual, and makes any encounter with them a memorable experience.