Modern Art
South East England

‘It is the new way of doing things’, I overheard a woman recently say to her friend as they were viewing the art currently on display in the lower gallery at Modern Art Oxford. Given the gallery we were in it seemed a surprisingly radical observation to make when perhaps it ought to have seemed an obvious one. Because of it I turned back to look again at the art I had just seen and to test for myself how new it actually seemed.

Young Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s digitised self-playing piano forlornly filled the gallery with fractured Beethoven over and over again. There was the phone number in neon on the gallery wall that I had just rung from my mobile phone and listened by live feed to the ice melting under the arctic glacier. Our planet really is disappearing – I just heard it. It was moving and affecting and yes, this is new to me. She’s right I thought, that woman as she drifted off to buy her postcards.

Paterson’s art harnesses the latest technologies and thrusts them into our natural world, below the oceans and into outer space to offer us new and profound experiences, ones that herald our shared global loss and yet feels intensely personal too. It can tell us what is wrong but it cannot fix it.

Interested in codes of translation, Paterson has sent The Moonlight Sonata to the Moon and back and from the piano in the gallery and via morse code we hear the dislocated returned version with bars missing. It is still beautiful, an emotional outpouring that has encompassed the planet now. Familiarity is jolted by a sense of uncertainty as to where the work is now, is it really here in the gallery, is it under the glacier, out in space and how do we fit in ? This is art that feels new in vision and is made in new ways too. Katie Paterson doesn’t have a studio, she doesn’t need one. She has a laptop and makes her work by a ceaseless trawling of the internet for ideas and specialists that she can dialogue with. Recent collaborations have been with the moon-bouncers who obsessively transmit messages to the moon and back. Moon-gazers and supernova hunters are now in her sights for future imaginative pairings. Yes it is the new way of doing things.

These are big ideas, compelling and impressive for such a young artist to have realised, for any artist for that matter. What we are seeing at Modern Art is Paterson’s degree show from the Slade last year. It won’t be the last time we see her and those of us lucky enough to see this work now will remember that we were there at the beginning.

Upstairs in the Modern Art galleries as part of the Mircea Cantor exhibition 'The Need for Uncertainty', there are two exquisite but predictably controversial live peacocks living in the galleries. There has been broo-ha-ha in the local Oxford press about whether or not they should be there at all. Amidst it all it is too easy to miss why they are there and how they can make us feel when we are there too. They are simply splendid and seemingly very serene within their extraordinary reel of gilded cages. How exciting it is to see this great gallery really tested, our eyes forced upward and outward to experience this space anew. This is sculpture that is almost theatre and it offers us a unique and poetic experience in which to contemplate ideas about identity, migration and cultural displacement. We have to think of captivity, of power and dominance and the entrapment of beauty. More hopefully we also think of the wonder of nature, of life itself, and of endurance. There is more, a stunning flying carpet soars over our heads, hand-woven with images from folklore as well as aeroplanes and there is sensual photography of wood carvings in a forest.

There is uncertainty, there is ambiguity, that is fine, it gives us an entry into this art and reflects the contradictions within the experience of living. The much discussed birds are clearly contented, and (mercifully) silent if rather stern witnesses to the vision of this important Romanian artist who has travelled far to be an artist, to be here, who won’t be pinned down. I say ‘Welcome’ and ‘thanks for stopping by, safe journey’. It is wonderful that bold and ambitious commissioning and funding can bring this art to be here amongst us for a while.

Live birds in cages as well as art-works that employ the latest technologies in service of their ideas. How can this be anything but new and modern ? But modern is as modern was and the art history of the twentieth century is littered with art that used similar materials and strategies. Animals, alive or dead, hyenas or pickled cows, are nothing new in art galleries and artists have always seized new materials and processes and found ways of making art with them as soon as they could afford to do so. Whether the letterpress, the Sony Portapak camera, the latest digital photo-imaging software or the aerosol can, there is nothing artists won’t use to make their art.

No, the art in the Mircea Cantor and Katie Paterson exhibitions reflects the new way of doing things because of how it imaginatively and poetically connects it and us to our world, the world of now. It is the natural world, the political world in all it’s current mess and how it asks us to interact with it, how much it asks us to be aware of in order to get it’s job done that mostly makes it so of it’s time. It is our critical role as viewer of this art, how much of our own experience, our knowledge, ignorance or bigotry, our head or our heart that we must bring to it as we stand before it, that makes this work seem so new, so now. Actually artists have always done that to us and then as now it was bang up to date too !

This is new alright, this is really happening stuff and we definitely need to raise our game in order to ‘get’ it. Not everyone will be bothered to make that effort, the artists know that, the curators know that too and great lengths they go to in order to educate, to encourage and empower us as viewers, as they should.

For those that do want to be bothered, art theory and semiotics are on the sidelines always and may well reinforce a shield as one travels through the galleries viewing art that challenges and provokes us. But the best theory will not necessarily illuminate the art itself, only it’s context and certainly cannot replace the experiential. Despite the best efforts of the interpreter it is the art itself we must look to first and last. If we do so we can meet the challenges of these new ways of doing, of making things. We can find our own new way of looking at art and of understanding something new about it and about us because of it, something more than we did before we saw it. This is exhilarating and beautiful and moving art. It is sometimes difficult, things that matter usually are but I assert that it is rewarding even when we think we hate it or cannot do it. But then liking or approving does not really enter into it for me. I know which museums I can go to, and I do regularly, when I want the virtuosic, the reassuring cushion of art history, of tradition, of continuity. At Modern Art Oxford I expect to sail close to the wind and with this exhibition that is what we are doing.

This is inspirational and courageous art-making and curation. This art matters, it will endure and we should see it.