For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.

Sunday 2 August
Exhibit: Christine Mackie: the filters
Place:  Tate Britain

Even as the doors of Tate Britain slid open, I was in two minds.  Should I visit the little display exploring Joseph Wright of Derby’s Bird in an Air-pump, which they’ve borrowed from the National Gallery? Or the current Duveen Commission, Christine Mackie’s the filters?  Reluctantly I decided that Wright of Derby was too far inside my 18th century comfort zone and opted instead for the unknown Mackie, hoping to be challenged by the shock of the new.

Duveen Commissions, sponsored by Sotheby’s, are an annual event, showing new work in the Tate’s long, wide and high neoclassical hallway which separates the pre-20th century collections from the modernists. It is not a space easy to dominate. I remember one in 2010 which memorably did: Fiona Banner’s fighter plane – an actual Sea Harrier jet – hung nose-down from the skylights. How would Mackie’s attempt measure up?


They're described as sculptures but what you see first are nine finely meshed net tubes dyed different colours, stretched around hoops near the ceiling and hung from these down to the floor, where each dangles into a shallow tray containing the dried out remains of colour dye. A system of ropes and pulleys is in place, anchored by lead weights around the walls, to raise and lower the nets. The colours are as follows: snooker-table green, condom pink, stocking brown, lavender, a couple of yellows, one muddier than the other, and two shades of blue, Smartie blue and blue rinse.


 Two other objects complete the display. One consists of a matching pair of bright yellow frames in which another line of the same nets hangs, this time not stretched but limp and narrow. The other is a circular display case containing large polished chunks of waste glass, in various colours, recovered from the bottom of a glass-maker’s kiln.

What does it all mean? I consulted the information leaflet. “What if, Mackie asks, there is no clear demarcation possible between self and world, subject and object? Mackie suggests that we are not passive observers but active participants. This radical empiricism does justice to ‘our’ perceptions and resists the habitual tendency to break the web of experience into poles labeled objective and subjective”.  These nets are therefore “a metaphor for the mesh of the world and the entanglement of body and mind but they also represent the filtering and dispersion of experience”.

Oh dear. This kind of stuff just makes me feel tired. I suppose it is the conceptual imperative that makes artists and curators load art with all kinds of half-digested philosophical baggage. By what metaphorical process these nets and dye-trays tell a parable of metaphysics (possibly derived from the ideas of A.N. Whitehead) entirely escapes me, but I do notice that, amidst all the theoretical flim-flam, the obvious is never mentioned: Mackie’s assembly is simply a matter of nets that have been dyed in the dye-trays and then raised up by the pulleys to dry.  


The chunks of coloured glass are of passing interest, but the yellow Meccano structure says nothing at all to me. I have seen a few compelling artworks of mysterious or absurd industrial processes (for example by Rebecca Horn and Michael Landy). This isn’t one of them.

Art at its best should give you a jolt, or a lift, but I wended my way feeling deflated. I was glad, however, that it was Sotheby’s profits that paid for this and not the taxpayer.

Before I left I diverted to look at the Wright of Derby display. Now that really is philosophical art.

Posted on August 2nd, 2015


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