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March 31 2012

Gillian Wearing; Patrick Keiller

Whitechapel Art Gallery; Tate Britain, London

At almost 50, Gillian Wearing is still making art to divide the audience. The curators of this show, for instance, appear moved by her little figurines of everyday heroes – a hoodie who turns out to be a brave police cadet, a woman who helped out on 9/11 – where others may find them cutesy and mawkish. If you're going, take a friend and see whether you can agree on the moral, aesthetic and emotional values of her work. To me, these are constantly in doubt.

The Whitechapel show is superbly staged, at least, and has all the classics: Trauma, in which adults disclose dreadful childhood memories on the small screen; Drunk, with its street drinkers staggering through elaborate fights and reconciliations in life-size triple-screen projection. The policemen keeping agonisingly still in Sixty Minute Silence; the much-plagiarised photographs of people holding signs inscribed with their inner thoughts – "I'm Desperate", "Mary come back".

Anyone unfamiliar with the old arguments about Wearing will find them conveniently revived in a dozen films from the past two decades. Intrusion, manipulation, voyeurism, exploitation: all these charges are courted by the works themselves, with their distinctive presentation of authenticity in the form of conspicuous staging.

Each film asks you to consider what is true, what is performed or real, and what, if anything, can be known about the subjects. Which has sometimes amounted to very little – who was the eponymous Woman with the bandaged face I saw yesterday down Walworth Road?– or, at times, nothing.

Take the latest series of photographic portraits in which Wearing plays many parts, from her parents and grandparents to artistic forebears such as Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. The artist squeezes into a latex mask or body suit, holds the pose of grandmother, mother, father or brother and disappears into the period photograph.

Wearing's contribution is the idea (and the wearing, so to speak). The skill is in the illusions themselves. So plausible are these prosthetic faces that the join is barely visible in the rim where mask meets eye, except when deliberately exposed; a magic extended to costume, scenario and lighting.

Claude Cahun, Cindy Sherman, Hiroshi Sugimoto – the influence of these quick-change artists is everywhere apparent. But unlike Sherman, Wearing does not create characters; and unlike Sugimoto, she does not create appearances.

Wearing as Claude Cahun has a touch of wit in the Wearing-faced mask dangling like an attribute from Cahun's hand. But this marvellous French artist did not assume masks as a trope. To be outside society, to be misunderstood, to live in disguise (she was a resistance heroine): Cahun's self-portraits admit the miseries of a double life just as they acknowledge how strange one can seem even to oneself.

Wearing, on the other hand, is only trying on other people's faces. It is true that a strong family likeness emerges in that series (though how can one know, since all eyes belong to Wearing?). It is also true that some kind of homage is implied in recreating oneself in the image of other artists.

But that Wearing can be made to look exactly like all these different people is mainly what strikes – that and the peculiar lack of affect. After the showbusiness double take, these pictures are perfectly blank. Even when Wearing appears as a three year-old, the image does not occasion mortal questions so much as curiosity to know how the trick was achieved.

These feats of wizardry are a prelude to the confessional booths that follow, where people in masks "confess" to Secrets and Lies. Domestic violence, childhood beatings, rape, murder: the monologues are harrowing. They are also strictly produced. Nobody talks for more than an allotted few minutes, so that the bare outline of hell is all anyone can offer. The disguise is always a distraction, generally because the discrepancy between what is being said and the mask from which it issues is so extreme – the woman whose husband tried to strangle her, for instance, is got up in a candy-coloured top, matching lipstick and blusher.

This feels indiscriminate or sententious, depending on your viewpoint. At worst, it undermines the speaker. They talk, we listen, the experience all round is botched, unfulfilled, incomplete.

In Bully, a victim re-enacts his suffering with the aid of a group of strangers, whom he is encouraged to cast and direct. The film begins with finger jabbing and ends with near-violence. But it's never clear whether catharsis takes place, nor (typical twist) whether everyone is truly acting. How can one know: that remains Wearing's default position. She doesn't ask, and she doesn't want us to ask.

People are strange, people are not what they seem, nobody can be fully understood. Wearing's art is often heavy with platitude. Her strongest works, to me, have their roots in reality but raise the artifice to dramatic heights – films such as Sacha and Mum with its noh-like ritualisation of a mother-daughter relationship, and the unforgettable 2 Into 1.

Here, Wearing films a mother talking about her 10-year-old twins, and vice versa, then has each lipsynch the other's monologues in turn. As each speech is uttered, family secrets are devastatingly corroborated by the body language. "Lawrence is gorgeous, I love every inch of him," declares Lawrence, smirking at his mother's praise. Mute, resigned, Lawrence's twin grits his teeth alongside.

At Tate Britain, Patrick Keiller has been given the whole length of the Duveen galleries to reprise one of his cult films by other means. Robinson in Ruins plays silently on a giant screen while pictures selected from the Tate archive act as further illustrations and, indeed, stills to the film's fictional journey through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.

Robinson, it may be recalled, is that mysterious academic from the University of Barking (sic) whose travels through psychogeography are reminiscent of Iain Sinclair. His is an England haunted by white horses and neolithic rings, henges and pylons, nuclear plants and power stations. It is sepulchral, apocalyptic, wondrous and political; and so is much of the art.

Turner's shipwreck bristles alongside Muirhead Bone's drawing of the British Museum Reading Room under construction: each a dark chaos of struts. Black cloudscapes by Alexander Cozens glower behind real chunks of the meteorite that landed in Yorkshire in 1795, the same year as the Poor Removal Act; and here are victims of that act in portraits.

The journey proceeds through coincidence, proximity, visual affinity. Sometimes it's predictable – Blake versus Constable, Greenham Common, Quatermass, Peter Kennard's deathless Haywain with Cruise Missiles. But there are revelations along the way: the overlooked Susanna Duncombe, tremendous explosions by Leonard Rosoman and Paul Nash, Keiller's own photographs of sackcloth ghouls windblown in the hedgerows and overgrown milestones once sponsored by RBS.

This is art as consciousness-raising, to some extent, but it is also addictive and immersive. And Keiller's offbeat humour is at play in the situationist cartoons and the riffs on Goethe, romanticism and the picturesque. His gift, as in the films, lies in plucking images from the landscape and holding them to the light for contemplation, and he could have gone on and on for ever, it seems to me. But what is here will suffice to make one ruminate on the museum and the world outside in a different way. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 10 2011

Iain Sinclair: my favourite painting

The author considers the great drama at the heart of this re-enactment of a scene from the gospel of Saint John, painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1565

October 02 2010

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici | Book review

If you're looking for a solution to the current debate over modernism in Gabriel Josipovici's book, look elsewhere

"Why," BS Johnson once asked, "do so many novelists still write as though the revolution that was Ulysses had never happened?" Almost 40 years on, the question remains valid, and Gabriel Josipovici should be well placed to answer it. He is a distinguished novelist, critic and teacher, a polyglot scholar and a research professor at the University of Sussex. Here he argues, rightly, that modernism in the arts must be considered not simply a period or a style, but a deeply rooted response to crises of truth, authority and originality that stretch back to Cervantes and beyond.

As that synopsis suggests, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is essentially an academic book, and its appearance in the review sections is largely due to a classic literary spat stirred up by a Guardian journalist. Professor Josipovici objected that a few disparaging comments about Amis, Rushdie et al had been taken to represent a thesis that was in fact "not interested in personalities" – a defence that would have been more convincing were it not that the chapter in question mounts an ad hominem attack on those "English pseudo-Modernists" and their "beady-eyed refusal to be taken in by highfalutin language".

Headlines aside, the book itself is a welcome intervention in the long debate about the difference between art and entertainment, although it's a shame that Josipovici is not always as lucid or precise as one could wish. While making a point about a passage of early Wallace Stevens, for instance, he explains Stevens's response to the impasse of modernism by recalling "what Donne long ago recommended: 'He who would truth find/ About must and about must go'". The quotation is superfluous to the argument, but it is good advice, and would be even better were it closer to what Donne actually wrote:

On a huge hill

Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will

Reach her, about must, and about must go,

And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.

It's a small slip, but hardly a minor one, since the point of quoting Donne's labouring lines is that the metre requires of a reader the kind of struggle counselled by the words, just as Stevens requires of his difficult verse that it strain towards an essential truth while holding open the possibility that such truths might remain out of reach.

It's hard to fluff the couplet unless you're dealing solely in abstractions, which should be a warning about the abstractions that too often pass here for reasoning. More to the point, a sceptical reader is unlikely to be persuaded to pay more attention to the prose of Robert Pinget, or to the music of György Kurtág, by a critic who has just made a molehill out of a metaphysical mountain.

So what did happen to modernism? Professor Josipovici seems reluctant to answer his own question, other than to hint that it may have crept back to the continent whence it came, shaking its head ruefully at the provincial attitudes of small-minded, beady-eyed Britain. Can that be true? Or might it simply have gone to ground in its natural habitat: the small presses and little magazines? And can we take seriously a book that raises the issue without mentioning – to name only a few writers – Henry Green or James Hanley, Alasdair Gray or Angela Carter, WS Graham or Iain Sinclair? After all, to complain that McEwan, Barnes & Co aren't living up to the legacy of British modernism is a little like complaining that the cheesemonger has run out of chalk.

In 2004, a similar media storm was brewing around Randall Stevenson's volume in the Oxford English Literary History, which had favoured the abstruse poetry of JH Prynne – a modernist of a kind – over that of Philip Larkin. Asked by the Today programme to adjudicate, the late Frank Kermode replied, generously: "Why can't people like them both?" To tackle that question, which is more than rhetorical, would entail thinking hard about arts education, about publishers and prizes, and about the failings of critics and journalists. It is worth pondering, and remains to be answered: there are no solutions here. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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