Three Ages of London's ICA

Dustin Ericksen

Tags: Contexts, Institute of Contemporary Art, London

Contexts / 19.10.2006

Fast forward to a post-literate future where decisions, digested, crafted and regurgitated by metaphysician administrators of popular opinion bring shock, awe and despair upon the slow and old, those aged, lonely backward-looking bods who cling to taking account and looking it up. In such a future, story explainers would make 'expression(s) of faith and commitment and shared purpose', thus concretize a 'sense of community, wonder and genuine enthusiasm' in their 'luscious visual homage'(s).1 Like Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game (1943), in which specialist scholars pick through the histories of scholars (but without bookishness) filtered through India's pictographic democracy ... man, your touch screen voting pods now!2

Focusing backward: a man with famously bad teeth, grisly voiced grunting, masturbating under the floor, announcing his thoughts of you. How old are you really? There'd be a difference in kind were that question to be asked in person - the personal touch. What if the question were more intellectual or philosophical(ish)? An assault on one's dignity, perhaps? A rather large but informal poll of my own district revealed that all those exposed to Tino Sehgal's semi-autonomous askers of questions unanimously declared the untitled piece This Progress to be an insult of the first degree.3 Real anger, really! For those unable to attend the scrupulously undocumented event, here is an approximate chronology: upon entering the ICA, the visitor is provided a petit guide in the form of a boy or girl (10 years old?) who promptly brings one into the first empty gallery and asks the question, 'what is progress?' For the visitor with nothing on the tip of his tongue, truly a sentence of death by embarrassment! Even this cursively trained juvenile could manage a little cocktail chatter on the subject ... No matter, it (the kid) is also trained to hazard some suggestions. This performance is already out of hand, certainly not unseen and not unheard; but if one manages to consent that progress might be like something, then that something is transmitted along with the visitor to the next room. This exchange evolves over the course of four guides in total, each more advanced in age - pre-adolescent, teen, adult and elderly - each about two to five minutes long. The teen questions what was meant by the answer to the pre-adolescent, in the next room the adult engages with some sophisticated correlates to the previous conversation, and leads the gallery-goer up the secret back stairwell, shuttling him/her off to a grandparentishly aged guide who explains another set of ideas on �progress.� All assiduously and inhumanely designed to destroy the childlike freedom and wonderment that the audience may have acquired through their visits to Frieze Art Fair.

Simon Popper, Borromean, 2006, installation view, Beck's Futures 2006. Courtesy ICA, London Post-avant garde art would not put such a pejorative spin on engagement - much less elicit convulsions of muteness-producing anger. No, the Marquis and his pokey stick of enquiry is 200-year-old news. There is no sensation here. One is almost prepared to ask why one would want to provoke with these pint-sized inquisitors, with their very-very precocious stand-in scriptedness. Why dare to ask art lovers of all stripes to get into the act, to join in this dialogic parody, or, worse yet, seriousness? Maturity disallows the audience to participate in hippie queries such as these. After all, Timothy Leary turned state's evidence. Were it a real discussion, the perfect retort would be 'get back to your spelling bee, pest!' But this sophistry is only for show. Responding to a more passive, though fidgety repose, my teeny bopping guide, in a moment of therapeutic and intellectual clarity, advised me to 'loosen up, relax.'

Reading from a page in the following show, perhaps Sehgal's instructions to his actors should have been to wait for a tram to rattle by before asking questions, so as to not scoop too deeply into angerable ears. Like Leopold Bloom holding his fart so as not to offend a passing lady, Simon Popper's offer at Beck's Futures conflated his own name with the protagonist of Ulysses on a model train going around in circles. But Popper's train is too little, too late to save face for Sehgal, and besides, his version of Ulysses is very messy; train tram Bloom Blum Blam! More provocation, it must be estimated.4


I stick my tongue out at age-ism in any of its monstrous permutations, with the exception of the very young and the ageless, like Richard Hamilton and Cher. Shame on the ICA and Beck's for its newly instituted policy of 35 and younger only. What about the rights of the oldsters? Some might think that in such a contest the futurity of the works was in question, but no, there is another sense in which the word is played. Perhaps the bell tolled too loudly for the previous winner, Christina Mackie? Why would the marketing management team of Beck's, in an attempt to move from strength to strength, imagineer a new policy for the competition? Though I recently did pass it (now 36), I do recall what it was, and it was sexy, and now - well, it belongs to a new future generation. No, the youthful creature's visage whose work jitterbugged and shimmied its way down primed and well-trodden paved paths into the hearts and hearts of the popularity vote and judges was, odds on, better than it will be ten years from now for Beck's future.

What about this thing that is like a derivative, though nonetheless a commodity, like bananas? Significantly, futures are a special kind. They do not produce now, they are bought and sold today, and the payoff happens when someone else makes it and someone else buys it. Yes, the futures trader cleans up, with luck and the law on his side. So it's settled. A future says nothing about the future but might be valuable later, except for those who sell them now through derivatives. Luckily, those who survived the previous exhibition (Sehgal's) will see the analogy. In making his reverse engineering time machine, Sehgal reveals the old forging the future and the young discovering the past. And the tots being little parrots. And maybe the very old going on a bit about old stuff. Oh, clich�! So in amassing a sexy gene pool for possible derivatives to create widgets for the purposes of a quasi-popularity contest-cum-cultural marketing event, the ICA team and Buck's (thanks to Olivia Plender) have developed a winning strategy.5 But the lack of inclusivity is so unkind to older people, so bigoted. Do older people have no future? Gosh. The pensioner demographic would disagree! Maybe Sehgal could have won Beck's Futures - who knows, he wasn't nominated, and he has all sorts of hang-ups that his sort of artist would have. So predictable. He's no Ian Wilson or Stanley Brouwn, a point that would be wholly evident if illustrated photogenically. He is dearly young, and producing mostly post-industrial-style intangible assets: branding. But of course the popular vote would have been forfeit once Sehgal's culturally insensitive apparatchik inquisitors were loosed on the people. So the dream dies there. To quote the writers of The Simpsons, 'when will people learn, democracy doesn't work?' It certainly sets an 'us' against a 'them'.

Inclusivity being key to the future, Beck's jury member Yinka Shonibare noted the offerings of this year's winner's 'inclusive' feel, which seems a perfect segue into the global future as envisaged by the exhibition which followed Beck's: '80 Days Around the World'.6 As much as H.G. Wells's Time Machine is recalled by Sehgal, and Beck's followed on with something born of Investor's Weekly, this grand literary premise thrusts the art-chair traveler through the medium of Farrow and Ball-colored cubes to journey to the middle of the earth without ever leaving London. No giant squid-like entanglements of philosophizing here. The story centers on a wager between two gentlemen; a race against time. The exhibition uses the story as a point of departure. It departs. The show could also be called Artists who come from other places but now call London home. The show goes around the world to avoid the pitfalls of an exhibition like Simon Bedwell's Gents,7 a show in the guise of an exclusive club or a two-sided sculpture with only one side if you're not a dude. Yes, one would be totally fascinated to enter the wiener-having only premises to see ... four or five other dudes looking awkwardly at each other and the cheeseball comforts and accoutrements. A putrid spectacle of non-inclusivity much like the aforementioned giant squid of belittling; a little touch of old London. Instead, the representative exhibition at the ICA performed the admirable task of assembling a summer group show. In it, Nicole Wermer's scaled heater-sculpture stood like some weird quiet alien, daring the wall-text writer to make some strained connection to world travel or wagering, or maybe giant clams.

Those who walk upon three legs somehow must endure terrible hardships. They might also watch and name what scoots past on two or four. They would not be totally stoked to rediscover the recent-enough past and represent it in a Rock My Religion or Genius of the Church kind of way.8 Like (totally) never before, the presentation of the hyped weariness of marketable youth cultures to those who think about what culture is and could be is again presented again. It's like 1970 or something, but without the cool hairdos. Debilitating blows are a hard sell in the world of the soft touch, but there is no doubt that the ICA has been sexed up by Beck's finest; it's shown a world of London-educated artists, but the best art by a long shot left all my friends struck dumb.

- Dustin Ericksen

  1. Press release, Beck's Futures 2006. The exhibition took place at the ICA between 31 March and 14 May 2006 (as well as two offsite venues organized by the CCA, Glasgow and the Arnolfini, Bristol),

  2. The 2006 edition of Beck's Futures introduced a public vote by touch screens in each venue. The public favorite was awarded one vote towards the final jury prize.

  3. 'Tino Seghal 2006 : This Progress', 3 February-19 March 2006

  4. Simon Popper's Borromean consisted of 1,000 copies of James Joyce's Ulysses, with the words rearranged in alphabetical order, and a model train on a small circular track adorned with the logo 'Blum and Popper'.

  5. Olivia Plender's contribution to Beck's Futures 2006 included a comic parody of Beck's, called Bucks, pictured in comic form.

  6. 'Around the World in Eighty Days', 24 May-16 July 2006.

  7. Simon Bedwell, Gents: A Melodrama with Two Acts, 31 October-14 November 2005.

  8. Respectively, Dan Graham, Rock My Religion, 1982-84, and Mark Leckey, Genius of the Church, 2004.