As we move tentatively further into 2014, those unsure as to what the new year will have in store would do well to get themselves down to the V&A, where new year’s is being heralded in with two remarkable, contemporary exhibitions, Jameel Prize 3 and Elmgreen & Dragset’s Tomorrow.
On the surface there is little to connect these two shows. The Jameel Prize exposition celebrates the work of modern-day artists inspired by traditional Islamic arts and crafts. Tomorrow is a walk-through piece, pondering the futility of wealth, and the excess and nausea of western living, from the team that produced Death of a Collector. What links these very different exhibitions is their sheer modernity – these are glimpses of the here-and-now, snapshots of the world as it enters its “two thousandth and fourteenth year”.
As for what those snapshots show us, Tomorrow conjures up a bleak state of affairs. The experience is, in fact, less a glimpse than extended voyeurism, as we are invited to pore over the house and possessions of the fictional architect Norman Swann, on the brink of selling up the grand family home he can no longer maintain. Elmgreen & Dragset calculate their details perfectly, from the medicine tablets on the slick mahogany dressing table, to the drip that has found its way through the elaborate plastered ceilings, the Dominos boxes that clutter the corner of the pristine stainless steel kitchen – and the sad little union jack, nesting limply beside a news cutting on riots in Cameron’s Britain. The piece precisely skewers so many of the realities of modern western living: the co-existence of beauty and craftsmanship with cheap, mass consumption, the inability of wealth to protect from the frailty of ageing, the fear of a world where power is changing.
Norman could be a one-man metaphor for Europe, living amidst an inherited and unsustainable wealth, and while we might goggle at the so many unnecessary luxuries – (my favourite was a five foot wide oil portrait of a spaniel) – it is impossible not to feel for Norman as he is made to yield them. Walking through the house, it is as if we are prospective buyers, forcing the old man out with our very tread, or tourist spectators (as, indeed, in a way we are) gawping for our passing amusement at what was once a way of life. There is also the added sense of the morbid fascination with which we pick over disaster stories and tales of the downfall of the rich. Whatever its title, Tomorrow is a complex and disconcerting view of living today.
Jameel Prize 3, featuring works from ten different artists, is more varied in outlook, but its contemporary thrust is the same. Many of the pieces consider the rapid changes of a globalised world, such as Faig Ahmed’s traditional carpet designs with their intricate, ordered patterns collapsing in one corner, and Mounir Fatmi’s dizzying video installation, all movement and chaos. Laurent Mareschal’s drawings made from spices share and evoke the transient nature of the burgeoning street art scene; while Pascal Zoghbi’s experiments with Arabic typography, refashioning it into both poppy, commercial fonts, and sloganish spray-paint ones, seem to nod to the dual pressures of capitalism and the more socialist ideals of the Arab Spring, which are now vying in the Middle East. Change is the defining ethos of the show, and – for these artists certainly – the defining spirit of our times.
The Arab world in vertiginous change, Europe in slow defeat – two visions of the world in 2014. It is well worth making the trip to the V&A to see them, uncomfortable viewing as they may sometimes be.
PHOTO/Victoria & Albert Museum