Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Allen Ruppersberg - 'One of Many - Origins and Variants' (exhibition, Dundee Contemporary Arts, until 28th May)

This isn't a book, or it's not just a book. There are lots of books here, stacked as though in a shop, with more copies under the tables. There's a complete photographic recreation of a study, lined with book cases stuffed to bursting point. There are high brow books and fifty cent thrillers (the latter in wire carousels, as though on sale). There are film canisters and box files, LPs and posters. There's a PowerBook box, and in the centre, for real, is a trestle table, on which stands a five foot long set of matching red hardback books. The 360° panorama overlaps itself many times, and in one corner there are three or four instances of the place on the shelf where Proust rests, in three proud volumes, a small disk on the ledge in front which reads 'the best of all possible worlds'*. Another room has a whole wall filled with small neon posters, mostly containing parts of a phonetic transcription of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', others have the kinds of ads such posters normally carry ('FATHERS DO YOU WANT... CHILD CUSTODY ● DIVORCE ● VISITATION ● (323) 2968816' or 'TREE SERVICE 310 930 1540'). The yellows, reds, greens stretch up almost as far as you can see, and are complemented by a black and white tiled floor, which on closer inspection spells out the life dates of several people (Robert Mitchum, Willem de Kooning, William Burroughs) who died in 1997. It hurts to read these large letters, white on black, black on white; the combined effect of floor and wall on the eyes is like stepping on to the moon.

There's a picture of this room (or one like it, in Düsseldorf) in the exhibition catalogue, but it's not as good there. It's something which relies on its scale and physical presence more than most non sculptural art. Into the main room and it gets actually sculptural, with items scattered all about, some labelled, some just there. A red stand which reads 'Donut Tree'; a concrete head; a collection of overlaid black and white items (framed posters, printed projector screens) at which I caught my second scent of a clue: copied out notes from Ezra Pound and Arthur Miller briefly apologising for having barely known Nathaniel West. 'Ah-ha!' went something in my head, '"The Day of the Locust" and "The Dream Life of Balso Snell", which was less good.' And this seems to be the intention of a lot of the pieces: to prompt a reaction in terms of the viewer's personal relationship with the books (or the types of books, or even just the presence of a lot of books) referenced. They aren't referential for the sake of it, the attitude is rather 'isn't stuff great?!' than a boastful 'I know about all this stuff which is great'. You'd think it'd be stuffy, all this bookishness, but on the contrary, it overflows with generosity and has an immediacy which is pure Pop. There are some stupid visual puns (a fish tank containing a glove with some straw in its grip, the aforementioned concrete head, from a larger - hilarious - piece entitled 'Heads Roll'), and enough uses of the artist's name to make you feel right at home. My first scent of a clue was from 'Where's Al?', a large mounted board containing lots of holiday snaps in rows, interspersed with typed cards on which the people in the photos ruminate on where Al might have got to. Al doesn't appear from start to finish, for the simple reason that he's taking the photos. There's more than just the joke at work here though: a person is defined by the things (the people, the books) around him.

The idea of a collection of books conferring an identity on a person (or a generation) is made most explicit with 'Siste Viator (Stop Traveller)', a 'pre war wooden workman's trailer' filled with books which were likely to have been read by the Polish, Dutch, British and German soldiers who died at the battle of Arnhem. It amounts to a shrine, an act of remembrance, for the dead men as defined by the best seller lists in the years when they would have been active readers. 'Ah-ha' I thought again, 'My grandpa fought at the battle of Arnhem. He was taken prisoner there. He later escaped and was shot in the leg, and put up with the boredom of hiding out in a barn by reading a copy of "Bleak House" which had been ripped in half, so that two of the fugitives could read it at once.' There was no 'Bleak House' in the hut that I could see. There was a poster for the movie of the battle, 'A Bridge Too Far', and I wondered about that, because from what I've seen of it (not the whole thing, admittedly) it seemed an uninteresting blockbuster, too star-studded by half.

For the following week I was ensconced in the exhibition catalogue, trying to figure this man out. I knew I had a new hero on my hands. Art doesn't usually do this to me, especially not conceptual art. Wolfgang Zumdick's essay puts it well:

...a new poetry that could consist of anything that represents the world: from the banal to the sublime, the terrible to the admirable, from the everyday to the unique, in short, from everything that represents the world and any material that one might catch sight of to the left and the right of the path on our short journey though it. (Exhibition catalogue, p. 94)
On a return visit the next weekend I noticed a few things which had escaped me the first time around. A few of the smaller pieces were definitely dishes from 'Al's Café', an installation on a real street in Los Angeles where people could come and buy plates with peculiar things on them (i.e. original art) for café food prices. There was a three sided public sign of the kind which would usually hold a useful tourist map, but instead, or rather overlaid, was a decidedly unhelpful maze, on one side, and a yellow spiral on another. Ruppersberg's friendly comment on the impenetrability of the side streets of Basel, in Germany, where the sign was originally placed. Above the entrance to the exhibition, a large 'The Best of All Possible Worlds' / 'Die Beste Aller Möglichen Welten' sign from another German outside installation. A little further out, another lighted sign, declaring 'Evening Time is Reading Time'. A blind pulled halfway down it. A gentle manifesto, but none more important.

* There is an online version of 'The New Five Foot Shelf' which is well worth a browse.

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