Saturday, 31 March 2007

In the galleries

One of the great things about living in London, one of the things that I have never quite become used to since first moving here almost 20 years ago, is the extraordinarily rich and varied selection of exhibitions that are a short distance from home. Feel like finding out what artists were making in Papua New Guinea at the end of the 19th century? Drop in to the British Museum. Wondering about what all the fuss is about with the Turner Prize? Get to Tate Britain. A few old masters? The Wallace Collection. Current state of prawn painting? Go to the National Gallery of Crustaceans. OK, that probably doesn’t exist, but I wouldn’t be so surprised if there was one applying for lottery funding to open right now.

Of course, you don’t need to live in London, or go to London, to delve into this other world – there are plenty of fantastic museums and galleries around the country. But when I am in some London museums, the big national ones especially, it seems that they are mostly being visited by people who have travelled half way across the country, if not all the way around the world, to be there. They are some of the best and most inspiration reasons for coming to London.

I get to galleries quite a lot – it’s part of my job – but perhaps not always the galleries that feed my own practice as an artist particularly well. I was in a library-quiet commercial gallery the other day close to Oxford Street, a contrast of mad bustle on one hand and eery stillness on the other, emphasising the great gulf between the average punter on the street and some contemporary art. But silent galleries let works speak, giving us visitors a chance to get a cosy one-to-one with what’s on display. When did the Mona Lisa last speak? The poor thing is being held under house arrest behind bullet-proof glass by the banks of the Seine and if her muffled cries did manage to escape her sealed world they must surely be saying “get me out of here”.

As it happens, the works I was looking at in the commercial gallery weren’t saying much to me, and what they were saying I wasn’t so keen to hear; at least, I didn’t think they were going to help the art I was going to make when I reached home. The works on show were based on movies, and by the time I left I had my own idea: a video installation made of clips of “The End” appearing at the end of some of the great films in history, perhaps in a loop, so that viewers are caught in continuous track of finality, raising questions of death, reincarnation and immortality, and challenging the viewer to reappraise the place of happy-ever-afterness in their lives.

Oh dear. I needed help. It was at hand. Twenty minutes on the Tube and I was at another exhibition, of contemporary drawings this time. There were a handful of attentive people making their way around it. Some of the drawings were funny and immediate, and made me itch to draw. Then there were some by an artist who sits with a bunch of pencils in each hand mimicking the hand actions of people she selects around her, such as someone cooking in a Hong Kong noodle restaurant, so creating an elaborate abstract trail of marks. Her drawings made me want to experiment more with the ones that I make, to push things further than I do. There were works by other artists that also encouraged me in different ways, to try out new ways, to think about why I do things the way I do.

I find that a good exhibition can be the best boost to my artistic morale, and it is rarely a blockbuster exhibition that is six-deep with visitors. I left with a burning desire to draw. Mind you, I still quite like my “The End” video idea, but I expect a first-year art student somewhere has already done it.