Saturday, August 22, 2009


Poor.Old.Tired.Horse was the first exhibition I'd seen at the ICA, and it's very disappointing, one of the most poorly curated shows I've ever seen. Safe to say, you wouldn't get away with this in Manchester. What was it? A retrospective of the magazine of the same name, a selection of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay, its editor, and other associated poets, an overview of concrete poetry - but then a display of collaborations between artists and poets, and finally, artists-using-text. It did none of these things well, and compared with the two Bury Text festivals, it was an embarrassment. I wanted to see more of the magazines, and, to be honest, a less random selection of art. The ICA's "Roland" magazine acted as a catalogue, and was everything that the exhibition itself wasn't. If you pop in, treat yourself to that.

It was with some trepidation that I headed to another art exhibition, Futurism at the Tate Modern. Okay, we're contrasting a very small locally curated show with a major touring exhibition, but, still...

...I knew very little about the Futurists other than from the appropriations (ZTT, the cover of "Movement" etc.) so I was expecting, and got, an education. Although its fair to say that all of the art isn't premier division, as a group show, and as art history it was exemplary. Taking up a vast space on the fourth floor of Tate Modern, there was room enough to take in the art that flourished in Italy, and beyond, following the publication of Marinetti's Futurist Manifesto. I'm a sucker for manifestos in art, and the Futurists had them in spades. Yet the art they were making was more than just a parallel movement to cubism; it had its own aesthetics, its own innovations. Sometimes you can look back on art movements (such as modernism in poetry - with its fascination with the ancient past) and have trouble seeing what the battles were, and how the victories were won. But futurism did what it said on the tin; wanting to make an art of the mechanical, the modern, the industrial, the electrical, and to tear down the past.

Here, of course, is the risk with manifestos, that outside of art, they have a political dimension that is as destructive as an artistic one can be creative - and art has no role being part of that destruction. Yet, manifestos can serve as a break with the past, certainly. The Italian Futurist paintings at the Tate, many of which had appeared in London in 1912, causing a sensation, have something of the chaos of modernity about them. Reflecting speed in art was nothing new (remember Turner's paintings of the railways), but making it so central to the work, so that Bergson's idea of simultaneous time was reflected in the picture, was, and is highly interesting. But the exhibition was particularly interesting for contextualising Futurism within its times. I particularly liked seeing the Cubo-Futurists of Russia, many of them female, who rejected vehemently to Marinetti's misogyny, and incorporated a mix of styles, and subjects in their pre-revolutionary work. The English, inevitably, were poor modernists, and the few works that leant towards Europe seemed half-hearted in comparison; yet not all of this was artistic conservatism - Epstein's remarkable Torso in Metal with Rock Drill looks to be both an early design for "Darth Vader", and a frightening depiction of the machine age that was going to shortly overwhelm millions of young men on the Somme; and Wyndham Lewis's "BLAST" magazine was a rare English "radical" response to this European art.

Text was very important to the Futurists, incorporated into their art, as well as framing the debate; and Marinetti, of course, was a poet. There were no poets in the final room of Poor.Old.Tired.Horse, only artists using text, and it does seem to me that when artists of different mediums collaborate or even hang out together, more interesting things happen than when there's merely appropriation. The week's final artistic happening was in a pub in Farringdon, catching the launch of Stop/Sharpening/Your/Knives/3, a collection of new poets. The book itself includes illustrations alongside the verse, as if to prove my earlier point. I only caught half the poets, but enjoyed what I heard. There's willingness to jump off into the surreal, or to follow a conceit through several different directions, that seems very refreshing.

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