Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions and Geta Brătescu at Tate Liverpool.
Art Monday morning I was invited to the press view for the major new shows opening at Tate Liverpool this week. Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots investigates the period just after he became one of the most famous artists on the planet and shifted from his familiar multi-layered, multi-coloured drip paintings into his lesser known and lesser appreciated black "pourings" and began experimenting once again with something glancing towards figurative painting. The exhibition features the most of this type of painting ever shown together with some which have never been seen in the UK before. Twinned on the top floor with this is Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions in which an artist profoundly influenced by the abstract expressionists curates a group show collecting work which expresses his own ideas about form and US history, Then on the ground floor, there's a retrospective of Romanian artist Geta Brătescu's work, focusing on her use of the line in various media including sewing and collage.
But I want to talk to you about clocks, specifically two identical clocks which are displayed above the exit from the Glenn Ligon exhibition, easily missable by visitors thinking about visiting the gift shop, the cafe or catching the bus home. Through all of the above, despite seeing Pollacks originally owned by Rockefellers and rare art shorts by the now film director Steve McQueen, this was one piece I became fixated about and I knew would be what I'd be writing about here. These are two circular wall clocks, potentially of the sort that would hang in an office or kitchen with circular black frames, with alphanumeric digits, minutes and seconds hands and "sodium" branding on the face. The label says they're one of a series of three and a quick bit of research finds this explanatory pdf (on how to create on in your own at home!) which explains that they were all shop bought, with a signed label on the back then transforming them into artist entities (oh and that there are actually four including an artist's proof).
My first reaction on seeing them was "OK what's the thing with the clocks." Then I read the label which says (and I hope Tate don't mind me simply quoting this here but I don't think I could paraphrase this as well): "The clocks in this work reference time, living and life partnerships. Both clocks are set to the right time at the start of an exhibition and then allowed to run their course. Like any long-term relationship they may run in synch, out of synch, or one or the other may cease altogether. Identical, the clocks may allude to same-sex relationships, Gonzalez-Torres conveys profound and devastating ideas through the lightest, most effortless and inviting means." Which is I think you'll agree profoundly, profoundly moving even if you're someone who hasn't been in such a relationship but at least observed them from a far or in the same household. You know that they will have problems, which like clocks can sometimes be temporarily repaired, but all relationships end even when the participants don't have a choice in the matter.
One of the key phrases in the note, "the clocks may allude to same-sex relationships" expresses quickly the even more poignant background to the piece that the artist was potentially offering a conceptual portrait of himself and his life partner Ross Lawcock who died from the AIDS epidemic not long after the piece was created. Gonzalez-Torres himself died of the disease not long afterwards in 1996. It's almost as though whenever the piece is displayed its tell the story of their lives and because the behavior of the clocks can and will change, sometimes offering alternative versions and realities. Such is the power of the best conceptual art, to apply complex, autobiographical ideas on otherwise everyday, humdrum objects. I'm also reminded of Henry Clay Work's song My Grandfather's Clock written in 1876 and covered by Johnny Cash as well as the flash game Passage, in which the player simply walks from left to right experiencing the rich tapestry until s/he reaches the inevitable.
What's to stop us creating our own version at home? Not much. The exhibition note goes on to explain that in "the year Gonzalez-Torres died, Ligon emulated this piece, hanging two shop-bought clocks side by side on his living room wall. His homage still hangs in his studio." In 2002, artist Tobias Wong produced a version of the work Perfect Lovers (Forever) in which he utilised radio controlled clocks which always keep time creating an artificial immortal love (Wong himself then died in tragic circumstances creating new layers of meaning to that version). I did consider it, popping into Argos on the way home. But for various reason I have a phobia about ticking clocks, and two tocking out of sequence on the wall would be difficult and also, at least right now, fraudulent. But metaphorically I already have this digital alarm clock, as pictured, which I was given on my eighteenth birthday and despite knocks and parts disintegrating still rings a real bell to wake me up each morning, twenty-two years later. If only I could get it to tell the right time.
Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions and Geta Brătescu at Tate Liverpool run from 30 June – 18 October 2015. Entry fees apply.