A film of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera greets visitors at the entrance to ‘Speak’. In the film, an edited series of interviews with Hans Ulrich Obrist, she discusses conceptual work that can both be institutions and influence them. Bruguera defends what she terms ‘complex art’ and presents her manifesto for a useful art that can transform ideas into civic actions. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery’s companion group show to the exhibition currently running just over the lake, is a living model of John Latham’s positioning of the artist as a “figure with agency to influence the political and social fabric of the world.” (Accompanying essay by Yana Peel and Hans Ulrich Obrist.) Unashamedly political, intellectually rich, in this exhibition I found a capacious definition of contemporary conceptual art. In each of the artist’s pieces there is both a playful dialogue with Latham’s work and a sincere consideration of current global questions.
Cally Spooner’s drawn lines that circumnavigate the gallery space use personal data of her own metabolism, information on her ranking as an artist and public data of currency values. While she has created parallel flat lines that only intersect occasionally and whose position bears no relation to one another, they are yet intricately connected. It seems we have as much ownership over our inner workings as control over the stock market. Between the two parallel lines that show the data, is a blurry streak of spray-tan, the flesh tone suggesting a bodily element as connector between the two unbroken lines of objective data. Spooner’s work examines this space where humans and human-made machines intersect, objects that wake, entertain or inform us alongside the human ‘other’ that does not adhere to mechanical rules.
Douglas Gordon’s works are more directly in conversation with the work of Latham and play with ideas of inherited concepts and ownership. Latham is often referred to as, ‘an artist’s artist’, a label that can seem equally derogatory and supportive. His artistic and conceptual practice, however, is described by the curators here as a toolbox for artists to draw from. His marriage of ideas with sculpture, film, paint and collaboration is what has kept his work so open, fresh and relevant. This emphasis on collaboration is largely what Gordon addresses. The amended games of ‘Ping Pong (Latham Variations)’ and ‘Freda (Latham Variations)’ are active as artworks when two people engage with the games, the sounds of them being played echoes throughout the gallery, encouraging the active participations of witnesses. His framed, scorched image layered on a mirror titled ‘Self-Portrait of You + Me’ shows how the work of art is always tripartite: the artist, the viewer and the legacy of all that came before.
This legacy, however, does not have to be a weight. As Bruguera presents; ‘Arte Útil’ is an explicit manifesto to interact with the systems society has in place, to work with and within the organisations previously closed to artistic input or readings of cultural import. Latham’s legacy looms large here, as does his co-founding of the APG (Artist Placement Group) movement. The APG trust positioned artists in industries with the aim of reaching across socio-economic boundaries and showing, through the artist’s eye, the alternative view an industry might have of itself.
Laure Prouvost’s mixed media works that pull in film, audio, sculpture (both with found objects and process driven), incidental placing and immersive experience, is the work that feels best placed to propel conceptual art into the future. In her piece ‘end her Is story’ she has created a dark room where the viewer is shown a performance combining light, audio, film and object. We are not encouraged to walk around the sculptures that are placed on differently heighted pedestals but made to perch in the semi-dark while our attention is directed to the objects illuminated over the course of the recording. The objects are a mix of items that have obvious linguistic significance and abstract sensuousness. We are presented with a glass octopus, the glass giving an illusion of wetness, a boob-like globe that references Latham’s glass vacuum, an orange, a tomato, an onion, a tea-cup and butter. Each object is transformed into a meaningful token, as the pedestals are lighted the viewer becomes the devotee. The audio speaks of grandparents and their practices as artists, the recordings are playful and language obsessed, a jumble of thoughts from her grandfather’s projects to the ‘miracle’ of a set of vegetables appearing on her bed. Many of Prouvost’s themes are layered in this one work, they can be untangled and extrapolated into a web of different thoughts, all connected by the central faceless artist hovering just off shot or behind the ear half whispering the connections to the viewer or listener. The industry she is placed within is the art industry itself. Her practice is a form and process that says ‘look at the art world and look at the world, it is all useful, it is all art’.