Patricia Bickers


Habitat Artclub Magazine, Autumn-Winter 1999

David Barrett: We're at the end of an extraordinary decade for British art. What for you have been the major changes that British art has undergone?

Patricia Bickers: The thing that I find so remarkable about the art of the last decade, as someone who can be said to have been an observer during the previous two decades, is its breadth and depth. In the past it always seemed that the same few names were bandied about or included in international survey shows. Now there is a sense that there are several different constituencies out there that are represented by as many artists. The other development that I find interesting is the gradual swing away from the anglo-American axis of the last 3o years: artists, in common with society as a whole, are becoming much more aware of other cultures and influences, though American culture is still the dominant influence.

This idea of 'pluralism' - a variety of coexisting practices - was hot at the beginning of the 9os, whereas it just seemed to mean that all sorts of media were being used (video, installation, painting, found objects, sculpture, electronic media) but the range of subjects being explored were still quite narrow. Whereas now I think you're right: there do seem to be some genuinely separate groups of artists working with a particular subject matter in their own ways. It's actually very refreshing because it makes quite clear something that has always been the case, namely: the viewers themselves must take different approaches to different artworks. We cannot expect to approach the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, Michael Raedecker, Nina Pope, Chris Ofili, Tomoko Takehashi and Jason Martin, for example, in the same way. They cannot all be read with the same approach: for some the final work is an object of contemplation, for some the final work is merely a method to deflect our attention onto society, for others it's the process of production that holds the meaning. The viewer must be as flexible as the artist.

Yes. Audiences are quite used to bringing different modes of viewing to the same medium, such as television, and often simultaneously. You do not view the news the same way that you watch a quiz show or a drama. Neither do you experience a film in the context of a cinema in the same way that you view a video of the same film in your own home, or for that matter a home video. Gradually audiences are coming to recognise that the same is true of the experience of art.

Is 'New Neurotic Realism' really a movement, or just a book? Is there a definable new movement post 'Freeze Generation'? ['Freeze' was an exhibition organised by the then-student Damien Hirst in 1988. It is widely mythologised as a blueprint for British art of the following decade.]

It is just a book. I don't think there is a new movement, nor that 'Freeze' was a 'movement'. The interesting thing about the art scene today in London, and elsewhere in Britain, is the diversity of approaches to making art. What I think will emerge more clearly in the future, with hindsight, are the major themes and preoccupations that link otherwise disparate artists and practices.

Is it changes in the quality or content of the work that has led to British art gaining such mainstream media attention, or is this merely the result of successful marketing?

To take the last part of your question first, I don't think it is just hype or successful marketing that has resulted in so much attention being focused on contemporary art in Britain - there had to be something there in the first place to attract their attention. In fact, hype is often very distracting since the mainstream media are almost always looking in the wrong direction as far as I am concerned! The downside of so much hype is that quieter, often more interesting or challenging art can get trampled in the stampede. On the other hand, such art can also get caught up in the rush and reach audiences which would not otherwise see it who can then make up their own minds about it. In the end it is content and quality that matter and time will take care of both.

Is the 90s 'The Saatchi Decade'?

Again, time will settle the matter. When we look back in another ten years I suspect that Saatchi's influence will have shrunk to its true proportions and people will be aghast that anyone ever took Ron Mueck seriously as an artist, as opposed to a superb technician, which is what he was before he was 'discovered'.

Is Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary as offensive as Mayor Giuliani seems to think it is?

Thank God we live in a secular society!

Although it does rather seem that the Brooklyn museum [which is showing Ofili's work as part of the touring exhibition 'Sensation'] was courting such trouble by promoting the show with a flyer that read 'Health Warning: The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting, confusion, panic, euphoria and anxiety...' Is this really representational of recent British art?

No it is not representative of British art, or as I prefer to put it: of art being made in Britain, since so many non-British artists have contributed to the contemporary art scene here - I have already mentioned Tomoko Takehashi for instance. What 'Sensation' represents is one man's legitimate take on contemporary art. The claim that it represents the decade, however, is arrogant nonsense.

Are there any artists that particularly define the decade for you?

I am inclined to think, and even to hope, that the decade will not be defined by individual artists so much as by individual works that people will remember - not necessarily by their correct titles - such as 'the tube map', 'the shark piece', 'the house that was knocked down', 'the woman in the glass case', 'the melting ice block', 'the silent policemen'... and so on. I would like to think that these and many other works of the last decade have entered into people's consciousness in ways they may not even be aware of.

I like this idea of people not really being aware that they are aware of contemporary art. And actually it's true because one of the effects of contemporary art's high profile is the amount of influence it has had - although you need to be 'in the know' to spot it. I've lost count of the number of adverts or fashion collections or graphics that owe their designs very directly to particular works of contemporary art: so people are being exposed to artist's ideas without their knowing it! But do you think this influence is just because contemporary art has become more popular, or is it because artists are using tactics that have traditionally been in the domain of other industries, like advertising?

I imagine that it is a bit of both, but especially the second point. Also, the traffic between art and other media is two-way and is especially heavy between advertising, mainstream film and art. In fact, as a source of inspiration and reference, the movies are to the art of the latter part of the 20th Century what classical mythology was to that of previous centuries. The main difference being that movies, Hollywood movies in particular, represent a genuinely shared, popular culture rather than the culture of an educated elite.

Is London really the capital of the art world at the moment, or do we just think that it is?

One thing I know is that just saying that a city is the capital of the art world won't make it so, as those pushing for Berlin should note. London is certainly a major centre for contemporary art not least because of all the non-British artists making work here. My guess is that we just don't know enough about the art in other capitals. The English language gives us an unfair advantage in terms of global communication and exposure.

We've had a lot of video works this decade, do you foresee an explosion of works in one particular medium in the next few years - computer generated images, digital sound works, paintings?

Probably, though there is always a time lag before artists take up the new technology in interesting ways. Initially any new technology is taken up by what one artist refers to as 'technowankers' before it is exploited for more creative purposes by others.

Obviously the first people to use new technology are those who can.

Obviously. And they don't have to be technowankers! Some pioneers, like the American video artist Nam June Paik, who invented the term 'the information superhighway', were not only ahead of the game but were, and remain, highly creative in their use of technology.

Have you noticed a change in attitude amongst new students over the last few years? Are they more receptive to difficult art? Are they more or less politically motivated than previous generations?

Students are not as political - party political - as we were in the 70s, but then neither is the nation at large if polls are to be believed. What tends to activate students, and the general public too, are single issues about which they feel passionately and where they just might be able to make a difference. I think there may be a shift in interest among students towards art that is more layered and complex and a drift away from the 'in yer face' school of art - or perhaps that is just wishful thinking on my part.

I've found that students seem to be much more informed and cynical - and rightly so - about the whole globalisation of consumer capitalism, which is breeding a kind of pessimism: that the system is too robust and complex to be challenged. And I think that they can see that the traditional party political channels are really not going to be particularly effective modes for change. So, as you say, they pick up on single issues or the idea of consumer power: boycotting certain goods. Students seem to have a fairly healthy cynicism about motive, particularly the motives of large companies. The only problem, as I said, is that it can lead to a defeatist attitude.

As the American art critic Clement Greenberg rightly said, the Avant Garde - and this is probably true of all contemporary art - is connected to the bourgeoisie by 'an umbilical cord of gold'. Today's students, and many professional artists too, probably experience the same frustration as artists whose work became known in the 70s, like Daniel Buren, Lawrence Weiner and Hans Haacke, who tried both to question and at the same time either to avoid or to infiltrate the market in subversive ways. It seems impossible to avoid commodification. the market will always find a way to buy and sell work: that is what it does best. We may consider art a necessity, but it is also a luxury.

On the other hand, there is no need to be too defeatist because the market is so voracious that in the end it is uncritical and absorbs all kinds of work, including work that is critical of it, and that need not drain the work of its power - it might even enhance it, adding further layers of meaning and irony. After all, works don't die merely because they have been sold, the good works simply continue to gather meaning.

There is further cause for optimism, too, in the phenomenon we discussed earlier: that works enter the public's consciousness in ways that we cannot control. Thank goodness. There is a world out there beyond the market, I hope.

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