|Angus Fairhurst, Gallery Connections, sketch for presentation, c 1995|
Some straggling thoughts on the New/Young British Art topic of earlier...
The artist I was trying to think of earlier (to no avail) was Angus Fairhurst -- a first-gen "YBA" artist, having participated in the famous ground-zero "Freeze" exhibition of 1988, subsequently not one of the better known of the YBA coterie, and who died by his own hand some five years ago.
The work in question was called "Gallery Connections," which Fairhurst executed in 1991. A more technically-precise account of it differs from what I remembered. More specifically, it involved Fairhurst taking two telephones and fusing their handsets together -- mouthpiece of one affixed to the earpiece of the other and vice versa, in yin-yang (or sixty-nine, if you like) symbiosis. Then one each phone he dialed the number of a different art gallery, dealer or institution; leaving the two parties to sort out the confusion among themselves. Dual pranking-calling, effectively. Fairhurst recorded the results, and a transcript of the tapes ran in the debut issue of Frieze magazine, who later reprinted it on their blog shortly after the artist's death.
In terms of artworld precedents and similarities, I'm reminded of Chris Burden's Wiretap (1977). In which Burden was dealing by phone with a young gallerist who was trying to entice him away from his present dealer, the young woman continually bad-mouthing Burden's dealer throughout the exchange. Burden recorded the phonecall, then later played it back for his dealer, in turn recording that session as the two listened to the tape and commented on the young gallerist's spiel. The tape was then presented as a work in itself, in the form of a sound installation. Around that time, Burden's work had taken a decisive turn away from the violence of his early, notorious performance pieces, with a few of them dealing (somewhat sarcastically) with an artist-as-laborer theme. Wiretap is, however, the only one that involves a pulling-back-of-the-curtain strategy that addresses the business side of the artworld. (Some critics have also pointed to how the work echoes a very era-specific Watergate theme -- a public paranoia about surveillance and the like.)
|Sarah Lucas, Self-portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996|
One common complaint about the art bubble of the 1980s was that all criticism surrounding the art of the era was tainted by association; that it mostly only served to grease the gears of the hype industry. So to with much of what was written in the U.K. about all art connected with the YBAs.
In one chapter of High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, Julian Stallabrass addresses the New British Art's relation to criticism. Stallabrass concurs with those who say that much of the so-called criticism amounted to only so much promotional copy -- in turns laudatory, gossipy, hinging on a great deal of fawning or triumphalist home-team rah-rahing, etc.* Also, there was the matter of of whether any rigorous favorable critique of the work would stick or just slide off the surface:
"Sometimes the ponderous mechanisms of what passes for intellectual justification in art writing was applied to this work, but with limited success. If Lacanian voids can be discovered in the slick, glib surfaces of [Sam] Taylor-Wood's work, then it is obvious they can appear anywhere; similarly, the claim that she put 'fissures' into the rigidity of symbolic codes is no more than the minimal claim made about any work of art -- that it does unconventional things with its ready-made elements. If writing about high art lite in this way is unpopular, it is because the mismatch between work and theory tends to rebound on the plausibility of the theory, and raise questions about the arbitrary character of its application everywhere."
Elsewhere in the book, Stallabrass decrees much of the work critically "bulletproof" -- impervious to analysis on account of much of it being so deeply steeped in a "pervasive and disarming irony." In other words, designed to state to the potential critic or skeptical viewer: This art doesn't take itself too seriously, so why should you? Only a total prig would do so.**