Early installation art sent up
Finding yourself at an art show these days can be a testing
experience. It's not just that the paintings and sculptures
no longer resemble anything (that funny old idea went out of
the window decades ago), it's more that there are no paintings
You are more likely to be confronted with huge lumps of welded
aluminium, a set of giant dental casts, a filing cabinet filled
with rotting carpet, a room full of live butterflies or deep
in engine oil - to give but four examples from the last few
So how do you cope? Let's not be narrow-minded about this. Fuddy-duddy
old critics such as Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard will
foam at the mouth and talk about the Emperor's New Clothes.
But you don't want to look silly and go against the great relentless
flow of Art History, do you? No. So get with it. Here's Punch's
guide to How To Behave At An Exhibition (complete with footnotes).
- On Arriving At The Opening: You walk in to find yourself in
a room with bare walls, a peeling blue ceiling, a hundred chattering
trendies, a trestle table full of beer and wine bottles, an
old trolley piled with empties, a couple of pushchairs, and
someone's old coat on the floor.
- Wrong Thing To Say: 'So where's the sculpture then?'
No, no, no! If you can't see the work you are probably in it.
It may well be an installation.  Look carefully
- but discreetly around you. That peeling blue ceiling. Could
that be part of it? Could that be all of it? 
Look for any printed cards on the wall to give you a clue. You
may find one saying: Blue Ceiling 1991. (Emulsion Paint and
Nitromors on Ceiling.) Congratulations. You can now start thinking
of something intelligent to say.
But it probably won't be that simple. The card you will find
will almost certainly read Untitled 1991. 
And then the hunt begins. That empties trolley by the bar, that
pushchair, that old coat. Any one of them could be Untitled
1991. Don't stop there. Look carefully at the bar, the guests,
yourself.  Yes, even you might have been
- Get Yourself A Drink: You now pay £3.00 for a bottle
of Beck's (oh for the days when they used to have free drink
at openings). You have realised that the work on display is
Blue Ceiling 1991, Empties Trolley 1991 and Untitled 1991
which you're fairly sure is the old coat. Though it may be the
- Wrong Thing To Say: 'D'you like modern art yourself? I find
these avant-garde things really stimulating. Of course, it's
not to everyone's taste but you've got to hand it to him, it's
really well made.'
Oh dear, oh dear. Where to start? Talking about 'Modern Art'
is a dead giveaway, revealing you to be on the intellectual
level of a slime mould. Modern Art began in the 1860s and ended
in the 1970s. After that came Post-Modern Art, which finished
for the very last time sometime last year. 'Avant-garde' is
equally inept.  You can't even be an Abstract
Expressionist these days unless you're over 50 with a drink
problem and two divorces behind you.
Assuming the artist is male is very risky. The issue of gender
is a hot one. Don't, whatever you do, get into a discussion
about feminism. 
Never point out how well made the art is. Any artists worth
their salt don't make their own art. What they do is either:
appropriate found objects, or if they have an idea of their
own, get somebody to make it for them.
Look carefully at those cards again. Under Untitled 1991 you
may find 'Made with the assistance of the Pit-Bull Welding Co
Ltd, Shoreditch'. This means the work has actually been made
by some poor sod at the Pit-Bull Welding Co. He's unlikely to
be at the opening but if he is you will find him standing in
a corner. He will be easy to spot, being the only person in
the room in a three-piece suit with his hair brushed.
Right Thing To Say: 'Hi. What a great party. Yuh, late September's
the only time. The thing to do is go direct to French estate
agents. Is she still having an affair with that tutor from Goldsmiths?'
Basically, the really cool people talk about anything but the
work. They turn their backs to it, tread heavily over it, bitch
about the artist's private life or how they managed to get a
show in such a prestigious gallery. So join in. Talk about house
prices or fast cars. Artists aren't poor these days. They can't
afford to be poor, not if they want to get anywhere. The big
fish are neo-geo millionaires such as Jeff Koons who spent years
working on Wall Street so he could afford to pay the Italian
craftsmen who make all his work. If actually asked your opinion,
you can be 98 per cent sure this is another, less successful
artist, who knows the exhibitor really well personally, has
probably had a relationship with him or her at some stage or
other. Be kind. Mutter something like, 'I agree with the Artscribe
 review...Maybe she should make the concern
of her work more visible...I thought the trolley assemblage
was very witty.' This will infuriate them.
(1) Frank Stella, Grenville Davey, Melanie
Counsell, Damian Hirst, Richard Wilson, respectively.
(2) Nobody uses the word sculpture these
days. Say 'object' or, if really daring, 'assemblage'.'Work'
is a safe general term.
(3) Which means the artist has 'intervened'
and subtly altered The Space in some way or other. Get to grips
with these phrases.
(4) An installation by Bethan Hughes
last year involved her carpeting her room. That was it. So be
(5) Almost all work these days is called
Untitled 1991, Or Untitled 1990, or whatever. You may think
that this is because all the artists are devoid of imagination.
Far from it. Some years ago the critic Clement Greenberg insisted
that Art Isn't About Anything. Since then artists have been
terrified of titles. Greenberg, incidentally, is one of the
names to drop.
(6) No joke. An American Conceptualist
called Les Levine ran a Canadian-kosher restaurant in New York
as an art work, unbeknown to its patrons.
(7) A long word for borrow. The artist
gets hold of a piece of old scrap metal from a junkyard (known
as a Found Object) and then sticks it in a gallery. By doing
this he has altered its Context, turning it into Art. Another
form of appropriation involves copying another artist's work.
An American called Sherrie Levine (no relation to Les) did a
lot of this, If only Tom Keating had known what he was.
(8) In the art world, 'avant-garde' doesn't
mean what the dictionary tells us it means. It refers specifically
to 19th century painters such as Courbet and Manet. It also
refers to underground Sixties artists. Basically, it's best
not to risk using art labels at all. Dada, for example, is an
early 20th century movement. It also means hobby-horse in French,
something entirely different to small children and. 'yes, yes'
in various Slavic languages.
(9) Feminism in the art world is a movement
all its own. Key names: Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly, Miriam Schapiro.
(10) The bible of the art scene. Buy
it regularly and don't be put off by the fact that many of the
articles appear not to be written in English. In Artscribe,
people, 'scrutinise precisely the traumas that constitute sexual
identity', they 'explore the issues surrounding the codes of
desire' (whatever they are), and even, on occasion, 'engineer
a structurally conspicuous anti-consumption.'