Public art: The price of sponsorship

I’m standing on a leafy street in Hackney, looking up at a row of shattered windows. Local artist Alex Chinneck has timed his latest project, Telling the Truth Through False Teeth, a piece of carefully controlled vandalism – to meet the bombast of the Cultural Olympiad. 312 identically broken panes of glass have replaced the windows of a derelict factory, sitting on the corner of Mare Street and Tudor Road. For those inquisitive enough to look up, the effect is kaleidoscopic, as the sunlight catches on the glass. Isolated from the large-scale art pieces that fill central London, which are currently drawing in crowds of tourists, Chinneck’s installation is a picture of quiet protest. It got me thinking about the price we are paying for public art.

What price art?

In many ways the public art projects scattered across this city exist as failed utopias. Several tube stops later, I walk into the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Since 2000 the hall has housed a series of blockbuster art pieces. This afternoon Tino Sehgal’s These Associations is being rehearsed in the cavernous expanse. Performers form a circle in the darkened hall, murmuring and half singing. They break into clusters, coiling across the space. It does seem removed from the weight of previous, rather precarious Turbine Hall spectacles. Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei previously flooded the hall with 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, but the dust kicked up when visitors waded through was soon deemed a safety hazard. By the end, Sunflower Seeds was stripped of its central experience — — only to be viewed from behind security ropes. In any case Sehgal’s “constructed situation” has now gathered near universal adoration since its opening. But Claire Bishop’s excellent piece in the Guardian is less sure. For Bishop, participatory art has lost its once radical voice against the absurdities of the art market, and under neoliberalism it serves a double agenda: offering a popular art of and for the people, while at the same time, reminding us that today we all experience a constant pressure to perform and, moreover, this is one in which we have no choice but to participate.

Sehgal’s work may want to break out of the ritual of the gallery and the primacy of the frame, but it is still intimately tied to the market, albeit via Sehgal’s own oral contract. It is still a luxury — something to be sponsored.

The Turbine Hall series is sponsored by global corporation Unilever. Unilever’s Group Chief Executive, Patrick Cescau, once described the series as providing an artistic “exploration that resonates within Unilever”, a comment that perfectly encapsulates how the Turbine Hall project has long veiled the gap between artistic and corporate aspiration. But Adrian Searle’s review of Tino Sehgal finds the gap unproblematic: “These Associations is a great antidote to the ever more spectacular, large commissions the Unilever Project has produced”, he enthuses, “It is also a rejoinder to all the brouhaha and corporate fascism and jingoism of the Olympics.”

I wander through to the Tate’s new space devoted to live art, The Tanks, “ a subterranean setting adapted from cylinders fuelling the former power station. One tank houses Lis Rhodes’ Light Music, a pair of projectors casting crosshatched monochrome patterns across the smoke-filled room alongside a throbbing soundtrack. In fact Lis Rhodes is just one among a whole bunch of radical artists showcased by The Tanks, and yet it is interesting how the Tate always manages to neuter this political edge. No reference is made to the museum’s problematic relationship with sponsorship.

Does it matter where the money for public art comes from?

The director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, whose enterprise has perhaps been the largest part of the museum’s success, has commented in the past: “There’s no money that is completely pure.” Journalists have risen to defend the Tate’s associations even further. Jonathan Jones has devoted several pieces to that end: if museums “can get BP to hand over its filthy lucre for the cause of art”, he argues, “well, it is going to good use”.

But of course corporations are perfectly aware of what they are buying into, and it is naive to believe that we are the ones in control of this exchange. They are buying a licence, and the frightening thing is that it is happening here and not in some distant oil field. The prestigious cultural centres that line the Southbank are squarely in the hands of BP and Shell. The question must become instead: is this a price worth paying?

The key thing is that the Tate Modern has been a marketing success, transforming a former power station into one of the UK’s leading tourist melting pots. At the Tanks launch, Serota said of the Tate’s expansion: “It’s a very visible answer to the criticisms that have come from Government and others about non-dom taxpayers not making a contribution to the cultural life of the country”.

With international attention focused on London this summer, perhaps it’s worth thinking again about whether the capital’s arts scene really is in a healthy state. The Tate’s artistic domination this year has come with little critical comment, despite its visible expansion on the back of problematic sponsorship. We have paid a price.

En Liang Khong

En Liang Khong is an arts writer, cellist, and MPhil student at Oxford University. He has written for the New Statesman, the Telegraph, musicOMH, Cherwell and the Gramophone. Follow him on Twitter.

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