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Book Review| annus mirabilis? art in the year 2000

 

written by Richard Cork Illustrated. 368 pg. Yale University Press 1994

 

 

An article titled Brief History of the Internet, published in 1997 by Leiner, Cerf, Calrk et al, speaks of the birth and advent of the World Wide Web, as we know it today. In the article, the authors have stated how “the Internet has revolutionized the computer and communications world like nothing before. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio, and computer set the stage for this unprecedented integration of capabilities. The Internet is at once a world-wide broadcasting capability, a mechanism for information dissemination, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between individuals and their computers without regard for geographic location.” If one looks at the statement on a surface level, one can only hail the internet as the greatest invention since the wheel. The capacity of the internet to connect people with each other as well as a variety of real-world experiences is like no other, it we seem to forget that these experiences only exist in a cyber-reality and are intangible in nature.

 

So how well does the real experience of visually surveying a work of art while physically being present in the space and place of presentation compare to simple viewing over a screen? Perhaps it would be best to look at it from the perspective of an art critic, who has seen the evolution of art take place from the modern to the contemporary, where the relevance of time, space and place is tantamount to the experience itself.

 

In the year 1667, John Dryden, one of England’s greatest bards of the time, published a poem known as Annus Mirabilis commemorating the year from June 1665 to September 1666 which, despite the poem’s name ‘year of wonders’, was also one of great tragedy as, while it began with a decisive English victory at the Battle of Lowestoft against the Dutch, it also involved both the Plague and the Great Fire of London. Samuel Johnson wrote that Dryden used the phrase ‘annus mirabilis’ because it was a wonder that things were not worse.

 

Conceivably it is with the very same sense of irony that Richard Cork chose the Latin phrase as the title of his book annus mirabilis? art in the year 2000, the last part of a chronicle of four volumes containing a selection of his articles from the seventies, eighties, nineties, and culminating in the year 2000. The result is a fascinating account and invaluable record of a turbulent period that gives an overview and survey of British art and its reception over the past thirty years which is, according to his critics, wholly unprecedented in its scope.

 

Cork is considered to be one of the greatest and most well-informed art critics in Britain today, while also very the many hats of a historian, a broadcaster and exhibition organizer. Serving for a time as the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge for a time, he has also served as the Henry Moore Senior Fellow at the Courtauld Institute and later as the Chaor of the Visual Arts Panel at the Arts Council of England to name a few accomplishments to his credit. It is no wonder then that this anthology comes across as a true labour of love, where the arts movement in England spanning four decades has been spanned with meticulous detail and focus.

 

In its essence, the book itself is a compilation of articles which focuses on Cork’s writings, some from the year 1999, but the majority focusing on those written in the year 2000. The selected articles were originally written for The Times (save for ‘James Turrel’, published in Orient Express Magazine, and ‘Caravaggio’ and ‘Wyndham Lewis’, both of which were commissioned for broadcast on BBC Radio 3). Here, Cork’s work “is filled with optimism about changing public attitudes to contemporary art”, while at the same time, “raising fundamental questions in the reader’s mind, focusing above all on the quality of the experience provided by art”.

 

Covering various themes such as New Art where the works of Anish Kapoor and Yayoi Kusama are just some artists in focus, along with articles critiquing exhibitions such as ‘Intelligence: New British Art 2000’ and ‘Protest & Survive’ to name a few, Cork invites the reader to see the works of art through an almost sensory experience, as his ability towards recreating the physical spaces of display are highly immersive in nature and speak to the imagination of the reader, thus reinforcing the importance of experiencing art in its physical form.

 

In Galleries Renewed, Transformed, Created, Cork takes us through the rejuvenation of the ‘The New Pompidou’ as well as the birth of one of the most influential galleries in ‘The Tate Modern Opens’, where the focus is on the delights of contemporary art practices as well as the architecture of the space. He continues his narrative on museum spaces while taking the reader through ‘The British Museum’s Great Court’, paying homage to Sir Norman Foster’s take on the expansion of old world architecture with a modern perspective. Thus, the importance of space and place are reinforced yet again through Cork’s writings.

 

Through a series of interviews, Talking to Tate highlights Cork’s love for the contemporary art gallery which opened its doors to the public in 2000 to much anticipation and excitement, so much so that in the introduction to the book, Cork heralded the Tate as bringing about a ‘revolutionary change’ towards the ‘once notorious British Hostility to modern art’.

 

In Beyond the Gallery art is not only that which is seen and experienced in galleries and museums as Cork has highlighted in his articles ‘Alex Hartley’s Paviolion’, ‘Filling the Empty Plinth’ and ‘Modern Sculpture at Gloucester Cathedral’ to name a few. Here we are introduced to the relevance of site specific art works, where pieces are created to resonate with a particular space at a particular time, for possibly a particular period. In Cork’s own words from ‘Noriaki Maeda at Yorkshire, “Sometimes, our experience of an artist’s work can be transformed by a congenial outdoor setting.”

 

Reassessing the Past sees Cork revisiting influential movements such as ‘Bauhaus Dessau’, ‘Art Nouveau’ as well as influential artists as seen in ‘Golden deer in New York, Van Gogh in Philadelphia’ and ‘Picasso the Sculptor’, while Two New Biographies introduces us to the likes of ‘Caravaggio’ and ‘Wyndham Lewis’ through Cork’s perspective, allowing us a new perspective into the works and movements which resonate even today, while showing glimpses of the lives of these influencers like never seen before.

 

He culminates it all in the aptly titled ‘Goodbye to All That’ in Afterword, where he presents a review of the year 2000, deeming it an “extraordinary, frenetic and quite unpredictable year”, where, “one development overrides everything else: the emergence in Britain of the public art gallery as a place where swaggering showmanship thrives unashamed.” Here we see a scathing commentary by Cork towards the powers that be that control the art world, specifically in relation to the Millennium Dome and the treatment of Anish Kapoor’s Parabolic Waters. Of the eventual treatment of the display, whereby Cork surmises that “Britain’s attitude to modern art can still degenerate, even on a site of such national significance, into callous and inexcusable philistinism.”

 

It is interesting to note here that where the book begins on a note of optimism, heralding bright things for the future of contemporary art in the England, in ends on a note of cynicism and bitterness, where the future of art now seems very bleak indeed. Here, one can perhaps see these varying emotions as a true reflection of the importance and relevance of the human experience pertaining to the actual experience of art itself versus through a medium of alternate reality, where while the production, distribution, and reception in today’s internet culture and artistic practice have made numerous leaps and bounds yet at the same time, may seem to some as lacking in the connection between the work of art and the relationship one can form with it.

 

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