Sunday, 25 January 2009

Cildo Meireles, Tate Modern

Cildo Meireles,
Tate Modern

‘Volatile’ is a mystery reserved for four people at a time. The final work in the Cildo Meireles retrospective at Tate Modern requires you to take off your shoes and socks and brave the step into darkness. What you find, when your eyes adjust, is Meireles’ work at its most dangerous and its most achingly beautiful.

Britain’s first comprehensive retrospective of this Brazilian artist’s work is an immersive, emotional and sensory experience. Down the river, the Turner Prize show is a mortuary of dry, sexless ideas in comparison. Meireles’ work, for me, approaches the apex of what Conceptual Art could and should be, leaping out at you in a shriek of red ink and ticking clocks. What he does, and what the Turner Prize has forgotten how to do, is to combine ideas with art to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts, so that the artwork is not merely a symbol of an idea or a representation of a bone-dry essay, but a thing that stands on its own, inviting a variety of responses including, perhaps, a non-intellectual one.

In a nutshell, Meireles’ work pours cold water on our contemporary artistic fixations. His concept of Conceptual is not to re-present objects in a way that frames some clunky, inflexible academic idea, reducing it to a full stop at the end of a train of thought, but to open up our responses with something playful that nevertheless conceals a darker heart.

Dynamic narratives are created from everyday objects like Coke bottles, pennies, radios and rulers – personal objects we all own that are laden with symbolism. From these nuts and bolts he explores political corruption, time and space, the subversion of authority and the concept of infinity. ‘For me,’ Meireles has said, ‘the art object must be, despite everything else, instantly seductive.’

In ‘Mission/Missions (How To Build Cathedrals)’, a pool of copper pennies invites you to dip your hand and rake the shallows, evocative of blood drip-dripping from the mausoleum of bones above you. A string of communion wafers ascends towards some higher spirituality, ironically offering the body of Christ in a bid to eradicate the cannibalism of the indigenous people of Brazil. Many artists can do political, historical and subversive. But few do it so sensually or with such simple meditative intensity.

The viewer – or, more accurately, the participant – is required not just to think but to feel, to hear hundreds of radios whispering in your ear, or the sheer volume of a room where every object is red, or cold shivers down your neck as glass cracks beneath you. Some mysteries are best left unexplained.

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