To be quite frank, the stuff we saw for free was better

Review of ‘A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance’ at the Tate Modern

A colleague tipped me off about this one: Room 13 of the ‘Bigger Splash’ exhibition at the Tate Modern contains Lucy McKenzie’s set for the May of Teck Club, the backdrop for Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means. There are twelve rooms to go through first, however, and my progress through each room steadily became more and more rapid as the afternoon wore on. In fact, I made a very sharp exit from the third room, partly in embarrassment, but mostly from revulsion and impatience: dismembering the corpse of an animal and allowing its blood and guts to spill onto naked models isn’t ‘art’ in anyone’s book, surely? Yes, I realise that the action and the performance of the dismembering is the ‘real’ artwork, and I know that the work has to be situated in its time and context, but even so, it’s just yuck. Exhibits in this room and others featured films or photographs of the artist, or models employed by the artist, stripping naked, painting their skin and then rolling on big pieces of paper – well, this is just potato printing, isn’t it? Potato printing with boobs and willies. Risqué in the 60s, no doubt, but it looks hopelessly passé now. And oh, look – all the models are young, slim and beautiful…which to me brings the work two or three steps closer to soft porn. Well, at least these works weren’t quite as distasteful as the film of the thrusting naked bottom.

The second half of the exhibition begins in Room 6, with a work that is essentially a line of blue tape applied to the walls at a fixed height of 130cm, and one of my companions noted sniffily that it was ‘a bit bodged’ around the emergency exit. Ah well. It can’t be easy. But finally, we arrived at Room 13, and it was really rather good: Lucy McKenzie studied the art of the trompe l’oeil technique in Belgium and her work is impressive. She has captured the faded elegance and shabby grandeur of the May of Teck Club beautifully with her water-marked walls and damp-spotted wainscoting. The effect is so realistic that the room actually feels damp. But if this is a set for The Girls of Slender Means, then there are errors. The plugs are wrong. McKenzie has painted modern plug fittings, but plugs were different in the forties. The graffiti around the telephone is definitely wrong. The girls residing at the May of Teck Club would not have drawn on the wall. They most certainly would not have drawn a naked woman on the wall for everyone to see, not in the forties: these were respectable girls. There is no Eunice and no Trevor in the novel, so why is there a message for Eunice that Trevor has phoned at least three times? In fact, I think the telephone itself is wrong. The following passage from the novel shows that the Club has a secretary who takes telephone messages on behalf of the residents:

‘Is that the May of Teck Club?’

‘Yes.’

‘May I speak to Miss Wright privately, please?’

At one of these moments the secretary on duty said to him, ‘All the members’ calls are private. We don’t listen in.’

p. 36, Penguin edition, 1966

So it’s all wrong, really, from a literal, representational point of view. But I’m not sure how far to take this, because I know that this particular set – or painting, or installation, whatever you want to call it – has been used for other purposes. The postcard for sale in the shop gives the work a different title altogether, that of ‘Mrs Diack’, and the little free booklet that comes with your ticket reveals that the set was used as a backdrop for Lucile Desamory’s 2013 film ABRACADABRA. It’s been recycled a few times, then…nothing wrong with that, but this does mean that as it stands, McKenzie’s piece wouldn’t pass the authenticity test as a set for The Girls of Slender Means.

Then we had some tea, after which we went to look at the stuff you can see for free in the Tate Modern. Which was better.

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