Ghosts of the 1980s part 2 – Darth Vader’s rockery

Tony Cragg

Tony Cragg at the Lisson Gallery

Quite by accident I was passing the Lisson Gallery before Christmas, it’s on the way home from Church St market where I failed to buy a Christmas tree. Good place to buy fish though. Anyway it seems that the Lisson is open all day on Saturday now, rather than closing at 1 o’clock like it used to. Which is cool. There were two shows on Lawrence Weiner and Tony Cragg. I am (only very slightly) ashamed to say that I just glanced at Lawrence Wiener through the window, and moved on to the Tony Cragg.

Some things are hard to decide if you like or not. I certainly found this exhibition enigmatic.

Cragg is best known for Britain Seen from the North from his Whitechapel show of 1981. At the time that seemed like a ‘right-on’ liberal swipe at Thatcher’s Britain. The forgotten waste of the Industrial North, the decline in manufacturing and so on. It was, briefly, an iconic work. Cragg was already living in Germany by this time I think, as he still does and this distance perhaps changed his perceptions of his home country when he made this work. Exile is usually bitter.

He is still represented by the Lisson Gallery as he was then and in a way that fact illustrates the journey that contemporary sculpture has been on – from the dry and conceptual of thirty years ago to the sleek formalism of today. To the casual observer (that’s me, I think), it looks as if the agenda of the past has been abandoned in favour of a dialogue with form and materials and Cragg has ascended to a rather rarified sculptural purism. Highly finished surfaces fill the space that would once have been strewn with discarded pieces of plastic. Bronze and stone – the archetypal material of traditional sculpture – featured heavily in this show. The implied permanence of these materials clearly implies a more cohesive social order than the haphazardly arranged pieces of plastic debris that were, I imagine, reconstituted to suit different spaces where Britain Seen from the North was shown. These new works are also very organic in shape and character which is a strong contrast with the use of man made materials and template shapes. So what has changed?

Darth Vader's Rockery

Tony Cragg at the Lisson Gallery

Is he an enfant terrible who has gone conventional…one of those angry young men who mellow with age and success? Has the shock of his first work simply been absorbed by the market? Is it somehow required that young artists produce angry radical work in order to get noticed and then ‘settle’ into more collectible styles that would grace the lobby of an investment bank? I think the answer is probably yes to all those questions.

Perhaps the best way is to just take the new work at face value and forget about the old: it seemed powerful,  engrossing and yet oddly devoid of content, enigmatically abstract as if it were a form caught in the act of coming into being. Although I was not completely convinced because I did think this last one looked a bit like Darth Vader’s rockery…

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