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Independent On Sunday
It's Like A Leisure Centre, Without The Fun
By Charles Darwent
November 16, 2003
LONDON - It may be that there is a more off-putting title for an exhibition than Common Wealth, though frankly I doubt it. To English ears, Tate Modern's latest show sounds likely to contain all kinds of depressing things: objects from the Commonwealth Institute, made out of raffia and witchity grubs, dusted down for some royal anniversary. It's a prospect to make the Tate's Prada posse turn tail and run.
So the first thing to strike you on leaving the lift at Level Four is the sound of this same posse giggling self-referentially. Beyond that is the unmistakable tic-toc-splash of a table tennis ball being hit into a lily pond, and beyond that again the clack! of a billiard ball swinging on the end of a wire. For Common Wealth isn't actually about our national inability to come to terms with a post-imperial present, but about games - albeit games (this is art, after all) of a rarified kind.
The first of these is by the Mexican artist, Gabriel Orozco, and is called Ping Pond Table. As you might expect from its title, this work consists of two overlapping, oval-ended table tennis tables with a pond in the middle, on which four people can play communal ping-pong while negotiating a floral water hazard. Ping-golf may be the most apt description of Orozco's piece, though you might also see it as a hybrid of Duchamp's taste for puns with Monet's for waterlilies.
When you've tired of ping-golf, you can move on to Orozco's Oval with Pendulum, which requires the player to knock a swinging cue ball off an oval snooker table. For the more sportif visitor, Carsten Holler's Frisbee House offers the chance to throw - well, yes - Frisbees around a room whose floor is carpeted with another artwork, this time by the Hispanic-American pairing of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. According to Common Wealth's rule book, Holler's Frisbees are meant to be tossed through the holes in his titular house - a kind of Buckminster Fuller fantasy in cloth - although, members of the public being what they are, players during my visit were throwing them wherever they liked. Tsk.
So: why the title, and why the games? As you've probably gathered, Common Wealth takes commonality as its starting point. If you don't play Orozco's aqueous table tennis or throw Holler's Frisbees, then their works remain incomplete. Like charades after Christmas lunch, you've got to join in whether you want to or not. And, just to chivvy us into doing so, the artists themselves act communally.
Orozco's charming Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe - a real-life photographic tale of love in scooterland - putters its way along the walls of rooms containing works by Allora and Calzadilla (who themselves constitute a two-person commune), while the same pair's carpet is also colonised by Thomas Hirschhorn's U-Lounge. You can cut back and forth between most of the rooms in this show in more than one direction - Holler's self-explanatory Sliding Doors invites us to meditate on this fact - which suggests a sharing of space, the breaking down of barriers. The entire show is, in a sense, a single installation, the curatorial acting-out of commonality.
This openness is historical as well as spatial. The air on Level Four is rich with borrowings from Duchamp - various of his Roues de bicyclette appear in Hirschhorn's over-literal U-Lounge - while Allora and Calzadilla have taken the more direct route of appropriating an actual artwork by another dead artist: Dan Flavin's Puerto Rican Light, powered by a photovoltaic cell charged with light from Puerto Rico.
At this point, you may detect the faintest waft of politics on the Tate's fourth floor. Allora and Calzadilla's work steals back something that a gringo with a line in neon tubing stole from them in the first place. Likewise, the pair's felt carpet maps out the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which the USA long ago appropriated as a naval gunnery range. (Puerto Rico is notionally a US "commonwealth" [translation: "colony"], which adds a certain bitterness to the title of this show.)
In the same way, Hirschhorn's lounge and Hotel Democracy are gallumphing Swiss meditations on cultural relativism, while Holler's work is the same thing in Belgian. Our capacity, as homo ludens, to play games in art galleries isn't all that different from the geopolitical game-playing which makes the world such a nasty place: or that, I guess, is what we're meant to feel. All of which is very deep, except that I came away feeling that Common Wealth was actually rather shallow. Its aims may be well-meaning, but they are also embarrassingly obvious. It's about as sophisticated as wanting to "teach the world to sing/In perfect harmoneee", and roughly as compelling. And the work in the show just doesn't hang together, which may tell us something about the world, though I doubt it's what the Tate's curators had in mind.
`Common Wealth': Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8000), to 28 December.