I’ve never been that keen on contemporary art. It’s always been a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment that’s kept me from fleeing galleries five minutes after entering - an awareness that the experience should be edifying, but a secret frustration with myself for not quite ‘getting it’.
So when a visit to the Tracey Emin retrospective last month resulted in passionate (if gin-fuelled) discussions of feminism on The Corner Shop’s terrace after work, no one was more surprised than me. I didn’t rate all of her work - the handwritten statements in neon tubing felt hackneyed rather than sexy or confessional – but seeing the whole exhibition convinced me to credit Emin with skill I hadn’t previously.
Buoyed by this visit, I found myself huddled with trendy arty types, students, tourists and culture consumers of all ages, shapes and sizes outside the Handel House Museum last Saturday afternoon.
This was the designated meeting spot for the latest Fox & Squirrel Art Walk.
Designed to provide a tour of a selection of London’s less well-visited galleries, the exact schedule for the afternoon remains a secret until the tour begins – presumably to prevent the geeky among us from swotting up on the artists beforehand.
Getting people talking is the other purpose of Fox and Squirrel’s enterprise and I’m sure our discussions were all the more fresh for the surprise destinations.
With a friendly art historian and curator as your guide, there is no shortage of expertise on hand for art aficionados, but the relaxed nature of the afternoon didn’t make me feel too unlearned.
Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.
From Bond Street and the work of this young, emerging photographer, we crossed Mayfair to the Sprovieri Gallery, to see Fireleap, the first exhibition of Nan Goldin’s photography in London in ten years.
But by far the most heavily debated stop on our tour was the last: Rebus at the Simon Lee Gallery.
Here we were greeted with a cage full of garlic and a stench to rival that of the local Swedish goth bar.
The ‘Underestimated Consequences’ of this piece by Mircea Cantor’s include, the gallery’s director told us, complaints from neighbouring tenants and the threat of the work’s removal.
Yet this was by no means the most controversial work on display. That title went to ‘Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down’ - an electric heater, received by the gallery with instructions that it must be plugged in, with the heat cranked up and that it must not be for sale.
To say this provoked a heated (groan) debate would be an understatement, not least because one of my fellow walkers works for a government agency on the environment.
Pointless – well, in the literal sense of the word, no.
As the Director explained, frustrating though the receipt of a radiator is in response to a commission, it is typical of Merlin Carpenter’s style.
The director’s defence of the work cited it as a round in the commercial game played by artist and gallery... but this didn’t wash with many of us.
I couldn’t see much art in it, just a canniness on the part of Carpenter (who, in the past was given £4000 to create a new work, spent it on personal luxuries and presented the receipts for exhibition).
Discussing this and the other shows with the group over a well-earned cup of tea, the thing that stuck with me was that I don’t have to ‘like’ contemporary art at all.
Or, rather, sometimes the artist doesn’t want me to.
Now I’ve accepted that contemporary artists sometimes aim to irritate, I’ll walk out of galleries with pointed disgust - and be proud of it.
Charlotte Bayley, Press Assistant, The Corner Shop PR