A Curator Writes: The New Global Artworld

ArtReview's columnist I. Kurator is sent off to update his views on cultural diversity in contemporary art

By I. Kurator

Bhupen Khakar, You Can't Please All,1981. © Bhupen Khakar. Courtesy Tate Guan Xiao, Flattened Metal, installation view, ICA London 2016. In association with K11. Photo Courtesy Mark Blower

‘Another bottle of Meursault!’, I bellow as I see the Editor come in through the doors of the recently refurbishd El Vino’s on Fleet Street. ‘How many points did you get at Photo London last month?’ He looks non-plussed so I explain the photo-klaxon game I patented at the inaugural edition of Paris Photo back in 1997. Three points for a photo of a topless lady, five for a smiling person of African descent and ten for a topless, smiling lady of African descent. Of course with France’s colonial history, their photo galleries were a particularly rewarding playing field.

The editor is less than unimpressed. Somewhat unfairly he suggests I've learnt nothing from his earlier teachings on contemporary feminist practice. And to top that I am sent shamefaced from the bar with a lecture on respecting cultural diversity in contemporary art still ringing in my ears and a list of shows to go and educate myself with. I get on the number 11 and squash myself into the hard and uncomfortable seats of a new Routemaster bus. After 20 minutes of stop-start traffic I get off and stroll to the ICA for the first show on my list, Guan Xiao’s Flattened Metal. There’s a small scuffle at the entrance where a tattooed young lady behind the cash till has the temerity to try and charge me one pound to enter. In the escalating exchange she throws me off balance with a sliding forearm strike that strangely reminds me of the technique of champion bare-knuckle fighter Gypsy Boy McCrory in one of south-east London’s bareknuckle fighting competitions (no relation to the Glasgow International Director, I think).

I’m forced to concede and withdraw to partake of the small but exquisite exhibition of alien objects. Silver boxes that bulge at odd angles with various openings could almost be hi-fi speakers if they clearly weren’t some sort of ancient Oriental symbol. Panels contain fragments of English such as ‘Is this outfit more Mary or Martha?’ that I take to be a loose poetic translation of the Chinese proverb 飲水思源 (‘when you drink the water, remember the spring’).

The assistant from the cash till approaches me and I think she’s up for a second round of fisticuffs but it turns out that the staff have recognised the presence of one of London’s art writers in the house and instead she gives me a load of press cuttings. One of these is an interview with the artist where she states ‘Identity is just bullshit’ and talks about her desire to escape being seen as a Chinese artist. I think of another Chinese proverb, 小因為它是麻雀擁有所有重要器官 (‘Small as it is, the sparrow has all the vital organs’) and smile inwardly at this wily dissemblance.

I continue to contemplate this as I head off to the next show on my tour, Bhupen Khakhar’s exhibition You Can’t Please All at the old part of the new Tate Modern. There, I ponder the painting that has provided the exhibition’s title. A naked Indian man watches a scene unfurling in front of him involving a donkey and two gentlemen. Later paintings in the exhibition feature groups of cavorting naked men. Here of course in cynical old London one would immediately think of our dear ‘Friends of Dorothy’ but in innocent India, this was merely the lighthearted fun chaps had before a game of impromptu cricket played in a dusty backstreet washed down with a bottle of Kingfisher and a couple of chapatis. I reflect I’ve learnt much about this new global art world. I cross the wobbly bridge over the Thames and head straight back to El Vino’s, knowing I’ve earned my Meursault.

Online exclusive 16 June 2016

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Coming soon – I Kurator's lament for Europe