DLA Piper Series: Constellations

A trawl through some of Tate’s most significant collected works, Constellations is a re-hang with a difference…

Amid the perpetual revolving door-like turnover of blockbuster exhibitions, it’s all too easy to overlook and take for granted a gallery’s permanent collection.

Forgotten under the weight of press about the latest show, they often contain stellar names and work; this disregard – in many cases – is nothing short of criminal.

We’re as guilty of this as anyone of course, but Tate Liverpool’s recent re-hang of the Tate collection sees the gallery – currently host to summer exhibition Chagall: Modern Master – take a proactive and creative approach to what must be a perennial and frustrating problem.

“This is no token gesture, or an attempt at breathing new life into jaded, less important artwork”

DLA Piper Series: Constellations, rather than being satisfied with a cursory re-assessment, sets out to explore the impact and influence of significant artists and their work; this is no token gesture, or an attempt at breathing new life into jaded, less important artwork. Examining the links between – sometimes apparently unrelated – artworks across the decades since their inception, this is a major undertaking.

Taking nine pieces as its starting point – so-called trigger works – the re-hang boasts names that would grace any of the usual fourth floor paid-for exhibitions Tate Liverpool plays host to. Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Barbara Hepworth, Jackson Pollock and Marina Abramovic all feature as the centre of the nine constellations across two floors, with off-shoots clustered around them. These are not names associated with under-attended exhibitions.

Neither for that matter, are the names of those occupying the role of off-shoot. That said, the links aren’t always immediately obvious; Tate Liverpool’s artistic director Francesco Manacorda said: “The principle … is people who had affinity with the work … recognising a similar concern [of different works and the relationships between them].” He continued, “I wish for people to forge new links and invent new ways of looking at things.”

“This is one exhibition whose thematic conceit genuinely pays off”

Does it work or is it a hazy, subjective mess? Subjective, of course. Hazy mess, no. For starters, the opportunity to see these works (numbering more than 100) drawn together means people should hot-foot it down to the Albert Dock at the first opportunity; but beyond some of those stellar names, the real draw is getting to know and understand the work of those in the same orbit. This is one exhibition whose thematic conceit genuinely pays off.

Man Ray’s L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse (1920, remade 1972), essentially a sewing machine wrapped in a blanket and tied with string, for example, sits pretty at the centre of his own enigmatic constellation. Alongside, Christo’s Valley Curtain (For Colorado), looking like a design concept, we’d never previously considered in any detail; also in this cluster is Marcel Duchamp’s Why Not Sneeze Rose Sélavy? (1921, replica 1964), a pun on Eros c’est la vie (‘love is life’). As Manacorda pointed out: “Duchamp … is definitely the one who played most with words.”

Speaking of which, the word clouds beneath each constellation graphic prove particularly useful as it’s very easy to get lost amid the at times difficult-to-grasp intellectual leaps on show; serving to connect the dots between the works very nicely, as reference points and passive informers, they work very well.

And that is the beauty of this show. For anybody unsure of their grasp on certain aspects of art history, or specific movements outside the usual realm of their knowledge (most of us, then), Constellations does a very good job of gently educating its visitors, providing the context and associations without which may have otherwise prevented aspects of the exhibition to reach different audiences.

A sideways glance at art history and the people whose works continue to shape it, this exhibition is an excuse (as if one were needed), to (re) acquaint yourself with what previously might have seemed esoteric or been taken for granted, and is a magnificent primer for why the contemporary art world looks the way it does today. 

DLA Piper Series: Constellations continues at Tate Liverpool FREE

Posted on 25/07/2013 by thedoublenegative