24. BARBICAN CONSERVATORY

It’s a terribly disappointing morning, for all those in the UK who had hoped for a more caring and sharing and long-sighted government to be elected today. It’s also frightening to consider the way the United Kingdom and its united relation with Europe have both become more fragile under the influence of both progressive and Right Wing nationalist surges.

This week you saw art exhibitions by Nicky Coutts at Danielle Arnaud, Roman Signer at Barbican, and Kapwani Kawanga at South London Gallery but, for reasons that you will try here to make clear, what you feel most compelled to write about is the experience of visiting the Conservatory at The Barbican.

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Despite being a curious explorer of the city for decades, you only discovered this little gem of a space – a kind of oasis near the heart of the city of London – a few years ago. It is open to the public only one day a week, though surely also used at other times for corporate events and parties.

Why should a Blog that claims to experiment with art criticism (see ‘About’ or ‘Home’ on this Blog) write a post about a Conservatory? Well, art history and cultural studies long ago became potentially fused within a relativizing and eclectic 1980s postmodern milieu. The influence of Semiotics and Structuralism as a means with which to analyse all kinds of images, from paintings to advertisements, from literature to graffiti, at that time pushed art history’s donnish connoisseurship from its pedestal.

This encouraged, not only a ‘social history of art’ to arise, but the embrace and influence of a tradition of modern writers and thinkers who had been willing to apply finely honed interpretative and poetic powers to all that lay beyond the walls of academies and institutions, all that lay amid the ever-increasing spectacle of the city and the media, through which modern life was increasingly viewed.

Perhaps most notable and emblematic of those figures was Walter Benjamin, as a representative of the Frankfurt School and as strongly influenced by the spirit and letter of 19th century poet and critic Charles Baudelaire. Jean Baudrillard or Dave Hickey are other good examples of the kind of writers and thinkers who felt qualified to effortlessly dance between and around a range of quotidian cultural artifacts and relative values, seeing in even the most commonplace phenomena, sites on which to debate, not only social and cultural, but profound and philosophical issues.

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There is a wonderful freedom, a kind of enlightening satori in thus seeing the whole world as the critic’s oyster; no-longer allocating that which is ‘of interest’ and ‘of importance’ to objects elevated on walls and plinths, protected behind institutional walls (i.e. ‘art.’) The ‘cultural critic’ henceforth also enjoys the quasi-political experience of contributing to the democratization, leveling and relativizing of culture itself.

Leaving this long preamble to one side (on this grim morning when so many good-hearted people all over England have little appetite for breakfast) you should now buckle-down to justifying your choice of the Barbican Conservatory as the object of today’s post.

Any kind of glasshouse, filled with varied and spectacular plant-life, is of course of interest and a source of pleasure, while perhaps inevitably symbolic of a North European perspective, of an acquisitive culture with a long tradition of hungrily collecting, cultivating and taxonomising species indigenous to very different places and climates. As you move through the Conservatory (having decided to spare yourself the experience of one more carefully illuminated and contextualized blockbuster exhibition in the Barbican’s 3rd-Floor gallery) you feel your eyes and mind nourished and entertained by a cultivated nature’s ever-surprising display of differentiation and sequence. At every turn of the Barbican’s asymmetric, glass and steel architecture, and at every twist of your neck to turn your inquisitive eyes, nature (aided by the Conservatory’s clearly passionate staff) reminds you that, despite your urbane experience and the influence of today’s all-seeing media and technology, you have not, after all, seen it all.

What you come across often makes you grin and gasp, and so you become instantly child-like, reborn, made modest and newly naïve, in a sense humbled, by nature’s apparently unwilled and un-strategic desire to constantly produce examples of possibility.

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It is surely this, abundant evidence of possibility, and the consistent production genuine surprise and invention, that makes you wonder about the relative values of nature and art. Throughout the longest history of art and its theorization we find a constant dialogue between art and nature but here nature seems to promote itself neither as an emblem of truth, essence, nor of liberty but primarily of the maintenance of possibility and potential.

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This is surely an important aspect of what artists do for us and must continue to do. Even in an increasingly synthetic, simulacral and virtual realm, artists can continue to use and look to nature as a model of an admirable force and phenomenon that will invariably and insistently remind us that what we KNOW and the way things are, are never necessarily ‘so’, and that, even in a culture that appears to be rapidly driving itself into a political cul-de-sac, it is even more important than ever that possibility, of one form or another must be maintained. And this, ultimately, is perhaps the most crucial role of the artist, critic, writer and thinker; to seek-out, to find, to broadcast, translate and transmit, and, where necessary, to invent possibility.

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