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“Nude For Satan” meets “The Irresistible Force” (Level 2 Gallery, Tate Modern 20 September-25 November 2007)

To me The Level 2 Gallery is the most interesting space in the Tate Modern. It was designed to be a shop and is architecturally extremely challenging to curators installing shows within it.  The shop was moved into what was originally the foyer beyond it, because in its initial location this retail outlet failed to attract sufficient passing trade to make it financially viable. Although a part of the Tate Modern, the Level 2 Gallery feels as if it is separated from the rest of the building and gives off the vibe a project space that is quite removed from the canonical works to be found in the rest of the institution. This space has the appearance of being somewhere it is acceptable for both the art works showcased and the curators choosing them to stretch themselves; and where because due allowance should be made for the risk of failure, there is more room for experimentation and thus also surprise, excitement and innovation.

I missed the first work one encounters in "The Irresistible Force" when I went to the private view, not noticing it until I went back for a second look at the show a few days later. This is a smoke painting by the Paris based collective Claire Fontaine; it has been burnt into the ceiling immediately before one enters the gallery, in a dead space near the doors into both the main foyer and the Level 2 shop. The work is circular in form and reads: "The Educated Consumer Is Our Best Customer". The text is reflected in reverse through the glass entrance to the Level 2 Gallery, and this creates the illusion of it having been burnt into the ceiling inside the gallery as well as outside. It thereby echoes the work of Tim Davis, also included in "The Irresistible Force", photographs of corporate signs reflected in house windows. As with the Claire Fontaine smoke painting, I also missed the lunch for those directly involved with "The Irresistible Force" on the day of the opening; I found my invitation to this meal a day or two after it took place; the invitation had been sent to my Facebook account rather than my regular email address, and having been very busy in the week leading up to the show, I'd not been logging on to the social networking sites with which I have accounts. The other work in "The Irresistible Force" by the Claire Fontaine collective is “STRIKE (K font V.11)” which is installed in the window of the gallery; a series of bright fluorescent bulbs spelling out the word 'Strike'; these switch off whenever sensors detect movement nearby. To me this signals not simply post-modern exhaustion, but also the fact that notions of inside and outside are socially constructed rather than real. Inside and outside interpenetrate each other. "STRIKE" was aimed at an audience that consisted as much of those City workers who could see it through the windows of their office blocks, as it was at those visiting Tate Modern.

The photographs by Tim Davis are spread across two walls, with landscape and portrait pieces mixed on these right-angled surfaces, and with two of the landscapes placed one above the other. Had I been hanging the show I'd have been inclined to range these pictures more classically in two single rows, with the landscapes on one wall and the portraits on the other. However, when I thought about it, I could see that the way in which the curators had chosen to hang the work was in keeping with the exhibition as a whole. The curatorial model for "The Irresistible Force" is very much middle European in origin (and it is both exciting and unusual to see it used in its pure form at an institution like Tate Modern). Loosely themed around what might be described as an 'ideological' category (in this case the notion of 'economy'), the works in this type of show are always in a variety of media, come from all over the world, and share few formal characteristics; instead of attempting to impose a predetermined meaning on viewers, such ensembles invite us to bring our own experiences into play as we respond to the individual pieces and their collective effect. To me this is post-modernism in its 'post'-'ideological' phase, a post-modernism that feels no need to name or identify itself.  In their eclectic post-modern hanging of the Tim Davis work, "The Irresistible Force" curators had made the correct decision both theoretically and aesthetically, and my initial desire to straighten it out a little was a modernist tic.

Michael Stevenson's piece "The Fountain of Prosperity" consists of hydraulics designed to push coloured water around clear plastic tubes in order to illustrate the complex ways in which the economy operates. The sculpture was working during the private view, but since fluid leaked out of it and onto the floor, it had been switched off when I revisited the show. A hastily installed sign next to "The Fountain of Prosperity" read: "This machine is not operational. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause." The leak that precipitated the shutting down of this piece is indicative of the dialectical way in which 'reality' and 'fiction' produce and mediate each other. Thus the most obviously illustrative work in an exhibition about economy 'failed' at the same time as British bankers Northern Rock and the American sub-prime lending market faced financial meltdown, and many commentators are asking whether we are heading for the biggest recession since the 1930s (and less well broadcast voices are simultaneously asking whether this might mark the end of US hegemony and open up new revolutionary possibilities). My feeling is that the curators of "The Irresistible Force" really lucked out when "The Fountain of Prosperity" failed to function properly; it chimes perfectly with the way in which capitalism continues to cannibalise itself, and acts as a timely reminder that borrowing against the future is not an infinitely sustainable form of 'primitive accumulation'.

Conrad Bakker's work for this show was a block of wood carved and painted to look like a recent edition of "Das Kapital". For me this piece symbolises recent blockages in attempts to transform the world, but in light of current events it seems obsolete, since with the ongoing breakdown of the capitalist system we are apparently crossing a line which opens up new opportunities for social transformation. Two separate ensembles of work in "The Irresistible Force" by Matei Bejenaru and  Judi Werthein  explicitly address the issue of national borders, and these simultaneously serve as a metaphor for a less visible political border that we are currently negotiating our way around. Finally there is a video installation by Mika Rottenberg which shows female wrestlers caught in an endless cycle of what appears to be pointless labour. The cleavage shots of the large women in Rottenberg's film made me think of what I had in my knapsack when I came to "The Irresistible Force" private view; a DVD of director Luigi Batzella's 1974 sleaze epic "Nude For Satan", which I'd found earlier that day in a bargain bin in Soho. When there was a shot up the skirt of one of the wrestlers, showing her black knickers, this clinched the connection for me. The protagonists in "Nude For Satan" appear to have died in a car crash and find themselves in a chateau where they meet their doubles, the bad parts of themselves which have somehow been separated from the good in an evil plot to lure the virtuous into debauchery. Needless to say this gives Batzella (working under the pseudonym Paolo Solvay) and his audience the perfect excuse to indulge in 83 minutes of psychedelic softcore sex (there was a version of the film with hardcore inserts but that appears to be lost) and trashy Satanic ritual complete with flaming skulls, whippings and plenty of lesbianism. The film is emblematic of the type of pop culture many contemporary artists grew up with, and its influence can be seen in the work of the Chapman brothers and Mark Waller (to give just two examples)..

That said, while "Nude For Satan" might still at first glance appear very far removed from the curatorial practice and interests of the institution hosting "Irresistible Force", in fact it isn't. As Curator of Film and Live Events at Tate Modern, Stuart Comer runs an exciting and innovative moving image programme in the main auditorium, and a couple of years ago he hosted a season of Italian B movies (mainly from the seventies) to coincide with an exhibition of twentieth-century Italian art elsewhere in the building. "Nude For Satan" wasn’t one of the movies Comer included in his Italian Bs programme, but it could have been, since the directors this pioneering curator chose to showcase included Mario Bava, Fernando di Leo and Lucio Fulci, men who not only share a popular audience with Luigi Batzella, but are all too often every bit as misunderstood. So while the Level 2 Gallery appears separated from the rest of Tate Modern, it isn't; inside and outside interpenetrate each other, there is a process of 'exchange' at 'work' here…

Next piece: Heading For The Texas Border

Previous piece: Web Sex Archive of Karl Marx

Level 2 Gallery Project


colour field by Stewart Home
This is a response to the Irresistible Force exhibition. For further information go to Level 2.