Compared to the Tate Modern Matisse exhibition this summer with its blooming colours and joyful cut-outs, artist Sigmar Polke feels like an enormous mountain to climb. Sigmar Polke, MOMA’s latest export to Tate Modern, is full of satirical riddles and scepticism which curator Mark Godfrey perfectly describes as, ‘you are never quite sure what he is mocking and what he is serious about’. Never claiming to be a genius artist or shaman like his puffed up contemporaries, Polke’s work might be delightfully playful and experimental, but it is hard to understand and certainly hard to take seriously.
However, if you’re a struggling young artist this exhibition is inspirational. Motifs, which we know well from celebrated British artists like Damien Hirst and Gavin Hume, such as the sausages and cupboard doors, actually crop up in Polke’s work right at the start of his career in the 1960s. Polke was trying performance and conceptual art long before the YBAs, toying with different materials in a completely radical way that you only need to glimpse his incredible bubble wrap paintings to find evidence of.
London’s German season
Director of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, gleefully points to Polke’s role in the current vogue for German culture in London right now with ‘Germany: Memories of a Nation’ at the British Museum, the contemporary of Polke, Richter at the newly opened Marian Goodman Gallery and Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy of Arts London. So while Polke comes at an opportune moment, why should we care?
For one thing Polke tackles German history in a completely different way to other artists on display this autumn, seeing things as they are with no alibis to hide behind (clever title eh?). Polke’s ‘humorous, clunky and deliberately relaxed style’, Mark Godfrey says, confronts Nazism and ‘picks at the silence around German history’. The purpose of the swastika in many of the artist's abstract works, such as Polke's ‘Constructivist’ (1968), is never really made clear though they challenge reductive abstraction which Polke despised for ignoring recent events. Similarly in the ambiguous 'Watchtower' series (1980s) Godfrey questions ‘was the watchtower from films of the exteriors of Auschwitz or was it one of the hunting towers that you drive past on the autobahn?’
Polke’s style is also notably removed from the works of pious German artists, such as Kiefer’s monumental and morose portraits of the German land, which Godfrey describes as ‘whipping themselves on the back’. Instead, angered by the post war idea that ‘there would be sparkling wine for everyone’, Polke treats this world of plenty ‘with a degree of scepticism’, using materials from everyday life like his children’s pyjamas and wall hangings for canvas.
Polke’s materiality is certainly interesting; from potatoes to bubble wrap to poisonous pigments, this show is the first time that all these resources are brought together. ‘There’s a humour in his use of mediums’, curator Mark Godfrey explains, which challenges the ‘certainty and authority’ that his parent’s generation had grown up with. By using bizarre materials like soot, the dust of meteors and purple dye from boiling snails, Polke ‘questions the super new by looking at the super old’.
Tate Modern exhibition highlights
A highlight of these weird and wacky materials is ‘Potato House’ (1967) where the lattice of an ordinary garden shed is dotted with ripe potatoes. And if potatoes are your thing look out for the clever machine which lets one potato orbit another. To be expected on display are Polke’s well-known Rastabilder works where half tone images from newspapers and magazines are reproduced and blown up to reveal a series of pixelated dots. Unlike the retrospectives at Tate Liverpool and San Francisco in the 1990s which skipped Polke’s work from the 1970s, Tate Modern’s exhibition also relishes in the motifs of narcotics, sex and collaboration.
Worth a visit?
The best way to describe the exhibition at Tate Modern is probably through the words of Mark Godfrey who commented in reference to ‘Potato House’ that it is ‘hard to know what it means, but it is a fascinating object!’ Fascinating it may be, but Polke will frustrate the average viewer that isn’t so au-fait with the artists’ political, satirical and cultural significance. Much like the mathematical sums that filled his work in the 1960s; ‘the solutions never add up’. Here at Culture Whisper, however, we say be sure to add this to your cultural calendar for 2014.
|What||Sigmar Polke: Alibis 1963-2010, Tate Modern|
|Where||Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
09 Oct 14 – 08 Feb 15, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM
|Website||Click here for more information|