How do you look at 1,200 works of art?

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The Royal Academy of Art describes its annual selling show, the Summer Exhibition as: “the largest open contemporary exhibition in the art world” …and…”a unique showcase for art of all styles and media.”

How do you critique an exhibition like this? This is my dilemma. How do you avoid simply reporting? Writing a list? How do you read the exhibition? How do you listen to it? How do you identify the trends? Interpret what the show means? How do you look at 1,200 works of art?

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition is… a mixture of memory and desire. Nostalgic is an unfashionable term, but this is nostalgia for another age of art. The salon-style hang. The neo-classical interior. The authority of the academy. There are some new patterns, commonalities and absences along with the familiar genres of the old world.

Yinka bows to greet visitors as they enter, his back loaded high with cake. Dumas and Joffee smile forlorn painted smiles. Strands of hair, heavy metal, an anomalous architectural model. “More poetry is needed,” says Jeremy Deller. “But when you are actually flying, to be honest its not that interesting,” concedes Bob and Roberta Smith.

Signage and slogans reoccur. Along with baboons: I think I counted four or five. The rooms are individually curated by Royal Academicians. Cornelia Parker’s room is black and white, against which the red dots stand out (she deals with this later).

There are no labels on the wall, each work is numbered; all our heads are buried in our price list books. Eight and nine have sold well. I have seen the work of 1193 somewhere before… I test myself to see how many of the works I can correctly attribute.

Screwing up modernism. Imprisoning brutalism. We have a lot to see, hurry up. A splash of red paint in your face. Wolfgang Tillman’s photograph looks like the inside of eyes when you rub them. Tim Shaw has created a host of fashionable folk. Ivor Abraham’s nurtured natural form grows up and spills all over the floor.

It’s the 21st century but we haven’t moved on from the art object. Visiting them, lusting after them, owning them. This isn’t where the cutting edge of art is happening. It may be in the Royal Academy graduate show, but it isn’t here. Here van Gogh and Marilyn Monroe are still present but now they are made from the heads of pins. Did we ever really get over Pop?

“When given a choice between mars black and ivory black I always choose ivory black,” says John Baldessari. I start to play games: inventing collective nouns: a kitsch of Raes, a fantasy of Shaws, a face of portraits, a drowning of frames.

“I wonder how they choose the works?” asks a woman stood next to me. That is the question. The Royal Academy doesn’t answer. However they decide what to show, the result is like speed dating with 1,200 art works. It isn’t a bad way to meet new artists – and I leave with about 30 numbers in my notebook, to follow up later with a deeper encounter.

The architecture room, curated by Eric Parry, is concerned with conceiving and designing. This runs counter to the fine art, which is about final product. Sub-selections and sub-curators give the whole exhibition a pleasant awkwardness. Some say that ghosts are simply vibrations trapped in an object like music in a vinyl record. If these walls hold a trace of all of the artworks that they have seen in 250 years, no wonder it is so loud in here.

In John Maine’s room there is a row of little maquettes. Something attracts me to a sculptural object that can be held within two hands. Maybe because I could pick it up and take it away. It’s all about ownership, again.

The humble canvas is pushed to its limits. To do more, contain more, become a sculpture. Do we even need a presiding style? Are we beyond this? Does the art of ‘now’ exist online anyway? What is the difference between this exhibition and a catalogue? Digital and print can’t give us scale and surface, perhaps we will always need these qualities. Or want them.

Scratches, drips, marks; over trees, interiors, portraits and pure abstraction, cityscapes, still lives and some cheeky green breasts. I feel like I have seen some of the works before… maybe because I glimpsed them through a doorway five minutes ago, or could it be because they are recycling an old idea? What is missing? There is very little film, no installation, no performance, little documentation, no audio, no avatars. Nothing that can’t be bought and sold.

A democracy of prints. There are fragments and ruins. Dodos and David Cameron. Puns. Suburbs. It’s all very Western. British, even. “Tracey Emin?” says a visitor next to me. “I don’t care for her stuff at all.”

A giant worm emerges through the trees. Sweets, bees, trapeze. “I like this nun on a bike…” says an elderly gentleman, “I think it’s … amusing.”

There is something… accessible in all of this. Permission to like and dislike, engage or ignore on a whim, without having to defend our choices. It’s a return to the emotional rather than the cerebral in art. The pieces have to work their magic in just a few seconds. Jennifer Dickson and Tim Lewis lead me to wonderful places, but I can’t stay there very long.

The final rooms are where the monumental work is found. Earthwork images, film, a pile of dish scourers. Work waiting to be bought by a museum. James Turrell’s Sensing Thought. Work that requires you to be slow, when you need to be quick, be greedy, see everything.

Have I given it all a chance? To be seen, understood, consumed? This show is a showroom. The individual works will never be a whole. Maybe the artists like it that way. “Its all so derivative” one man says. Maybe he has seen another baboon.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai, August 2014

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