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The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery

Too Much Like Hard Work
Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset : The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery

[The following article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Whatever its defects, The Welfare Show at the Serpentine Gallery is not short on grand ambition. Here’s the sort of scope the organisers promise us:

What is the welfare state? What has caused its decline? How socially responsible has it been? The Welfare Show by artists Michael Elmgreen (born 1961, Denmark) and Ingar Dragset (born 1969, Norway) uses sculptures, installations and an encyclopaedic style catalogue to focus attention on welfare systems in the Western world. Within this context, visitors are invited to consider such concepts as power, economic disparity, health care, immigration, the police state, and the social role of art.

Modesty is such an attractive virtue, don’t you think? Yet it was exciting to dream that by simply spending twenty minutes at an installation in Kensington Gardens’ old tea pavilion, and then perhaps a few more minutes leafing through the ‘encyclopaedic’ catalogue (texts variously in English, German, Norwegian and Danish, yours for £29.80), the casual visitor might hope to gain insight into so many of the Big Questions of contemporary social policy, in so pleasant and painless a fashion. For — as another reviewer here recently suggested — art these days has become increasingly self-referential and detached from real life. There’s much to be said for work that can see past its own navel to the wider world beyond.

So I made my way to the Serpentine on a bitingly cold winter morning, full of — well, if not hope exactly, then at least a degree of genuine curiosity. The Welfare Show had received, I knew, some very good reviews. Elmgreen and Dragset’s contribution to Utopia Station at the 2003 Venice Biennale hadn’t been particularly inspiring, but maybe they’d make more of a splash in a solo exhibition? And while — fair enough — I perhaps wasn’t expecting answers, I did at least hope that the works might, at the very least, raise worthwhile, stimulating questions. These are, after all, crucial issues. It would be nice to think that art could play a role in our engagement with them.

Spot the difference
Unfortunately, The Welfare Show fell far short of its billing.

There are few congruences between The Welfare Show and the actual Welfare State — so few that it was often difficult to remember what the show was notionally ‘about’. For one thing, the Serpentine Gallery is extremely clean. There’s no rubbish, no graffiti, no foetid and ancient puddles of hard-to-identify bodily fluids. Instead, everything smells as galleries usually do, which is to say, of nothing except cleanliness, with perhaps a whiff of linseed oil from the colour reproductions in the catalogue. The loos are bright, spotless and well-maintained. The young woman at the reception desk was charm personified. The signage is not only helpful and accurate, but was composed with attention to grammar, punctuation and nuance. I didn’t have to wait around for anything at all.

Nor was there a sense of boredom, disorientation or fear, if only because during the time the visitor spends there, he knows perfectly well that he is viewing an art installation, and that he can exit whenever he likes. When I was ready to leave the exhibition space, two gallery attendants rushed to help me pull my son’s push-chair through a narrow pair of doors. ‘What did you think?’, one of them asked me, looking genuinely interested. You certainly don’t get all that on the NHS, nor on any other bit of the Welfare State with which I’ve ever made sustained contact.

But more to the point, the really important non-resemblance is this — although The Welfare Show is free at the point of delivery, it really is absolutely free, in the sense that I was not being asked, or rather forced, to convey a large portion of my earnings to it in order to keep in action something I neither want for myself nor wish to impose upon others. This, after all, is art, not life. Many of us can, by now, tell the difference.

Socks slavery
So, what happens in The Welfare Show? It isn’t hard to describe. The viewer, entering through double doors, encounters a featureless foyer, empty except for a sign offering socks at £1.25 a pair. In what will become a recurrent leifmotif of the show, however, there are no socks for sale — nor is it clear what socks and their pricing has to do with the welfare state, as I find it hard to believe that even in the most nostalgically socialist Scandinavian societies, the production of socks has been nationalised.

No, there’s a point of some sort being made here. Presumably, we are meant to think of the dismal sweatshops in which 12-year old subcontinental wage-serfs toil ceaselessly over their looms, manufacturing cheap socks soaked in the blood of the workers, for a parasitical capitalist superstructure of callous, exploitative sock-wearers. We are not, I suspect, meant to think about, e.g., frugal working people who might wish to buy cheap socks. Actually, though, in my case, it all went wrong, because it was only too easy to think of a class of gallery-goers who buy delicious Fogal tights at £21 a time, and then throw them away after one wearing — but who wish to act as if they mind very much indeed about these £1.25 socks. Real socks, on sale in the gallery, might have raised better questions, but would perhaps subsequently have been sold for inflated prices on eBay, thanks to having been part of an installation and thus no longer being socks at all, but rather Art, which is worth more. In any event, if this idea occurred to the artists, they evidently got cold feet about it. As it were.

On a roll
But enough of unfulfilled promise. Here’s a minor mystery. Turning the corner, I had to pass by another viewer, in this case one in a wheelchair, chatting with a member of the gallery staff. Or at any rate, that was what I thought I was doing. Like most people who travel with a toddler in a push-chair, I always read up on disabled access before going to art exhibitions, for the simple reason that any non-accessible show means relying on the generally fairly ropey kindness of strangers. The Serpentine, though, because it is situated on a single level, is incredibly push-chair friendly. This man, then, didn’t seem to need help of any kind. So I simply smiled politely at the man and the gallery attendant as I passed.

It was only later that I realised, reading someone else’s review, that the man in the wheelchair might have been part of the installation. But since he looked like a happy, comfortable, sociable and, well, if we are being honest here, actually rather attractive male fellow visitor, it didn’t actually occur to me to read his presence differently simply because he was sitting in a wheelchair. Now, however, I worry that he should have been ‘raising issues’ for me, rather than just chatting in some miscellaneous Scandi-language and looking pleasant. As it was, however, he was pretty much the most aesthetically satisfying feature of the show. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much.

Cash & Carry-cot
Turning the corner, then, past the chap in the wheelchair, I was confronted with what appeared to be an ATM.

Except that in keeping with the developing theme here, the object in question wasn’t an actual ATM. It didn’t even look much like a real ATM. There were no lights, no branding, no obvious functionality. And that, too, seemed like a missed opportunity, if only because in this day and age any minor villain seems to be able to set up data-stealing pseudo-ATMs on any street-corner in the part of the West End where I live, and to do so with a level of simulation good enough to wrong-foot plenty of passing custom. Whereas the ATM here wasn’t convincing at all. Would it really have been so hard to install a real one? But again, why set one up at all? For the Welfare State doesn’t set up cash points, any more than it sell or even prices down-market socks, or supplies galleries with men in wheelchairs. What, then, was the point?

Well, under the ATM there was a large plastic doll in carry-cot which was, again, I guess, supposed to make some sort of profound statement. Now, at present, whatever my other critical faults may be, I am not remotely short of maternal instinct. Indeed, when I hear a baby cry in the next aisle of my local Tesco, my hormones force me to roam the aisles until I have looked at the bawling baby in question and satisfied myself as to its wellbeing.

But at the Serpentine? Plastic dolls in carry-cots don’t do much for me. And why leave a baby next to an ATM anyway? The one thing you can say about ATMs is that people do seek them out, so if you were abandoning a baby and wanted someone to find it, there are probably worse places. However, why not read the display as one where the carry-cot has been put down for a moment so that the baby’s mother is free to use the ATM? Or a dozen other equally anodyne scenarios? If you want art that makes a more eye-catching comment on the power of automated banking, there’s a Banksy intervention on a cashpoint somewhere around the top of Farringdon Road. Passed in a taxi on a dark night at speed, it at least makes a sort of impression. This, however, did not.

Insofar, then, as this carry-cot display was emotive, what it evoked was, at best, mild irritation. Even my son was bored. He likes looking at real babies, or even real ATMs, with all their lights and funny noise. Neither of these, though, even registered a blip on his mental radar. Yet several critics, even a very good one, found the display ‘shocking’. And while every review repeats devoutly the belief that this mannequin replicates a ‘new born infant’, it doesn’t. Am I the only art critic alive who actually knows what a new born infant looks like? Apparently so. And yes, well, I guess most art reviewers stay in a lot, spending quality time with their critical texts.

Lights, camera, yawn
What next? A corridor of institutional-looking doors. One could look into a window and see neon lights, as if part of the set for a television programme called “The Welfare Show”. Presumably we were supposed to register outrage at the role of the media in something or other … or not. If Tom Paulin had been imprisoned in the room with Germaine Greer, Frank Kermode and one of those trans-Atlantic-accented, wholly interchangeable women who are given airtime in order to achieve quotas I might have watched a bit longer, but not with enormous interest. As it was, I moved on.

Qui custodiet ipsos custodes?
The high point of The Welfare Show was probably the small room staffed with half a dozen security guards. The artists had gone all out for big effects here. For rather than being represented by plastic dolls, the security guards were — and I know this purely because I read it somewhere; it’s by no means obvious just from looking — simply job-seekers hired to pretend they were security guards. Several pretended, in one case, convincingly so, to be napping at their stations. Another smiled so adorably as to make my son wave at him. And one rather dashing one yawned theatrically at me — but then winked. Again, though, it was hard to know what part of the Welfare State these people were trying to replicate. For in what bit of the Welfare State are there six guards guarding a small empty room? Presumably, we were meant to take away a message about the uselessness of their work, the emptiness of their daily activities.

Here, though, for a moment, I am going to be serious, if only because at this point the show intersected with my own life, and with that of my son.

Once, a year or two ago, when my son was in the Special Care Baby Unit there, I spent two months walking in and out of an NHS hospital several times a day. A high point of this largely miserable experience was one of the security guards. He was an old West Indian man with a lovely voice. He sang hymns to pass the time. Better still, though, he realised something that many of the better-paid staff did not, which is the importance of treating patients and their families like real human beings. So this man, who basically sat in a little cubicle all day, remembered who we all were, and said hello and goodbye, and smiled, and commented on the weather, and made little jokes, and kept on singing. In doing so, he boosted our sanity more than I can begin to describe. Sorry, then, if this sounds a bit boring, but the point is a real one: is the exhibition trying to argue that anyone who works as a security guard within the Welfare State is doing something vacuous, boring and ultimately pointless? Or is that only a reflection of the real character of this show, leaking out on what it seeks to depict?

Round and round we go
In any event, contemplating this question, we went through the room and turned another corridor. On the right there was a window into a room with a baggage carousel going round and round, with a single parcel on board. Beyond, a modernist staircase had neatly dissolved into ruin. Why? But there was no departure or landing board, no tired-out passengers — and in any event, once again, surely few Western states run airports as a facet of welfare provision? Meanwhile that single bit of luggage looked clean, well-handled, happy enough — unlike most that one sees in a similar situation. So what was the point? Oh, sure, I know — but you’d have to be a very stupid asylum-seeker not to carry hand-luggage only, and many don’t even have that. The airport code on the parcel was, after all, the one for Ibiza. Likely enough, it was full of nothing but sweaty, unwashed and otherwise dodgy clubbing gear, a few old Ministry of Sound cds and perhaps, if Customs was having a good day, the odd disregarded tab of E. One quite sees why no-one collected this bag. Fair enough. But what does the welfare state have to say about any of that?

Don’t worry, we’re almost done now.

A dead end
I walked into what turned out to be the final room. To the right was a door — we weren’t allowed to pass through — in which a mannequin lay on a hospital trolley. in what must be the cleanest, quietest, most peaceful hospital corridor on earth. Ahead there was simply another door we weren’t allowed to open. I really do not know what this was supposed to say to us. As ever, it didn’t seem to me to resemble any bit of the welfare state, if only because as I stood there, contemplating the final ‘no entry’ sign, there was a gallery guide with a walkie-talkie standing by in close attendance, ready to help me deal with any challenges raised this apparently momentous discovery. Oh, and there was a ticketing machine of the sort that I associate with the fish-counter at Selfridges, but as there was nothing to buy, nothing to wait for, I didn’t take a ticket.

And then finally, in the room beyond the hospital gurney, there was evidence of floor-cleaning. I have since discovered, through reading other reviews, that what I was supposed to have seen is ‘a pole dancer’s podium’. Having lived in Soho for half a decade, this would not have occurred to me independently. How helpful it is, then, that so many critics read their press packs — not available, alas, to the general public. Still, though — and for the last time — is there really a place where the Welfare State treats the provision of pole dancers as one of its basic functions? And even if there were, wouldn’t it be quite a good thing if the floors were kept clean?

A cheap holiday in other people’s misery
Readers who have made it this far may perhaps have detected a persistent note of bad-tempered impatience here. Rightly so.

Art that speaks only about itself may do very little good, but it is also unlikely to do much harm. Lives are not often ruined by a bad juxtaposition of yellows, or an allusion to Sol Lewitt that doesn’t quite come off properly. Whereas art that seeks to raise big questions opens itself up to criticism on an entirely different level. At the very least, when done badly, such art panders to the fantasy that wafting around a gallery for half an hour equates to serious engagement with the topics at hand — that by looking at an installation the viewer has somehow shared someone’s suffering, understood what caused it, and perhaps even made the world better in some way. All of which is, very often, nonsense of a particularly voyeuristic, solipsistic and nasty sort — the rancid half-life of the older idea that beauty, or at any rate art, can somehow make people better. A single example sums it up what I mean. Writing in the Guardian, critic Adrian Searle pronounced himself deeply moved by The Welfare Show: ‘it makes me want to weep’. So that’s that, then: the Welfare State and its ills reduced to material on which a Guardian journalist can be seen to exercise his exquisite sensibility.

To be fair, for those who wished to experience this exhibition at an even more profound level, the Serpentine, in conjunction with the Office for Contemporary Art, Norway, also offered a one-day conference — now, sadly, finished — as well as a talk by Tony Benn MP and other assorted treats. The conference apparently covered quite a lot of ground.

Topics include: content and form in the politics of art; the Scandinavian model of welfare as a socio-spatial form of experience; the current viability of the welfare state and its possible future forms; the architecture of welfare; and institutional critique and relational aesthetics.

Not having been there, it’s hard to judge, but my dark suspicion is that the programme mostly consisted of some very unexceptional middlebrow banalities given a minor grit-induced frisson through the admixture of some Old Left political content and marginally less stale postmodern language, and that everyone went away feeling particularly clever and socially responsible.

All the same, it seems to me that the main defect of this sort of art isn’t so much an explicit political bias, as it is a failure to take sides — a failure to say anything very clear at all about the topic at hand. I have written here about Luc Tuyman’s habit of ‘dealing with’ controversial historical subjects in a manner so sleekly ambivalent as escape controversy altogether, and elsewhere about the tendency of war art these days to avoid saying anything much about war. In a way, both are symptoms of the same problem. Engagement anywhere is seen as a weakness, a lack of critical detachment, a failure of art. At the same time, it’s virtually impossible to create a work of art that doesn’t absolutely crackle with implicit personal commentary, in what it does and doesn’t say, about the world in which it was created. So the lack of engagement here is a stance in its own right, and not, in my view, a very constructive or admirable one. In a really excellent brief review, again in the Guardian, the marvellous Frank Field rightly draws a contrast between The Welfare Show and the nearby Albert Memorial. One of these works has something to say, the other doesn’t, and whether you agree with what’s being said or not, there is little question that one makes a stronger, clearer, and far more lasting impression than the other.

Insofar as The Welfare Show takes a view about its subject matter, then, it is, I think, this: that the Welfare State is grey, mysterious and obscurely unsatisfactory. And, err, that’s it. Anything else depends on what you bring with you — cynicism about the whole enterprise, a great desire to show off the tenderness of your feelings, a curdled Bennite romanticism for the future that never was, or perhaps something altogether. The exhibition itself, in contrast, seems to me robustly noncommittal. So the implicit message is that none of the detail really matters that much anyway — as long, that is, as ‘conventional notions’ are being ‘challenged’, the overall atmosphere is ‘disturbing’ or ‘unsettling’, and provided that no one is gauche enough to suggest anything resembling a solution.

Reality check
Elmgreen and Dragset are probably safe, though, because the sort of people who sniff out exhibitions like this are only too well aware of the rules, and play along accordingly. They also tend to be — and I don’t think this is remotely an unfair assumption — people whose experience of the Welfare State is limited, occasional and, when it does take place, relatively privileged.

Who won’t see The Welfare Show? Well, there’s Kerry, for one. I met her recently at a local toddler group, where her two-year old boy battled amiably over the toys with my slightly younger son. Kerry obviously has quite a lot of self-respect — she had put on makeup and was rather smartly dressed, although her platinum-blonde hair was showing salt-and-pepper roots. She also looked tired — not just the normal tiredness of a toddler’s mum, either, but more as if life had worn her down a bit.

We got to talking. Because her youngest son was in fact her fifth child — the oldest is now 18 — her local NHS hospital (the same one where my son was born, as it happens) decided that she was ‘an old hand’ and so left her to give birth absolutely alone, with consequences that left her boy in the Special Care Unit for a couple of weeks. The boy’s father was even less interested than the NHS, from the sound of it. Recently, Kerry had been moved to an ethnically homogenous estate where she and her son were the odd ones out, and were made to feel very unwelcome. A frequent trope in her stories, all of which were sad, involved calling out the police: ‘But they don’t do nothing until someone gets killed, do they?’ The toddler group that gave her the scope for conversation was, needless to say, sponsored not by the welfare state, but rather by a local Christian group, getting by on a wing and a prayer and attracting a genuine cross-section of the local toddler community.

Kerry, I suspect, knows as little of relational aesthetics as I do, and probably takes a similarly vague line regarding “the Scandinavian model of welfare as a socio-spatial form of experience”. In contrast, what she wanted was fairly simple. She wanted a flat where her neighbours wouldn’t come to the door and scream at her, or ring the police, every time her son had a tantrum. And she’d have preferred not to have had to give birth in conditions so bad that, as she and I reflected in unison, ‘you wouldn’t treat a dog like that, would you?’, that had left her son with serious, probably life-long difficulties.

In other words, what makes Adrian Searle want to weep when he sees it in a gallery is just the palest reflection of Kerry’s everyday life. And why go to a gallery to see that? Anyway, if her narratives are anything to go by, Kerry’s version of the Welfare State isn’t grey and featureless at all. It’s full of colour, distinct personalities, particular preferences and grievances and plans. The empty nihilism of The Welfare Show would, I think, have alienated Kerry, if only because to her, due to where she’s ended up in life, the actual Welfare State is the locus of such urgent, specific, persistent concern.

It was clear from everything about Kerry — the makeup, the clothes, the hair, the almost painful need to be seen to behave well and to be liked (because she helped clear up the toys, she lavished praise on everyone else’s children, she thanked everyone as she left, for all the world as if normal conventional courtesy was a favour she didn’t quite deserve) — that what she needed was, in fact, a bit of beauty, entertainment and distraction. In other words, some old-fashioned aesthetic pleasure might have done her a world of good. And yet in a sense I’d have loved to have gone round The Welfare Show with her. ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about art,’ Kerry had said, modestly, when we’d got round to the subject of what each of us ‘did’. But I strongly suspect she’d have seen through the vacuous nonsense of The Welfare Show in an instant, which is more than many art professionals seem willing or able to do.

Art failure
Art that talks only about itself may be tiresome, but at least it is talking about what it knows best. Whereas when artists attempt to engage with the world around them, they have a duty to do so intelligently, or, at very least, responsibly. Otherwise, there is something exploitative about the whole business that leaves a very unpleasant taste. Socially engaged art is one thing — shallow, pretentious, failed art is another.

The Welfare Show, in summary, does little to meet the preposterously oversized goals its organisers claimed for it. If you want a quick introduction to welfare — past history and present-day issues — read James Bartholemew’s accessible yet eye-opening The Welfare State We’re In and check out its related blog. Or keep up with the activities and publications of the excellent Civitas. Or, as far as that goes, follow the frequent contributions on this very website, many of which deal, from a variety of points of view, with welfare and related issues. The Welfare State, as it currently exists in this country, is ageing disaster that had already consumed far too much time, energy, wealth and self-respect from far too many individuals. Its problems, so complex and deeply-entrenched, deserve serious consideration, honest analysis and real solutions — even if all of this means challenging a few conventions or upsetting people. It really is that important.

If, on the other hand, you simply want to look at dreary installations, there is always The Welfare Show at the Serpentine.

Bunny Smedley has a doctorate in history from Cambridge University, and lives in central London with her husband and young son.


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