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(Punch - 1991)
Early installation art sent up

Finding yourself at an art show these days can be a testing experience. It's not just that the paintings and sculptures no longer resemble anything (that funny old idea went out of the window decades ago), it's more that there are no paintings and sculptures.

You are more likely to be confronted with huge lumps of welded aluminium, a set of giant dental casts, a filing cabinet filled with rotting carpet, a room full of live butterflies or deep in engine oil - to give but four examples from the last few years. [1]

So how do you cope? Let's not be narrow-minded about this. Fuddy-duddy old critics such as Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard will foam at the mouth and talk about the Emperor's New Clothes. But you don't want to look silly and go against the great relentless flow of Art History, do you? No. So get with it. Here's Punch's guide to How To Behave At An Exhibition (complete with footnotes).

- On Arriving At The Opening: You walk in to find yourself in a room with bare walls, a peeling blue ceiling, a hundred chattering trendies, a trestle table full of beer and wine bottles, an old trolley piled with empties, a couple of pushchairs, and someone's old coat on the floor.

- Wrong Thing To Say: 'So where's the sculpture then?' [2]

No, no, no! If you can't see the work you are probably in it. It may well be an installation. [3] Look carefully - but discreetly around you. That peeling blue ceiling. Could that be part of it? Could that be all of it? [4] Look for any printed cards on the wall to give you a clue. You may find one saying: Blue Ceiling 1991. (Emulsion Paint and Nitromors on Ceiling.) Congratulations. You can now start thinking of something intelligent to say.

But it probably won't be that simple. The card you will find will almost certainly read Untitled 1991. [5] And then the hunt begins. That empties trolley by the bar, that pushchair, that old coat. Any one of them could be Untitled 1991. Don't stop there. Look carefully at the bar, the guests, yourself. [6] Yes, even you might have been appropriated. [7]

- Get Yourself A Drink: You now pay £3.00 for a bottle of Beck's (oh for the days when they used to have free drink at openings). You have realised that the work on display is Blue Ceiling 1991, Empties Trolley 1991 and Untitled 1991 – which you're fairly sure is the old coat. Though it may be the pushchairs.

- Wrong Thing To Say: 'D'you like modern art yourself? I find these avant-garde things really stimulating. Of course, it's not to everyone's taste but you've got to hand it to him, it's really well made.'

Oh dear, oh dear. Where to start? Talking about 'Modern Art' is a dead giveaway, revealing you to be on the intellectual level of a slime mould. Modern Art began in the 1860s and ended in the 1970s. After that came Post-Modern Art, which finished for the very last time sometime last year. 'Avant-garde' is equally inept. [8] You can't even be an Abstract Expressionist these days unless you're over 50 with a drink problem and two divorces behind you.

Assuming the artist is male is very risky. The issue of gender is a hot one. Don't, whatever you do, get into a discussion about feminism. [9]

Never point out how well made the art is. Any artists worth their salt don't make their own art. What they do is either: appropriate found objects, or if they have an idea of their own, get somebody to make it for them.

Look carefully at those cards again. Under Untitled 1991 you may find 'Made with the assistance of the Pit-Bull Welding Co Ltd, Shoreditch'. This means the work has actually been made by some poor sod at the Pit-Bull Welding Co. He's unlikely to be at the opening but if he is you will find him standing in a corner. He will be easy to spot, being the only person in the room in a three-piece suit with his hair brushed.

Right Thing To Say: 'Hi. What a great party. Yuh, late September's the only time. The thing to do is go direct to French estate agents. Is she still having an affair with that tutor from Goldsmiths?'

Basically, the really cool people talk about anything but the work. They turn their backs to it, tread heavily over it, bitch about the artist's private life or how they managed to get a show in such a prestigious gallery. So join in. Talk about house prices or fast cars. Artists aren't poor these days. They can't afford to be poor, not if they want to get anywhere. The big fish are neo-geo millionaires such as Jeff Koons who spent years working on Wall Street so he could afford to pay the Italian craftsmen who make all his work. If actually asked your opinion, you can be 98 per cent sure this is another, less successful artist, who knows the exhibitor really well personally, has probably had a relationship with him or her at some stage or other. Be kind. Mutter something like, 'I agree with the Artscribe [10] review...Maybe she should make the concern of her work more visible...I thought the trolley assemblage was very witty.' This will infuriate them.


(1) Frank Stella, Grenville Davey, Melanie Counsell, Damian Hirst, Richard Wilson, respectively.

(2) Nobody uses the word sculpture these days. Say 'object' or, if really daring, 'assemblage'.'Work' is a safe general term.

(3) Which means the artist has 'intervened' and subtly altered The Space in some way or other. Get to grips with these phrases.

(4) An installation by Bethan Hughes last year involved her carpeting her room. That was it. So be vigilant.

(5) Almost all work these days is called Untitled 1991, Or Untitled 1990, or whatever. You may think that this is because all the artists are devoid of imagination. Far from it. Some years ago the critic Clement Greenberg insisted that Art Isn't About Anything. Since then artists have been terrified of titles. Greenberg, incidentally, is one of the names to drop.

(6) No joke. An American Conceptualist called Les Levine ran a Canadian-kosher restaurant in New York as an art work, unbeknown to its patrons.

(7) A long word for borrow. The artist gets hold of a piece of old scrap metal from a junkyard (known as a Found Object) and then sticks it in a gallery. By doing this he has altered its Context, turning it into Art. Another form of appropriation involves copying another artist's work. An American called Sherrie Levine (no relation to Les) did a lot of this, If only Tom Keating had known what he was.

(8) In the art world, 'avant-garde' doesn't mean what the dictionary tells us it means. It refers specifically to 19th century painters such as Courbet and Manet. It also refers to underground Sixties artists. Basically, it's best not to risk using art labels at all. Dada, for example, is an early 20th century movement. It also means hobby-horse in French, something entirely different to small children and. 'yes, yes' in various Slavic languages.

(9) Feminism in the art world is a movement all its own. Key names: Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly, Miriam Schapiro.

(10) The bible of the art scene. Buy it regularly and don't be put off by the fact that many of the articles appear not to be written in English. In Artscribe, people, 'scrutinise precisely the traumas that constitute sexual identity', they 'explore the issues surrounding the codes of desire' (whatever they are), and even, on occasion, 'engineer a structurally conspicuous anti-consumption.'
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