Sunday, January 3, 2010

Wright & Wrong

There was a certain kick in catching Richard Wright’s gold leaf and gouache mural that won this year’s Turner Prize in the very last hour of its existence. Tomorrow, this ethereally beautiful creation will be heartlessly painted over at the express request of Wright. It is not a gimmick. It has been the fate of all of Wright’s works in the last 20 years to be destroyed at the end of the exhibition for which they were created.

As he said in a video that accompanied the exhibition, “I like the idea of there being nothing left when I am gone”. Wright also acknowledged that his art sits awkwardly with the market. It questions how the system should value his art, which though exquisite, is transient. How should the art market – the auction houses, the galleries and collectors – contend with Wright’s work, which has no resale value? Is it still worth patronising?

Questioning art and commerce is not new. Another Tate exhibition – Pop Life – is filled cheek-by-jowl with artists questioning this rather murky relationship: from Andy Warhol to Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst. Almost all of the works did the same with a sense of cynicism, irony, starkness and in-your-face shamelessness that unfailingly ensured that the artists’ pockets are lined with gold. So while you definitely came out enjoying their joke on the system, you couldn’t help but feel that somehow the joke was also on you.

I prefer Wright’s style of questioning. It doesn’t just poke fun at the system, it boldly challenges it. His works also challenge us as a society to question our consumerist covetousness and fascination with youth. But Wright does it with a sense of almost spiritual beauty. For in order to destroy your own exquisite creation, you must first let go of the vanity and conceit that accompanies its creation. That Wright does it, gives us faith that so can we.

Wright’s work is gone forever. But Pop Life exhibition will be on at Tate Modern till January 17.

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