Monday, 25 February 2013

Alex Hamlin Reclaims Contemporary Art for the Common Man

A man sits on a chair in an exhibition space in an art gallery. There is nothing remarkable about the man - he is tall, Caucasian, mid-to-late 20s. There is nothing special about the chair - it is the same as the chair on which the gallery invigilator sits at the entrance to the exhibition space. There is a white circle with a three metre radius marked with duct tape on the floor around the unremarkable man sitting on the ordinary chair. This circle denotes the limit of the audience’s physical relationship to the man. The invigilator ensures this boundary is not crossed. The man sits there for six hours in two three hour sessions, from 10 to 1 and 2 to 5, with a one hour break in the middle for lunch, where he is whisked off to an undisclosed location to keep him away from the influence of his audience. Every so often the man picks up a piece of paper from a small pile by his feet, looks at his watch and scribbles something on the paper, the invigilator then walks over to take the piece of paper from him, at which point a second invigilator enters the exhibition space to take the piece of paper from the first invigilator. The first time I witness this I follow the second invigilator to inquire about the paper. I am told it is a Certificate of Authenticity signed and with a note of the time by Alex Hamlin, the man sat in the chair, to prove that he was thinking about art. I ask how Alex decides when to sign them and am told they are signed when Alex has a particularly inspirational thought about art. I am then told the Certificates are for sale for £10 each. I buy the one I have just witnessed Alex signing - it has a number one written on it in the same handwriting as the note of the time. After the event I discover Alex has signed a total of twenty one Certificates at an average of one every seventeen minutes or so, although he signs more in the first half of the day than the second, which suggests he is maybe tiring towards the end. All twenty one Certificates are sold, the money raised going towards the costs of promotion for the event and the subsequent production of the catalogue, of which this review is to be a part. Over the course of the day I would estimate approximately two hundred people witness Alex Hamlin thinking about art.
Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art is a complex work, there is much more to it than initially meets the eye. It is terribly important to the piece to stress that Alex Hamlin is not an artist. He doesn’t like art, or, rather, he doesn’t really ‘get’ it. It frustrates him. He is a layman struggling to make sense of an, in his view, elitist and exclusive preoccupation. He finds it confusing, purposefully obfuscating, and, to be honest, largely irrelevant. The remarkable thing about Alex Hamlin is that, after several conversations with his friend, the artist Christopher Robinson, who is the curator of this work, Alex agreed to expose his struggles to the public in a cathedral to the very institution he felt challenged by. By performing this courageous act Alex Hamlin has reclaimed art and the art gallery for the common man.
Alex Hamlin will be, I imagine, unaware of the pedigree of his action. As the First World War raged nearly a hundred years ago dada declared that art was to be for all and by all, an unrealised ambition which has lasted throughout the history of the twentieth century avant-garde. Alex Hamlin is only the most recent in a long tradition desiring to wipe the slate clean in order to begin afresh. His innocence is certainly refreshing as is his authentic curiosity and desire to understand.
Alex may well be right in his honest critique of contemporary art - too much of it is needlessly obscure - too much of it has its metaphorical head up its metaphorical backside (less art for arts’ sake more arse for arse’s sake), and with Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art Alex uses the favourite weapon in contemporary arts’ arsenal, irony, and reflects it devastatingly back on itself.
How do we know Alex Hamlin is thinking about art? He could be thinking about that cute girl who just walked into the gallery. At some point we, as viewers, must abandon our disbelief and willingly enter into the game of the piece, and if we do we find more layers and more depth. But did the work create that depth or have we invented it in our own minds? What does inspiration look like? Is it as banal as a man sitting in a chair? What makes a work of art? What, for that matter, makes an artist? These are huge questions and Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art forces us to ask them again.
Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art complicates the understood relationship between artwork, artist, viewer and the institution delivering the artwork to the viewer (the gallery). If Alex is the artwork, it asks, who is the artist? Is there an artist? Does Alex become the artist through his performance of the piece? At what point? Before? During? After? But if Alex becomes the artist doesn’t that undermine the whole premise of a non-artist reclaiming the gallery space for the common man?
Alex Hamlin Thinks About Art forces us to conclude that as soon as we think we have it nailed, a definition of art or the purpose and meaning of art, someone, usually an artist but in this instance unusually and refreshingly a non-artist, comes along and does something to throw it all up in the air again. The word ‘art’ it would seem (and the thing it signifies) is permanently malleable, forever in flux, and will always remain so. To think about art is to think about our relationship with the world and our understanding of reality and to consider what it is to be a conscious being who thinks. For a human being these are the biggest questions one can ask. As is: “I wonder if that cute girl wants to go for a drink when I’m through here thinking about art?”