A philistine visits Tate St. Ives

However spellbinding the exhibitions at the Tate St. Ives, I’ve always felt that nothing can beat the view of Porthmeor beach from the upper gallery. Pulling your attention away from the indigo waves you’ll notice fascinating sculptures and paintings encased in glass, such as Alfred Wallace’s slanted and enchanted daubings of his life at sea. The thought occurred to me though, that all art is in some way incidental, depending on a particular piece of material, thought, observation, moment or brushstroke. It may have been while looking at Ben Law’s series of minimalist penciled squares… which according to a plaque were produced in a single day. No shit. What makes this work interesting, if anything, is that it is what it is.

When Dan and I visited MoMA in New York, there were several huge Jackson Pollock canvases. I can’t remember which numbers they were. A guard dressed in black security gear carrying a sub-machine gun stood at one corner of the room. He could have raised that mp5 and mown us all down at any point, which I found much less conducive to viewing the work as the artist intended. Anyway, a little lad wandered up towards one of these sprawling pieces encouraged by his parents who were standing back to take a photo of him in front it. Everyone looked at the security guy, including the boy, who was a bit older than a toddler, to see what he made of it. Sub-machine gun dude seemed affable and watched with a fond smile. So the child went ahead and leant on the painting. The whole canvas trembled. People gasped. His parents rushed forward gesturing for him to come away. Maybe Jackson Pollock’s No. 4 will fall on us and its protector will commit seppuku in a hail of bullets. Instead, the canvas ceased to shake and the guard tiptoed over to the boy to gently ask him not to lean on the painting, looking around sheepishly to see if he was in for a bollocking. But he was right to be relaxed about what is, in an absolute sense, splashings of dried paint. In what scenario was the gun necessary, I wonder.

You can make or stultify art depending on how you present it. There’s a curious effect in the upper gallery of the Tate St. Ives, where if you look sideways at the large curved window – neither at the waves or human attempts to represent them – it seems as though the sea is flowing into the room, reclaiming all of the works it inspired in the glass. Then, as you leave the gallery altogether, the sea air hits and you come into the entranceway outside the large curved window. Another sense is restored. You can’t see them yet but you hear waves echoing in this concrete cylinder. Another few steps and you’ll see waves, hear waves, perhaps even walk in them. And maybe that’s what art is really for: to make sure we’re awake for experiences it can only point to.