Tate Liverpool review: Doug Aitken and an “anarchistic dinner party”

Mike Pinnington

​Before it leaves Liverpool, we take a last look at Doug Aitken’s installation

When Liverpool-based architect Matthew Ashton interviewed Doug Aitken and (fellow architect) David Adjaye earlier this year for The Double Negative, Aitken likened his Tate Liverpool and Sky Arts commission, The Source, to “an anarchistic dinner party. You walk in and you hear something over there, a snippet over here, it makes you curious, and you follow a trail that is of your own making”.

He’s spot on. On my first (and each subsequent) visit, I’ve found myself following my ears, to whichever conversation sounds most interesting at any given point. Thus, on entering the purpose-designed pavilion (a collaboration between Aitken and Adjaye), you spot sometime White Stripe Jack White and listen to what he has to say for a while, then, gosh, there’s noted actor Tilda Swinton, I like her… and so on.

But what’s it all about? Through these interviews with a diverse collection of various icons – rock stars if you like – of their field, Aitken ’s first public realm installation seeks to answer a pair of key, intrinsically related questions: What is the source of a creative idea? Where does it start and how is it realised?

It’s as if Aitken has curated the really hip, 3D version of Hello! and plonked it at Tate Liverpool

“I want the installation at Tate Liverpool to be a destination: a place that one can go to and walk into this field of ideas. It will be a celebration of the power of the individual and the forging of a borderless new creative territory – I’m incredibly excited,” said Aitken, speaking to Tate earlier this year.

And in those senses, The Source is successful. The pavilion is nothing if not an enclosed field of ideas. But Aitken’s comment about the power of the individual is telling. At the heart of these – I don’t quite know what to call it; “artwork” doesn’t seem to be the correct term – videos, is our fascination with, yes, creatives, but more than that, with their celebrity. It’s almost as if Aitken has curated the really hip, 3D version of Hello! magazine and plonked it outside Tate Liverpool.

However, if the point was to be able to go in and carefully listen to the interviews for pearls of wisdom, it is, if not an abject one, a failure nonetheless. Aitken’s idea of the pavilion, that it houses an archaeological dig of sorts, is an interesting one. Problem is, his “archaeology of ideas, concepts, references… whether that’s cinema, architecture, contemporary art, music or anything else,” is the equivalent of digging up a scrap of metal that you can call a sword but might equally have been a spade. It isn’t clear.

When you get right down to it, all of these individuals have to fight for your attention. To stand in the centre of the pavilion is akin to being at a party where people are involved in pockets of conversation. The result is in turn pleasant and cacophonous depending entirely on your mood. Move closer to a conversation where you’d expect to hear more clearly what your chosen celeb happens to be saying, and the result is a reduction in the number of voices, only they become subject to an amplification.

So you never get any one-on-one time with Jack, Tilda, Devendra (Banhart) or whoever, which in the end was surely the most attractive thing about The Source: to hear what these guys think allowed them to create what they’re famous for, one by one, under one roof. The reality is that it would work better at home on DVD, where you could select individual conversations. At least then you wouldn’t have to worry about Beck talking too loudly and having to pretend you heard exactly what Mike Kelley, Liz Diller or Jacque Herzog just said, right?

Don’t get me wrong, this is blockbuster stuff from Doug Aitken, go and see it. It’s all there; the stellar line-up and the fanfare, presumably the visitor numbers and the accompanying column inches (to which I’m adding), but whether the result is art as brilliant as its stars is another matter altogether. Certainly, it is not a piece we will come to think of as being greater than its constituent parts.

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