I look at my watch. It's 7.15pm and they are just handing out the last free bottle of beer in the downstairs bar at the ICA. That's the last of 600 bottles they had for tonight's private view of Surprise Surprise. And given that the view opened at 6pm that makes an average of 8 bottles drunk every minute.
And there's only been me and Lena here...
Ok, I'm lying about that last bit. But the rest of it's true. There are, of course, loads of people here. Which explains why, about another half hour later, the programmes for the show run out too. Which is a little tricky. For this is a show that is full of...yep, you got it...surprises! Not least in the catalogue itself, I have to say, which is fast becoming an object with a history all it's own. At the press view prior to tonights bash the first print run of the catalogue had omitted any description or note on Ernesto Neto's piece (work number 31) and thus the first catalogues were accompanied by an erratum slip. This had been rectified by tonights opening with a swift reprint. What I didn't know tonight though, as I watched Wolfgang Tillmans smiling at people along the concourse, was that his entry in the catalogue would cause Maureen Paley enough discomfort that a conversation would ensue in which certain parts of the text relating to him were changed and the catalogue reprinted yet again. With three different versions of the catalogue so far I'm extremely happy to own each one (how geeky, mad, sad is that??) and thrilled even more that not one of these yet contains the details of the Douglas Gordon piece which is still to arrive in the show, thus forcing yet another reprint. Like I said, how geeky, mad, sad is that? Very. I know. I have to live with me everyday.
And attention is indeed on the catalogue for this show as there are no labels anywhere in the gallery to let you know quite whose work you are looking at. About forty big time artists all submitting works which are atypical to the works upon which their reputations comfortably rest. There are obvious clues, of course, in that John Balderssari has signed his piece very clearly on the bottom right hand corner, that Cindy Sherman's piece looks like a Cindy Sherman and that all the press articles prior to the show have picked up on the pig and the penguin papier mache sculptures by Jake and Dinos Chapman submitted as atypical examples of their work, dating back to 1970 when they were 9 years old (or thereabouts). Or is that right? There is a rumour that this is not the case and they have made these things recently and placed them in under false dates. Hmmm.
If they are originally from their childhood, then they have neatly absented themselves from any subtle reinterpretation of their work. If not, then they are playing a much more insidous game. Well, it's the Chapmans. What do you think?
Anyway that's the twist: atypical works. But it's a typically Jens Hoffmann inspired curatorial twist. Deliver a summer blockbuster but without any key works and thereby advance a playful critique of the relationship between art, artists, agents and institutions and the subtle pressures that bear on all of them. It ticks all the boxes and provides an interesting show of peculiar works.
Jens hopes, at least on an intellectual level, that this strategy will encourage/force vistiors to look at the works instead of the labels, will make people more able to engage with a piece than simply reading the name of the artist and mentally ticking off yet another work that has now been seen (Shark? Done.)
It's largely true, I think, though, there's a question of context. If you haul your arse round a load of east end galleries for 6 months (as I have) you get very used to art not having any sort of label, explanatory text, context, provenance or art historical niche. If, however, you are used to going to the Tates and all the other big galleries then Jens has delivered quite a neat little curveball. And I think Jens knows what he's doing. And I think it works.
Clever old Jens. And almost his last show. He's leaving the ICA for the Wattis in San Francisco in November. I think he will have an absolute ball there. And he's leaving the ICA with a tough act to follow. He has created a small golden age here which history will only later reveal the depths of.
And talking of history, I bump into Patrick Brill. Last time I saw him he said he was lining up a gig with the Ken Ardley Playboys, but I never got any more details. Tonight he pulls a brochure out of his bag. Details here, 'music' lovers. Apparently they have even been rehearsing, which must be some kind of first.
I say hello to Mark Westall from fadblog. Hi, Mark. And am delighted to catch up briefly with Bettina Brunner who was working at the ICA in the exhibitions department earlier this year. She's now at Cubitt. 'I'm the manager there,' she says, 'whatever that means.' I think: it means you do all the work.
I stay a little longer than I thought I was going to and eventually head home, wondering what it was about tonight that made me feel there was something missing. Then I realise: it was the art. Having the luxury of working at the ICA and being able to nose round the show 24 hours before everyone else I'd done it all by the private view. Never occured to me to leave the bar or the concourse all night.
Sometimes looking at stuff is really, really difficult.