the art of chess

Bendigo Art Gallery; The University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
30 October 2010 - 30 January 2011; 26 February - 24 April 2011


The liveliest factor that is played out on the chessboard of art…has to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts.’

Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics

After the 1980s advent of post-modernism, the Euro-American art market of the 1990s came to be defined by two keenly different forms or ‘movements’—the YBAs (or Young British Artists) and a disparate group of ‘installation’ artists who were pitched by the then co-director of the Palais de Tokyo, Nicolas Bourriaud as dealing in new, fresh ‘relational practices’. Where the YBAs still kept one foot firmly in the post-modern tradition of referencing mass cultural formsrelational art took more from the conceptual and performative work produced during the 1960s. For Bourriaud, and the artists he admired, to be relational was to allow direct contact with the viewer—to create a connection between the art object and observer thereby doing away with the object’s autonomy and creating the opportunity to connect viewers with each other.

‘The Art of Chess’, a travelling exhibition from RS&A Ltd London, on show at the University of Queensland Art Museum (UAM) is peculiarly indebted to this period of 1990s art. The exhibition is an ongoing project from the Shoreditch-based art production firm and gallery, for which established contemporary artists are commissioned to design a chess set in editions of seven. The works on display at the UAM are predominantly by artists who first emerged as part of the YBA movement, including Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman. It is hard to shake the feeling of a collaborative project between a chessboard manufacturer and what is a group of very commercially focused artists. The majority of these works seem to rely on the intellectual depth merely signified by the distinctive black and white check of the chessboard for their impact. The pervasive feeling is of works neutered by a lack of engagement with the very subject matter that the exhibition is meant to be considering. It does not help that most of these works have far from subtle ‘Do not touch’ signage installed as part of the display, highlighting ironically what is missing from these works.

As is the tendency with commissioned pieces, some are not as successful as others. Damien Hirst’s work Mental escapology (2003) is particularly boring—medical chairs are pulled up to a glass-topped bench with the chequered board of white and black replaced by biohazard symbols. Barbara Kruger also gets involved presenting a 2005 piece Untitled, which features pieces that are actually speakers. An accompanying video demonstrates that when moved on the board (itself an image which looks like the black pit of Janet Leigh’s open mouth from the infamous shower scene in Psycho) each piece utters a different phrase, such as ‘Everybody is a cliché!’ or ‘What did I do to deserve this?’

Of the YBA set, Gavin Turk’s work is the most interesting. Appropriately, Turk looks to the chess-playing automaton ‘The Mechanical Turk’ which travelled the world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries defeating heads of state such as Napoleon Bonaparte. It was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax; a grandmaster chess player hid inside a small box within the machine moving the pieces. Gavin Turk exhibits a video work showing himself dressed up in the guise of the original machine. Turk, the artist, replicates the ‘Knight’s tour’, a highly complicated chess move that sees the Knight move across every square of the board. The move is a clever but pointless act—it has no practical use in the game itself. When seen in a strategy guide, however, the movement lines of the Knight’s tour create a complicated, woven zigzag pattern.

One of the strongest works in ‘The Art of Chess’ is by one of its youngest artists—Oliver Clegg, with his work Wo auch immer ich hingehe, merke ich dass ein Dichter bereits vor mir da war (Everywhere I go, I realise a poet has been there before me) (2008). A replica of Sigmund Freud’s study in exacting detail, Clegg’s installation features a recreation of Freud’s desk chair—a frightening thing whose leather looks like flayed flesh wrapped around an anthropomorphic form. Freud was renowned for his collection of antiquities (which comprised over 2000 pieces) and in this work Clegg has replicated a number of these in precisely cut glass and placed them on a chessboard atop Freud’s working desk. The chessboard is just one element within the immersive installation and is shown with great effect by a single spotlight.

In an appropriate coincidence ‘The Art of Chess’ finished two days short of the closure of the looming, blockbuster exhibition ‘21st Century: Art in the First Decade’ on show down the river at the Gallery of Modern Art. A number of key works in ‘21st Century’ are indebted to the influence of both relational aesthetics and the YBA set, embracing interactivity as well as a polished level of presentation which artists like Damien Hirst value. Like art, chess is a game that requires and rewards intellect, strategy and wit—a point it seems that many of the big name artists featured in ‘The Art of Chess’ failed to grasp.