Art Review: Michael Craig-Martin, Serpentine Gallery

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Incredibly, this is Michael Craig-Martin’s first exhibition in a London public institution for over 25 years. That’s a hell of a length of a time for a man widely considered one of the most important British artists of his generation. But the opportunity hasn’t been missed as this show is a gem.

This exhibition at Serpentine Gallery brings together about 40 works from 1981 to 2015, focusing on Michael’s era-defining representations of once familiar yet obsolete technology such as laptops, black-and-white televisions and lightbulbs. Technological innovation all around. But technology that has only a brief moment in the sun, for almost as soon as it is made, it becomes irrelevant. Upgraded, overtaken, replaced.

This is an examination of the transience of technology, hence this show being called, Transience.

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It’s the colours that grab you as soon as you enter the galleries – the reds, the oranges, the vibrant pinks, and the citric greens. The huge colourful canvases that cover these walls. They lift you as soon as you enter. And on each canvas, a sharply defined, instantly recognisable item.

There probably isn’t a person in earth who wouldn’t recognise the simple outline of a pack of McDonalds’ fries, or an Apple iPhone. Quite what that says about our society and our legacy, well, that’s what Michael is inviting us to consider for there is a lot going on underneath the surface in these works.

The bright colours demand our attention, even exalt the item depicted. But these pieces are not as simple as they initially seem as there is a sense of the sands of time rushing through your fingers reaching out from every picture.

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The bold black lines define familiar objects. We know these items. They are part of our lives. Watches, adidas trainers, Nokia phones… Iconic. But also sentimental

For many of these are items from our past – the cassettes we used to play and the stereo headphones we used to listen to them with. The old Apple laptops we used to work on, and the and the games consoles we used to play on. Time hurtles on, development so rapid, and those items we once treasured are now obsolete. In the dustbin of history.

So for all the bright, neon colours that grab you, there’s a romantic nostalgia to this show. And this sense is really crystallised in one of my favourite pieces on display, Untitled (Self Portrait No. 6), 2005.

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Here, the pop colours are replaced with subdued brown. And the items in the canvas – spectacles, loafers and an archaic Palm Pilot – reflect a man out of time. Is this how Michael sees himself, as outdated? Is a man’s obsolescence now defined by the gadgets used in his prime? It’s a sobering thought.

And all this means that there is much to think about as well as much to enjoy in an impressive show that is both heart-warming and soul-searching.

Serpentine Gallery, London to February 14, 2016

Admission Free

Image credits:

  1. Michael Craig-Martin; Cassette, 2002; Acrylic on canvas; © Michael-Craig Martin; Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery.
  2. Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones
  3. Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones
  4. Michael Craig-Martin: Transience; Installation view; Serpentine Gallery, 25 November 2015 – 14 February 2016; Photograph © 2015 Jerry Hardman-Jones

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