A new exhibition at Tate Modern dares to imagine a better, more democratic world – and perhaps a better way of engaging with art. Tom Morton sets the scene

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  • Gabriel Orozco Ping Pond Table (detail) 1998

    Gabriel Orozco
    Ping Pond Table (detail) 1998

    Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery
    © the artist.

  • Carsten Höller Frisbeehouse 2000

    Carsten Höller
    Frisbeehouse
    2000

    Courtsey Schipper & Krome, Berlin,
    © the artist

  • Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla preparatory drawing for Land Mark (2003)

    Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
    preparatory drawing for Land Mark (2003)

    © the artist

  • Thomas Hirschhorn Doppelgarage 2002 installation, mixed media

    Thomas Hirschhorn
    Doppelgarage 2002
    installation, mixed media

    Courtesy Barbara Gladstone

    © the artist

  • Gabriel Orozco Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe 1995

    Gabriel Orozco
    Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe
    1995

    Tate. Presented anonymously 1999

    © Gabriel Orozco 2003

Little things, little connections, can sometimes mean a lot. In his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), Dave Eggers describes playing Frisbee on the beach with his kid brother Toph, a recent, horror-struck orphan: ‘Oh, we are good. He’s only eight but together we are spectacular [.] when we throw the world stops and gasps. We throw so far, and with such accuracy, and with such ridiculous beauty. We are perfection, harmony.’ The passage is very personal, but also – I think – very political. It points to how cooperation breeds hope, breeds aesthetic pleasure, how (like an arcing, sun-struck discus) it re-inscribes public space, making it truly public, not merely somewhere to erect a billboard, or to extend a brand. Frisbee, for Eggers, isn’t a dumb game; it’s a glimpse of a better world.

Such ideas thread through Common Wealth, an exhibition at Tate Modern of new and recent work by Gabriel Orozco, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carsten Höller and Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla. At first glance, the show’s title appears oddly inappropriate: none of the participating artists, after all, hail from the former British colonies. Break it down however, and it begins to make sense. ‘Common’ suggests shared topographies, trade, legislation, languages and goals (common land, market, law, tongue and good), as well as the vernacular (common culture) and the everyday (common occurrence or sight). ‘Wealth’, on the other hand, hints at a sort of shop-bought exclusivity, but also at superabundance: a wealth of knowledge, of talent, or of ideas. Despite their apparent tensions these words, when combined, aspire to what the show’s curator Jessica Morgan calls ‘an idealised reciprocity, a binding source of collective strength’. This notion of ‘Common Wealth’, she explains, is a response to our increasingly global, increasingly post-material (art) world: ‘Broadly speaking the exhibition seeks to ask how wealth is manifested in art beyond the simple fact of the artwork’s status as commodity, and what type of exchange must take place for another type of currency to emerge.’

What Morgan is suggesting is a change in the way we engage with art. The works in ‘Common Wealth’ don’t demand an audience of wall-watchers, window-shopping for pret-a-porter conceptualism or a pretty passage of paint. Rather, they ask us to give of ourselves. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s Speech Aimer 2003 is a case in point. The piece comprises seven masks bearing the features of long extinct animals and fitted with amplifiers that, when triggered, ‘guide’ the wearer’s voice with a laser beam, as though their words were bullets from a sniper’s gun. Visitors are invited to try the masks on, creating a sort of collective Godzilla by way of Gilles Deleuze – a multi-voiced puppet whose every movement is negotiated between its operators.

HIRSCHHORN HAS CREATED A SORT OF CULTURAL LABORATORY-CUM-HOTEL LOBBY, A UTOPIAN SPACE WHICH EMBODIES THE ARTIST’S BELIEF THAT HUMANITY’S PARADISE IS TO BE FOUNDINSIDE ART, PHILOSOPHY AND POETRY

It’s a very democratic work, and that’s precisely Allora and Calzadilla’s point. With its seven heads, Speech Aimer resembles the Hydra, a mythic beast whose association with ‘the mass’ made it (in Enlightenment iconography at least) the sworn foe of the Leviathan, the figure famously used by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 to embody the absolutist nation state. In terms of contemporary politics, the piece critiques latter-day absolutism (think George W. Bush’s Patriot Act), but I suspect it also has another purpose. In an interview in the catalogue, Calzadilla says: ‘The Hydra should move its way from inside the museum, to outside the museum, to the city of London.’

Is this a not-so-tacit accusation that many contemporary art museums (with their soft left platitudes, their corporate fundraising, their tie-in panties in the gift shop) neuter, by their very nature, the political works they display? Is it a test of Tate’s willingness to abandon its role as steward, as a prophylactic barrier between the public and the work of art? It is hard to say for sure: as I write, no final decision has been made on the masks’ right to roam. As with many pieces in Common Wealth, Speech Aimer will only pay out when the artist’s collaborators, the audience, show their hand.

Thomas Hirschhorn brings two works to the poker party. One is Hotel Democracy 2003, which he describes as ‘a sculpture of an uncertain building embodying different concepts, realisations, misunderstandings, perversions, hopes, dreams and disasters of democracy’. Peering into this huge, two-storey, 44-room structure, we see creepy kid-size furniture and political posters – American, Chinese, Iranian, Swiss – each of them representing the souring of a sweet, precious principle. U-Lounge 2003 is very different: a sort of cultural laboratory-cum-hotel lobby built into the gallery’s structure that makes use, in a hopeful gesture, of its river views. The visitor is provided with books, videos and copies of works by the Vorticists and Marcel Duchamp. As the ‘U’ suggests, this is a utopian space - somewhere to sit, read, talk and think – embodying the artist’s belief that humanity’s paradise ‘is inside art, philosophy and poetry’. Reflecting on the show’s title, Hirschhorn has said: ‘Democracy is the “common”, utopia is the real “wealth”.’ With U Lounge, he plays the part of the rich man bearing alms.

Both Gabriel Orozco and Carsten Höller contribute works based on games. In Orozco’s Ping Pond Table 1999, the players have to decide how to negotiate four tables divided by a pond, while his Oval with Pendulum 1996 is an ovoid, pocketless billiard table, with a red ball hanging above the baize. When struck with a cue this ball describes figures of eight, hitting two white balls whose ‘kinetic configurations’, Morgan writes, ‘eloquently suggest everything from social relations and movements, to the circulation of commodities and material flux’. Such abstract notions are given form in Höller’s wonderful contribution, in which the visitor is urged to throw objects through portals in a large tent, to be caught and (perhaps) returned by some unseen person beyond the canvas. What are these objects? Frisbees of course – I can think of no better symbol of connectivity, of relational aesthetics, than that.

This article was originally published in Tate Magazine issue 8.