The week before last I went to the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition at the Tate and a Whisky Squad tasting of Indian and Taiwanese whiskies. Simple question: which one of those events fully engaged both my senses and my intellect (or what passes for it) so that I could make aesthetic judgements based on direct sensory evidence combined with memories and associations? And which event left me flat and disappointed? As this is a whisky blog the answer is obvious – the whisky was more engaging than the art.
I am perhaps being a little unfair to the exhibition because when I went saw it I was tired and my mood was not the best. This matters because appreciating any work of art, whether it be a painting, a play, a book, a sculpture, whatever, requires active engagement. You are not just a passive spectator, you have to make an effort to connect and respond to what is in front of you. Anything else is mere time filling. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, when walking round the rooms I felt like an outsider struggling to crack the code and wondered why these works were highly regarded. I could neither find a set of ideas to play with nor a sense of form to appreciate and could only make some sort of sense by falling back on the thread of art history – you know the sort of thing: Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech. (Even if the thread is more like Irad rejected Mehujael. For Rauschenberg this is certainly the case because he found himself by rejecting all he had been taught). But this academic approach should be the sauce, in the gallery it is not the main meal. It is there to help you make sense of what you see and enhance understanding and not be a replacement for direct experience.
Whisky on the other hand is mostly direct the experience. Not totally unmediated or naive experience as appreciation is enhanced by knowing the sort of flavours one can expect and how to look for them certainly helps. But the information is fairly straightforward even if the flavours in the mouth and on the nose can be complicated. That is the best way round. The sort of art I have a problem with is the kind where it is reversed and the explanation (or theory) is complicated whilst the work is straightforward.
But back to the gallery and all was not bleak – there were things I responded to, e.g. the screen print phase from the 60s (the works that made him famous). The image the Tate chose for its poster is just grand. It takes the images of JFK and the space programme and reminds us of the optimism of the 60s, the sense of progress and the hopes of Camelot – that court in the White House that contained the brightest and the best. But at the same time it is dirtied up, messed with, as if the world was not quite as shiny as all that. It is clearly a work of its time that comments on that time and as such I found it evocative. On seeing it (and the other works in its room) I thought about the 60s in general and then started to look at everything as an example of the era in which it was produced. This gave me a way in. Rauschenberg worked a lot with found objects and found images and such objects and images are time specific. A big retrospective gives you a chance to notice this. There was one early work that accidentally crystallised this idea of time for me. When he was at Black Mountain College, in 1948, Rauschenberg got John Cage to drive a car, with an inked tyre across many sheets of typing paper, producing a very long, thin print (which apart from anything else was a testament to Cage’s ability to keep the car straight). My first thought was about how narrow car tyres were in those days compared to today but above the print there was a photo of John Cage in the car, looking young and handsome. It was a shock to realise this was who it was because whenever I picture him it is always as his older self with a big grey beard – not someone looking like James Dean. It is fascinating how we pin some people at a particular stage in their lives, whilst knowing everybody ages and changes and everybody was once young.
So I did get something from the exhibition – I just didn’t like the work very much. But thinking about time also linked me to the whisky – where it is a central concept. What is in your glass is defined by the years it has taken to mature and the changes that have happened during the process. That is certainly the case in Scotland, where most distilleries have a range of malts showing their character at different ages. In India and Taiwan, though, different rules apply. Amrut is distilled in Bangalore, which has a tropical savanna climate. Although the heat is moderated by being 3,000 ft above sea level, temperatures have been known to reach 39℃ (well that is the record a more common summer max is 36) whereas the low only goes down to 15℃ on average. Rain and humidity are variable throughout the year but there are two monsoon seasons when it is very humid. Kavalan comes from Yilan City in Taiwan, which has a humid sub-tropical climate (i.e. temperature ranges from 16 – 29℃ and it is always wet but October is insane with 418mm of rain). Heat and humidity means that the alcohol evaporates at a much higher rate than in Scotland but also the whisky mature much more quickly so that it is at its peak in 4-7 years. Time is not the same issue it is in Scotland. The range from both distilleries is all about different finishes, casks and innovation, not the age statement.
We have now wandered off into the area of constraints. At the Whisky Squad meeting we tasted the produce of two distilleries operating in climates that would seem to be hostile – i.e. very different to Scotland. Yet both managed to excel. I think knowing about constraints is important. It deepens your understanding if you know about things that have had to be overcome or worked around. I get very tired of the continuous PR speak of: ‘blessed by an abundance of the purest, softest water, golden barley and a perfect climate our traditional craftsmen create the most exquisite …’ yada yada, you know what I mean. I art you don’t get that but you are often presented with a figure of almost mythical freedom who can go wherever his mind will take him. But the fact is that everyone and everything is constrained in some way or another and often the more interesting story is how those difficulties are tackled.
So thoughts from the Whisky Squad fed into my thoughts about the exhibition and vice verse.
To further make this point I will finish with a saying Rauschenberg used to describe his work: he operated, he said, in the gap between art and life. Now just think about that the next time you hold a good whisky in your mouth. I am not going to try to sell you a nonsense idea that whisky is art (it is not; it is a mixture of craft and industry) but when it is in your mouth something different is going on: a sensory exploration and analysis that is somewhere between art and life. And that is why I like it. (Though from the origin of its name you know it is mostly life).
P.S. I have also talked a bit about art and whisky here