Stendhal’s Syndrome

“Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call nerves. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.” Stendhal.

Yesterday, I tried to give myself Stendhal Syndrome, which is the dizziness, nausea and double vision associated with seeing too much art. Was it possible for a jaded inhabitant of the society of the spectacle to disorientate himself aesthetically? And if it was possible, how on earth was I going to be able to cycle home?

I began with Glenn Brown in the Serpentine, pausing briefly to shake my head at the shallow, dull and farcical Princess Diana Memorial water feature (insert own joke about her being shallow etc.). Since Brown was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2000, his stock has risen considerably. Those easily recognisable smooth, shiny paintings that look like they are covered in thick oils are non-traditional but aesthetically pleasing, they are paintings but they’re still “cool”. His grandiose renderings of sci-fi book covers even come accompanied with titles derived from Smiths lyrics. Why then is it all so dull?

If Stendhal were around today, he’d have been so inured to portentous imagery via cinema and advertising that Glenn Brown’s work would surely look toothless. If I showed Marie-Henri the things people have done with images using simple computer programs, he’d surely be disappointed with Brown’s programmatic one-trick. Disappointing.

A short-but-petrifying cycle along Oxford St. led me to the Haunch of Venison for Thomas Joshua Cooper’s “point of no return”, a show that takes in the very ends of the earth. After researching each site, he travels to the most Southerly, Westerly etc. points on each continent. In this, the first of the series, Europe and Africa were explored: the serene and freezing mists of Norway contrasted with the choppy waters of the Cape of Good Hope. Using a 19th Century camera, the melancholy beauty of the pieces is undeniable. This is really it, you think, the limit to humanity’s rapacity: a few bare and craggy rocks and inhospitable seas. Very moving.

Swaying slightly, my reactions slower, nearly hitting a foolish pedestrian, I biked to the RIBA for Tacita Dean, whose last big solo exhibition at Tate Britain in 2001 (after also being nominated for the Turner in 98), was a master class in how to combine multimedia works effectively. Astonishing hands-on machines playing thousands of sounds were correlated to basic chalk drawings, a plan of how to film the Tempest. Her film of heifers whining at the eclipse was slow, meditative and weirdly profound. So it was with great expectation that I saw Boots, 3 twenty minute films (one in French, one in German, one in English) following an old man around a Portuguese villa, his heavy medical boot clomping echoically on the parquet floors and mumbling like Rowley Birkin from the Fast Show.

It is a contemplative piece on the nature of time and space, with this frail old man – full of stories from the thirties, the last surviving member of a dead generation – so poignant. Rather than overwhelming you, Dean’s work is all about taking you out of the hum and prattle of the modern world. Her films may have the sound of cars in the background, but never in an intrusive way, always ambient. Far from giving one Stendhal’s syndrome it cures you of it. The sister show at Frith St. Gallery, is shoddy by comparison, poor production values and a horrible space quickly bring you back up to the modern world, but at RIBA her work is absolutely essential. Particularly in a world where Stendhal’s syndrome is something we endure in our daily lives, not the one-off exception.