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Fear and loathing in EC1

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David Batchelor: Electric Colour Tower At Sadler's Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London EC1 until 28 January 2001

Since the new Sadler's Wells opened in 1998, a succession of artists have installed work in its public areas for three or four months at a time. Both in itself, and in relation to the space it occupies, David Batchelor's Electric Colour Tower, the latest of these commissions, is the most successful so far.

The tower, rising up three storeys, is made of industrial shelving on which are stacked some two-dozen metal boxes each containing a fluorescent light masked, in many cases, by a coloured plane of plastic.And colour is the key to the work:

vivid yellows, mauve, magenta, electric oblongs one above the other, some compact, others more expansive, all within the rough-and-ready framework of the shelves.

The hovering rectang les recall Mark Rothko, though a Rothko made for a fairground not his Houston chapel, while the modular industrial components are kin to 1960s Minimalism. At the same time, the tower has an early Modernist flavour: its roots are in 1920s Constructivism, in paper projects where signs, billboards, lights were suspended in the sky and the city was an adventure.

Coinciding with the Sadler's Wells installation, Reaktion Books has launched a new series called 'Focus on Contemporary Issues' - 'these books are combative, take sides and are written with passion', says the blurb - and Batchelor's Chromophobia is the first to appear.His argument is that chromophobia, a fear of colour, has pervaded Western culture since antiquity and persists, inhibitingly, now.

'I was expecting to write a book about art. It just hasn't turned out that way, ' says Batchelor at one point, and later thanks those whose 'suggestions and observations broadened its scope considerably'.But in broadening it they have undermined it.Batchelor's text occupies less than 100 double-spaced, small-format pages - not much room for a credible indictment ofWestern civilisation.

Polemics only work when their focus is tight, when they can be argued closely enough for readers to ignore any omissions or sleight of hand.

Attempting to span disciplines, continents and centuries, Batchelor's argument has glaring gaps.

Aristotle's Poetics, Le Corbusier, The Wizard of Oz, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, Moby Dick - the references here are as disparate as in a book by Robert Harbison (Thirteen Ways, for example); but whereas Harbison is completely at ease with his material, making chains of association that are personal but persuasive, Batchelor bites off more than he can chew - and then adds Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida to his diet.

'Painting has still a continent left to explore, in the direction of colour . . . One reels at the colour possibilities now.' That's not Batchelor but the artist and critic Patrick Heron, back in 1963-one of many who have shared Batchelor's preoccupations, but are not mentioned here.

Nor - to stay within the confines of a single discipline in just the last century or so - are Van Gogh, Matisse, Barnett Newman; all with plenty to say. Batchelor's love of synthetic hues, gleamingly redolent of commerce and industry- a 1960s palette - leads to a drastic simplification of the time-honoured 'colour versus drawing' debate, as if colour was never a challenge coming from a tube not a can.

At least Le Corbusier isn't caricatured as the apostle of whiteness; Batchelor acknowledges that his buildings are coloured. But what he finds in Le Corbusier is 'the rhetorical subordination of colour to the rule of line and the higher concerns of the mind. No longer intoxicating, narcotic or orgasmic, colour is learned, ordered, subordinated and tamed. Broken.' The rhetorical skills here aren't confined to Le Corbusier.

Irritatingly, Chromophobia does not have an index, although there is a good bibliography-useful for anyone seeking the substance that Batchelor's book lacks. But his tower at Sadler's Wells is terrific.

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