The ICA is nothing if not a fly-by-night sort of place. I hate to think how many temporary liaisons have been launched in the noisy, squalid, smoky cafe that sits at the heart of this entirely unlikely arts centre crammed into a delicate Georgian terrace on the main approach to Buckingham Palace. The whole place reeks of transience. New plays, new films, new books, new bulls***: the ICA peddles all of them simultaneously.
It’s a kasbah of nocturnal creativity. And in Beck’s Futures, the annual selection of new art that hands out £65,000 in prize money to its dazed array of exhibitors, it has an unusually unreliable event.
Beck’s Futures is a annual paradox. It has all the trappings of a big award show — big prizes, big publicity, big backing — yet the thing itself is tiny, a pint-size array of new art inveigled into the ICA and dropped about the place like litter. This year’s visit even involves a poky lift journey up into the ICA’s attic, where Hayley Tompkins has painted watercolour marks onto the walls of a scruffy back room. So pale and wan are these marks that it would be entirely possible to get in there and miss them. Indeed, most people, unalerted, would definitely miss them. Yet the damn things have something. Something breakable and tiny. You have to be in the mood to feel it. It has to be one of those days. But get them right and they punch way above their weight.
As you may now be suspecting from the furtive build-up you’ve been reading, it was one of those days for me. Nine out of 10 people, on nine out of 10 visits, would be in and out of this exhibition at ping-pong speed without anything laying a finger on them. And on nine out of 10 occasions I would be beating them to the door. So trying to explain why I enjoyed it as much as I did when, in the cold light of day, it isn’t much of a show, is tough. Interestingly, none of these artists actually does the cold light of day. All of them are after elusive, fidgety impacts: casts of the light, moments of frisson.
The film currently playing in the ICA cinema is Osama, the heart-warming tale of a small girl who pretends to be a boy in order to get work in post-Taliban Afghanistan. It’s a classic example of art-house fare, with subtitles, longueurs, the works — the kind of foreign film that seems to stand deliberately against everything that, say, Starsky & Hutch stands for. And just before it starts, after the ads, as part of Beck’s Futures, the screen goes black and a woman ’s voice is heard singing a miserable Irish love ballad, unaccompanied. It catches you unawares. In these utterly exposed circumstances, in full surround sound, every crack in the voice, every salivary gulp, rings out clear as a bell, as suddenly tangible as a stranger’s breath on your face. It was the work of Susan Philipsz, an audio artist whose bare voice seems to be taking on the entire movie industry in a fascinating sound duel: the naked truth v $1m worth of effects.
Throughout the exhibition, it is this order of elusive yet utterly tangible impact that the artists seem to be seeking. There’s a guy upstairs in the bigger ICA galleries, a London-based Brazilian called Tonico Lemos Auad, who makes sculptures out of carpet fluff. That’s right, carpet fluff. He collects it by running a scalpel over the surface of a new carpet, then gets to work with a pair of tweezers, producing utterly convincing animal sculptures out of this carefully gathered deep-pile harvest. There’s a monkey, a rabbit, a snake. Being made out of the same stuff as the carpet they sit on, the animals are sort of there and sort of not there. One puff of stray wind would dispel them. Yet the beasts are fantastically realistic, with little carpet-fluff teeth, ears, paws and a posture that’s just so. Something miraculous has emerged from this quotidian carpet. So fragile and inventive are these puffaway beasties that it seems vulgar to suggest they deserve the £20,000 on offer at Beck’s Futures for best in show.
I also enjoyed the two Cilla Black impersonators who can be heard and seen performing a duet for one in Imogen Stidworthy’s mind-bendingly inventive sound piece, which belts out Anyone Who Had a Heart across the ICA’s upper galleries. It’s a rousing song to hear in any circumstances, but in this case the two girls seem to be performing it as if it were a call-and-response single. You take one verse, I’ll take the other. But something’s not right. You look and look. Listen and listen. Eventually, you work out that, actually, it is the same voice you are hearing twice, and that one of these two is miming. The question is: which one? Having learnt all the words to Anyone Who Had a Heart while deciphering this pleasing audio conundrum, I hummed my way along the ICA corridor, past the amusing posters creatively defaced by Simon Bedwell. He gives us, for instance, Claudia Schiffer in a bikini advertising a product called BRAINS. Ho, ho.
This wouldn’t be the ICA if a certain amount of Establishment-bashing weren’t going on, and Nicoline van Harskamp has dutifully invited in a real-life assortment of security guards to prowl around and confront us, in the flesh, with the entirely spurious power of their uniform. Did I know that the Burlington beadles, who patrol the Burlington Arcade in London, are one of the oldest police forces in Britain, and that the reason they do not allow you to whistle in there is that, in the old days, pimps used to whistle up their girls? No, I didn’t. But having found this out, the urge to rush over to the Burlington Arcade and whistle myself stupid was well-nigh irresistible.
The ICA trusts in video, and in the big, dark room downstairs, Haluk Akakce, whose father was a ballet dancer, gives us a pas de deux performed by digital flowers, while Ergin Cavusoglu continues to mix art with surveillance, creating a mini video Bosporus for us, through which all manner of suspicious ships appear to be sneaking at night. Is this really a secretive and magical show? Or am I imagining it?