My useless dream is that Tate Britain will one day face up to its responsibility to celebrate and track British art, and stop trying to wriggle out of the task. The show doesn’t have much of a pedigree, but previous incarnations at least managed to provide some sort of round-up of new British art. Nothing definitive, mind you, but a well-intentioned display of fresh-ish work by young-ish artists that allowed you to keep up, however raggedly, with national aesthetics. This time, I’m afraid, that isn’t true.
The first, and chief, problem is the show’s selector: Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle in Zurich. That she’s from Switzerland needn’t have been a problem, had she sought properly to follow our insular trends. But she hasn’t. Instead, she’s chosen to promote her own views of what those trends should be; given her show a theme that takes it here, there and everywhere; trawled the international circuit for vague exemplars of this vague theme; remembered some old faces from the British art past; and ended up with something almost spectacularly unrepresentative of British art today. Rarely can a British survey have felt so unfamiliar.
What Ruf’s effort absolutely lacks is a sense of national flavour. Indeed, it lacks cohesion of any sort. Thirty-six artists have been scattered about the building, so you never know where you’ll find them. I went into a room because I heard someone singing beautifully, and discovered a happening arranged for us by Tino Sehgal, whom I last encountered at the Venice Biennale, where I swear he was representing Germany. The fact that Sehgal lives and works in Berlin is not in itself a drawback. The drawback is that the language he speaks is the language of the biennale circuit, the Esperanto of travelling curators and their air miles, and that is not a useful language with which to describe Brit- ish art today in any sort of resonant detail.
Ruf’s rough theme is appropriation. It’s been contemporary art’s leading theme for at least a decade and a half, and continues to hold sway because it is so easy to attach to things. Put bluntly, it’s a celebration of stealing stuff from others. If not stealing it, then borrowing it. If not borrowing it, then hitching a lift on it. However you understand the term, appropriation means beginning your journey in someone else’s starting blocks. And I’m old-fashioned enough to yearn for purer forms of creativity.
A perfect example is the work of Cosey Fanni Tutti. You must remember her. In 1976, she caused one of the noisiest rumpuses in art when an exhibition she was involved in at the ICA, called Prostitution, featured a display of her used tampons. There were also syringes and a steamy selection of material from the porn magazines for which Cosey had modelled in a parallel career as a sex worker, as she set about appropriating the frisson of the top shelf. Some of these porn mags have gone on show again at this triennial, as the event seeks cosily to appropriate Cosey’s notorious past while pretending to be dealing with the present. I admit that exhibitions don’t get more radical, or unsettling, than Prostitution. But why go over it all again, 30 years later, in a show billed as an examination of new British art? When you play the appropriation game, the first thing you lose is your compass.
Actually, the way the exhibition has been scattered around, so that it craftily appropriates the existing gallery spaces, leads to the odd excitement. Enrico David, an Italian artist who has made Britain his home, has colonised the exhibition shop so successfully, it’s almost impossible to tell where the merchandise ends and his work begins. Scott Myles treads even more sneakily down the appropriation path by exhibiting the work of another artist, Rirkit Tirvanija, who blocked up a doorway in Berlin with large stones in 2001, in a convoluted piece of appropriation that Myles, in turn, appropriates. Myles’s piece consists of re-creating Tirvanija’ s blocked-up doorway (it looks rather splendid in the Duveen Galleries) and adding his own commentaries to it, in which he remembers what it was originally like coming across Tirvanija’s unoriginal original. Yes, a man could go nuts keeping up with all this.
Inevitably, given how much mental quicksand there is to sink into here, the artists who stand out are the ones who give you something solid to grasp. Rebecca Warren cannot help but be tangible, because she works with great big blobs of unfired clay, which she pummels into bulging woman-shaped Michelin men that stride comically about the show’s central galleries. That she is taking the mickey out of the incorrigibly macho Rodin is a mere appropriation bonus.
A group of painters, hailing chiefly from Scotland, for some reason — Michael Fullerton, Lucy McKenzie, Christopher Orr — offer old-masterish reworkings of trashy images stolen from unpromising corners of the media. Appropriation or alchemy? And who the hell is Nicole Wermers, the elegant sculptor who manages to make such tasty and clever sculptural points with pieces that copy the unpromising outlines of ashtrays and department-store security equipment? I see she was born in Germany in 1971. That explains her precision styling, but not her delicious way with Carnaby Street colours.
I liked, too, Douglas Gordon’s corner sculpture made from a human skull surrounded by mirrors, which he calls Proposition for a Posthumous Portrait. When you look at it, you see yourself reflected in the mirrors, as well as everyone else in the room. Of course, mirrors and skulls have a long history of commenting on the transience of life, but whether or not Gordon intended deliberately to appropriate some of this clichéd past, he smuggles a note of thoughtful sadness into the show, for which we should be grateful. Sadness is an emotion. And there’s not nearly enough of those in here.