The good news about the British Art Show is that it is a genuinely useful event, and we should all be glad it happens. Once every five years, this travelling survey of new British art attempts to identify significant national developments, and then winds its way across Britain displaying them. It’s a twice-a-decade progress report, a peripatetic national sum-up. A handy creation, therefore, with a clear raison d’être. Where it all goes wrong — pretty much every time — is in the execution. If the British Art Show did what it was supposed to do, if it really did clamp its fingers around the national pulse and set itself the task of identifying rather than proselytising, it would be one of the most important art events in the calendar. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it entrusts the overview to embedded middlemen and sees what they come up with.
This year’s effort is particularly partial. Someone called Lise Le Feuvre, from the Henry Moore Institute, and someone else called Tom Morton, from the Hayward Gallery, which organises the event, have selected their favourites and passed them off as exemplars. A pair of Morris Minors is leading the British Grand Prix.
Admittedly, we do not seem to be living through a scintillating era in British art. Any half-concerned art-watcher will already be aware that nothing clear-cut appears to be happening out there. British art has sunk into one of those leisurely troughs between the waves when the middlemen — the curators — take over while art itself treads water and awaits an emergence.
The show travels to Glasgow and Plymouth this year, as well as to London. Unfortunately, it has opened first in Nottingham. Poor torn-up Nottingham, with its smell of saturated fats and the ubiquitous roar of passing cars circling its city centre like Apaches in a cowboy movie.
The sheriff’s town is so fully representative of Britain today that a few preparatory sobs are probably in order before you enter Nottingham Castle and make your way down some of the messiest museum corridors in Britain — past ye medieval knick-knack shoppe selling ye plastic swords; past the fully authentic Robin Hood event planned for the weekend — searching for the British Art Show buried in there somewhere.
I note all this because the state of modern Britain is one of the show’s half-themes. Various artists tackle it with varying degrees of precision.
The first we see, Edgar Schmitz, has produced a set of “interventions” by the staircase of Nottingham Castle that set out to make it look as if the show is still being installed. Thus, rolls of masking tape have been left by the side of the stairwell by sloppy workmen. Or have they? The decorators, meanwhile, appear to have forgotten their paint tins.
Or have they? Schmitz’s interventions are perhaps intended as a comment on the permanent state of flux that characterises roadworks Britain: will anyone ever finish anything again? For the cheeky interventions to work, however, the location needs to have an existing identity tangible enough to subvert. The castle, alas, does not. A weird combination of Robin Hood museum, natural history collection, historic edifice and contemporary art gallery, a half-finished mess is exactly what you expect to find here.
Deeper into the show, Keith Wilson gives us a metal display system, in the shape of a ziggurat, filled with a notably dull selection of everyday modern objects: a lamp, a chair, a shoe. The point is, I suppose, to set up a comparison in the viewer’s imagination between our ziggurat and the one the Aztecs made earlier. Which society has the better artefacts?
In all, 39 exhibitors have been press-ganged into the event. They work in many manners and feature the usual modern mix of sculptors, installation-builders, film-makers, performers and players of tedious mind-games, with the odd painter thrown in for ballast. Their ages also vary crazily, with a few tyros popping their noses above the parapet for the first time and other exhibitors clocking up their second or even third show. I admire Sarah Lucas’s work as much as the next man, and the blobby stuffed stockings she shows here, instantly evocative of the inside of the human body and its outside — at the same time! — are creepy and compelling, but these Nuds, as she calls them, are products of the earthy, Hogarthian aesthetics of the Brit Art generation, rather than the ethereal whisperings of today.
So it’s an incoherent mix, made to feel less purposeful still by being distributed across three Nottingham venues. All of them contain glum pops at the modern world, accusing it of insubstantiality, banality and cultural barbarity. The accusing is loudest in the Nottingham Contemporary, where the old-timer Wolfgang Tillmans, who showed in British Art Show 5 a decade ago (and who, therefore, should surely not be here again), gives us a set of work tables covered with magazine adverts and articles dealing with a loaded selection of contemporary topics: the diet epidemic; the shape of women; cosmetic surgery; Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Tillmans presents his cuttings without comment, as they are, like the evidence in a trial at the Hague. I found his calculated aloofness irritating.
If you’re trying to say something deep, man, say it. Stop nudging, winking and hiding behind implications.
Not saying things is the clearest art strategy being employed here. A generation that lives in fear of the statement is bombarding us with clues and implications, retreats and avoidances. Charles Avery, who seems to have been in every show like this in recent years, continues to imagine an Indiana Jones-style kingdom terrorised by a one-armed snake. His most spectacular contribution is a giant glass box in which an embracing man and woman act out a tender love scene that is Adam and Eveish in the accepted modern manner: which is to say, vaguely Adam and Eveish. The day will come when the deconstructivist forces currently propelling new British art into endless avoidance will be overthrown by a revolt of proper humans, thinking proper human things. Although it might take until British Art Show 9.
The final national tendency noted here is a continuing appetite for film and video. Surprisingly, the film pieces turn out to be the highlights of the show. Elizabeth Price gives us a pounding sequel to Malraux’s Museum Without Walls — Museum Without Walls: The Disco Years? — in which an imaginary museum is presented to us in the fetishistic black-and-white style of a Castrol GTX ad, backed by the sound of A-ha (I think) advising us to Take on Me.
The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour-long film about time in the movies, is nothing less than a masterpiece. Trawling though every film made in recent years — or so it seems — from romcoms to hospital flicks, from bank capers to spook stories, in colour and black-and-white, Marclay has identified those moments in which time plays a crucial part and has woven them into a day-long cinematic experience that actually functions as a working clock. If you go to see it at 1.07, the action in the film will be set at 1.07. If you go at 23.31, the action will be set at 23.31. The piece strikes me less as a comment on time itself, and more as a rumination on our entirely artificial relationship to it. Real time is being measured in fake situations: instead of popping cuckoos, we get Clint Eastwood preparing to draw; Cameron Diaz switching off her alarm clock; Robert Redford hitting a home run.
So, to ask a typical British Art Show 7-style question: if time wasn’t in the movies, would it matter if it existed?