That’s another half-decade gone. I sometimes feel I could measure out my professional life in British Art Show catalogues.
There are five of them on my bookshelves, each one testament to a particular artistic and curatorial moment, each as different in rationale and format as the art they document.
The earliest in my possession dates from 1984, when identity politics, land art and large-scale figuration were centre stage, with lens-based media an upstart presence in the wings.
Whereas the 1984 exhibition encompassed 82 artists and artists’ groups, in a genuine attempt to survey the British art scene, British Art Show 7 (BAS7) adopts a more selective approach, on the basis that survey exhibitions claim an objectivity and comprehensiveness that can never truly be achieved.
Duncan Campbell, Bernadette (Film Still), 2008
The selectors, Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, adroitly park the definitions of British and Britishness which have exercised many of their predecessors by opening up the exhibition to any artist working in Britain or any British artist working abroad.
Thus Christian Marclay, an American working between London and New York, finds a place in BAS7, as do many other artists living between the UK and other countries.
The London and Glasgow art scenes feature prominently; Wales, Northern Ireland and most other English regions not at all.
Christian Marclay,The Clock, 2010
'As for the notion of ‘Britishness’, it is approached indirectly through the work itself rather than explained by means of a didactic curatorial framework.'
As for the notion of ‘Britishness’, it is approached indirectly through the work itself rather than explained by means of a didactic curatorial framework. In his catalogue essay Tom Morton encourages us to imagine Britain as a ‘geographically and psychologically unfamiliar place’, to re-discover our sense of history and place through the work we encounter in the exhibition.
The exhibition title ‘In the Days of the Comet’ is borrowed from an H.G.Wells novel published in 1906 and poetically encapsulates the idea of a recurrent event that briefly illuminates the present and presages change - a fitting symbol, therefore, for the periodic nature of the British Art Show and the unpredictable trajectory of artists’ practice.
With a few exceptions, for example veteran Scottish artist and writer Alasdair Gray, the exhibition concentrates on artists who have risen to prominence in the last ten years.
'Participatory practice and relational aesthetics are notably absent. Instead the curators [have selected] work that often reveals an intensive engagement with materials and refuses to offer meaning on straightforward terms.'
Mick Peter Moldenke Fiddles On, 2008
Common to all is an awareness of history and time passing, sometimes boldly stated as a central theme and sometimes present as a more elusive sub-text.
Participatory practice and relational aesthetics are notably absent. Instead the curators find strength in drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, film, video, performance and (to a lesser extent) photography, selecting work that often reveals an intensive engagement with materials and refuses to offer meaning on straightforward terms.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the absurdist world evoked by Mick Peter’s drawings and sculptures, in which things are never quite what they seem, objects humorously morph into something else and materials conspiratorially conceal their true identity.
His diverse source material, ranging from Flaubert and Gogol to comics and science fiction, results in a wildly anarchic repertoire of ideas and images which gently assert the instability of meaning and the value of ambiguity.
Sarah Lucas, NUD (10), 2009
At Nottingham Castle Museum, Peter’s work sits companionably alongside Sarah Lucas’s contorted, cushion-like sculptures, which appear uncomfortably at odds with the confining protocol of their presentation on breeze-block plinths: just one more convulsion, it seems, and they might suddenly wriggle free.
Tom Morton is surely correct to trace the ancestry of these amorphous, faintly humanoid forms back to early British modernist sculpture (Moore, Hepworth et al) and perhaps still further back in time to fertility symbols in the ancient world.
The deliberate vulgarity of Lucas’s earlier work remains, but overlaid with an historical consciousness that comes as a surprise.
Among the many painters in BAS7, Milena Dragicevic distorts the image of family and friends to create portraits that frustrate attempts at discovering a physical likeness or psychological insight.
The identity of her ‘Supplicants’ is masked by the superimposition of shapes and structures designed to destabilise the normal relationship between viewer and object and curtail the communicative appeal of her sitters.
They have a mute and unsettling presence, which seems to hint at the experience of displacement and dispossession.
Phoebe Unwin, Bicycle at Night, 2009
'In a more abstract vein, Phoebe Unwin and Varda Caivano create a painterly trail of false starts and new beginnings, as if to affirm the pleasures and validity of process as an end in itself.'
In a more abstract vein, Phoebe Unwin and Varda Caivano create a painterly trail of false starts and new beginnings, as if to affirm the pleasures and validity of process as an end in itself.
In different ways both are concerned with and make apparent the tensions inherent in the act of painting, the perversity of attempting to capture the fleeting impression, memory or sensation in a medium so insistently material and slow to achieve its effect.
Samuel Beckett, says Lisa Le Feuvre, is Caivano’s touchstone: ‘Persisting with an activity in spite of its inherent destiny to fail… is a task suffused with optimism.’
Varda Caivano, Untitled, 2009
Even photography takes on painterly qualities in BAS7. Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Freischwimmer 155’ (2010), a shimmering field of green, is about the sensation of the moment and the alchemical interaction that lies at the heart of the photographic process.
Such experiments with pure colour may at first appear inconsistent with the more political sensibility revealed in his ‘Truth Study Centre’ (2010), a meticulously presented archive of printed matter and images assembled in the course of 2010.
Both, however, are an invitation to invest time in the act of looking, and to reflect on the ways in which photographic imagery not only records but also constructs our understanding of the world.
'Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Freischwimmer 155’ (2010), a shimmering field of green [is] an invitation to invest time in the act of looking, and to reflect on the ways in which photographic imagery not only records but also constructs our understanding of the world.'
Wolfgang Tillmans, Freischwimmer 155, 2010
In perhaps the most overtly political work in BAS7, Duncan Campbell creates filmic collages of Northern Ireland’s troubled past, recovering footage of such historical figures as Republican MP Bernadette Devlin and the luxury car entrepreneur John DeLorean to show how history is mediated by the photographic lens and competing subjectivities.
History, in Campbell’s hands, offers a problematic multiplicity of interpretive possibilities, none of them entirely credible or satisfactory on their own.
Sampling and splicing are much in evidence in BAS7, as artists delve into the past in order to construct a compelling new reality.
Haroon Mirza, Regaining a degree of Control, 2010
Haroon Mirza's installations fuse sonic and visual elements to create what he describes as ‘one sensorial mode of perception’.
Vintage furniture and sound-emitting devices, positioned with all the deliberation of a formal still-life, bring the auditory and visual, past and present, into a state of perfectly calibrated co-existence.
The most spectacular sampling feat of all is Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (2010) at the New Art Exchange, a seamless sequence of readymade film clips featuring clocks, watches or characters reacting in some way to the time of day – all miraculously synchronised with local time.
We are drawn into the narrative situations we see on screen, while simultaneously registering the relentless ticking of the clock in real, non-cinematic time. It is a conceptual and technical tour de force.
'The most spectacular sampling feat of all is Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (2010)...It is a conceptual and technical tour de force.'
Christian Marclay,The Clock, 2010
Considering the atmosphere of crisis that dominates our daily news bulletins, it is perhaps surprising that BAS7 offers so little in the way of commentary or reaction to contemporary social and political events, in contrast to the exhibition which inaugurated my relationship with the British Art Show in the highly political climate of the 1980s.
But if existential enquiry has replaced polemic in this incarnation of the British Art Show, then it undoubtedly makes for better art.
Like the comet of the title, this exhibition charts an adventurous course across its three Nottingham venues, never predictable yet always purposeful in its curatorial approach.
BAS7 does what all good exhibitions should do: namely take you by surprise at every turn and leave you wanting to see more.
And perhaps BAS7 is more political than it at first appears. It could be said, after all, that wit, scepticism and a refusal to be pinned down are exactly what our current uncertain times require.
The British Art Show 7 is showing at Nottingham Contemporary until 9 January 2011 and then tours to London, Glasgow and Plymouth. Find out more at www.britishartshow.co.uk
Watch an interview with the Director of Nottingham Contemporary and British Art Show 6 curator, Alex Farquharson in The Director's Cut: www.axisweb.org/webzine/thedirectorscut
Lisa Le Feuvre features on the Director's Cut in March 2011, and will discuss her work as Head of Sculpture Studies at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds.
Haroon Mirza on Axis
Mick Peter on Axis
Tom Morton, Open Frequency selector from August 2010
Lisa Le Feuvre, contributor to Axis webzine
Sarah Lucas's work reviewed by Helen Kaplinsky at Frieze Art Fair 2010