in Features | 15 JAN 06
Featured in
Issue 96

British Art (does It) Show?

Curated by Alex Farquharson and Andrea Schlieker, the British Art Show 6 opened at Baltic, Gateshead in September and will be touring to Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol. What does it reflect about the relationship between culture and geography in the UK?

in Features | 15 JAN 06

Neil Mulholland

Director of the Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art.

The first British Art Show (BAS) opened its doors on December 1979 at the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield. A frumpy fair selected by the Financial Times’ art critic, William Packer, the show took much flak owing to its predilection for established white male artists. In 1995 BAS 4 (the show happens every five years) was rebuked as a regional advertising campaign for the Saatchi Collection. BAS 6, organized by Hayward Gallery Touring and curated by Alex Farquharson and Andrea Schlieker, opened at Baltic, Gateshead, in September and will be touring to Manchester, Nottingham and Bristol. It is undoubtedly more inclusive than previous shows, embracing artists from around the UK and artists who are recent arrivals to the country, and, for the first time, 50 per cent of the artists are women. Its focus on perceptions of fiction, relational aesthetics and migrant geopolitics are concerns shared by communities of artists internationally. Given this, what’s so ‘British’ about the British Art Show?

The BAS began in the late 1970s, a period when late Modernist internationalism was perceived to be on its deathbed. An attempt to celebrate the resurgence of a ‘British’ art that had allegedly been repressed by the Modern Movement, the BAS was part of a reactionary Postmodernism that included Margaret Thatcher’s sabre-rattling, Merchant–Ivory costume dramas, Peter Fuller’s young-fogey Marxism and working-class girls with Princess Di haircuts. Such dusty ‘British’ values were, of course, specifically rooted in a south-eastern English aristo-bucolic mindset. This arrière-garde was quickly usurped by the New Object Sculpture and New Image of the 1980s (BAS 2) and the Brit Art of the 1990s (BAS 4).

Such art echoed forms from contemporary European Kunsthalles and North American blue-chip galleries yet remained ‘British’ by shifting its focus to the urban context in which it was made. It was British because it was made in London and because it represented London, one of the few cities where all Britons mix and therefore one of the few places where ‘Britishness’ still has the chance of being an expedient cultural imaginary.

Outside London the ‘Britishness’ of the BAS is a geopolitical liability. Why is a ‘British’ art show only touring England? And while Northern Ireland is not on the island of Great Britain (it was excluded from BAS 1 since geographically it’s located in the island of Ireland), it is still part of the UK. Should we therefore assume that any Northern Irish artists in a BAS are British? Certainly, Northern Ireland is one of the few places in the UK where many still identify with a largely defunct homogenous imperial ‘Britishness’. There are also, however many living in the province who regard themselves as wholly Irish and not British. It would take a pragmatic Republican to accept the opportunity to be part of a ‘British’ Art Show. Why have a BAS at a time when the nations, principalities, provinces and regions of the UK are asserting their cultural autonomy in their own art spaces (which are annexed when the BAS circus comes to town) and in the form of Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Mancunian biennial pavilions? These forms of devolution raise more pertinent questions than the BAS about the relationship between culture and geography. This year a London–Midlands curatorial team selected one Northern Irish and three English artists based in Glasgow to represent Scotland at the Venice Biennale, to much local consternation.

In response to this situation BAS 6 includes work by migrant artists who have mainly settled in London, emphasizing the trans-national and the international. As the curators point out in the catalogue, grey images of inner-city Britain have been replaced by colourful ones from around the world, signalling a new global frame of reference for artists working in the UK. This is nothing new, of course, but it does mark a distinctive shift away from the mockney jingoism of the 1990s to a multiculturalist perspective. This is undoubtedly a positive shift, but it has its dangers. Focus on the trans-national in contemporary art is a new paradigm, globalization having replaced Postmodernism as the dominant concern of criticism and curating. In practice this doesn’t always translate well, globalization often being misread as a synonym for internationalism. This under-privileges the cultural nuances of the parochial and the diasporic, the liminal zones wherein some of the most remarkable art flourishes. BAS 6 notably does not include the work of Britons living abroad, on the grounds that artists based in Britain are now ‘international’ enough. This is an odd declaration. Does this mean that the UK, once the centre of the world’s largest empire and the first global power, a state formed from a mongrel union of nations, lacked cultural diversity until Easyjet took off? Do the many cultures of the UK not continue to echo via Britons dispersed around the globe? Surely migration is a two-way street? It may be churlish to berate a survey show such as the BAS for ducking the thorny issue of British identities, but its distance from national cultural imaginaries is not entirely symptomatic of practice – it is as much of an ideological projection as the jingoism of some previous BAS outings; but then the BAS has never been a neutral slice of the action.

As the curators reflect, BAS 6 does not attempt to ‘spotlight brand new talent’ since this is ‘a role fulfilled by two or three annual exhibitions held in this country’, such as EASTInternational, Bloomberg New Contemporaries, New Work Scotland and Becks Futures. Many of these exhibitions exonerate an ideology of competition that, although omnipresent, was not so obvious when BAS began in 1979. Tied to this is the much more visible presence of corporate sponsorship than in the early days of the BAS, when the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts (now Art & Business) was in its infancy. Where in the 1970s and 1980s we had the Hayward Annual, now we have Becks. Now the reverence of the new associated with the mythology of avant-garde innovation is impeccably (and more honestly) allied with the expansion of markets. Despite sharing a conscientious sense of curatorial focus and cross-generational vision with the more regular Tate Triennials, BAS is umbilically attached to a morphing corporatist infrastructure that tends to venerate careers rather than practices. Large-scale surveys and prize fights ultimately do not do the dirty work of cultural sustainability, since they are historically rooted in processes of top-down selection rather than in bottom-up practice. While they now more readily celebrate imaginative vernacular practices, they can only provide a more detailed map of territories that others are left to maintain on the never-never of trickle-down. If artists in the UK were given enough public support to organize their own projects, would the national survey cease to colour our manifold views of the present?

Andrew Hunt

A freelance curator who lives in London. He is editing a chapter for John Russell’s book Frozen Tears III: The Trinity, which will be launched in Death Valley in 2006, and organising the exhibition ‘Writing in Strobe’, which will open at Dicksmith Gallery, London, in March.

With ‘British Art Show 6’ currently touring the UK and the ‘Tate Triennial 2006: New British Art’ set to open in March, you could say we’re at a moment when the re-evaluation of contemporary art’s recent history is prevalent. The former exhibition includes practices that have come to prominence in the five-year period since the last incarnation of the show, while the Tate’s exhibition will take its cue from a more inter-generational perspective themed around ideas of appropriation and the ‘reworking of cultural material’. As both exhibitions claim to present the most vital work currently being made in Britain (five artists are in both shows), it will be interesting to evaluate the disparities in the politics behind each selection, the theme or predetermined set of criteria that each has imposed, together with countless alternative lists of artists who might have been included. Ultimately, however, perhaps the best way to judge them will be to think of how each work included represents a shift in the culture of contemporary practice.

It was impossible to ignore the groupings in British Art Show’s installation at Baltic in Gateshead. Walking into the top gallery proved a powerful experience. Goshka Macuga’s multifaceted monument Arkhitectony – after K Malevich (2005), Toby Paterson’s specially commissioned wall painting Untitled (2005) and Gary Webb’s Mrs Miami (2005) vied for attention, together with other works that also contain overtly Modernist references. If this group refers to failed or outmoded genres (the practices in Tate’s exhibition may also reference cultural histories in a similar manner), it’s in a way that looks for potential in avant-garde waste material. Two artists who do this in very different ways are Mark Titchner and Phillip Allen. Titchner’s text works about advertising and spectacle, reified slogans and impossible futures are as prophetic as they are funny – for example, ‘All that is now, All that is gone, All that’s to come’ (a line lifted from Pink Floyd’s Eclipse) is carved into the construction Resolving Conflict by Superficial Means (2002), and Tomorrow Should Be Ours! (2005) is inscribed across a light-box. Allen, on the other hand – who has had time to develop his practice over a good 15-year period and is one of the few abstract painters in the exhibition – uses the physical characteristics and potential of paint to great effect. His clunky yet precise painterly optimism belies the underlying rigour in his use of materials. Works such as Beezerspline (Light Version) (2002) embody the colliding languages of abstraction – a central rainbow motif made of impastoed cartoon-like architectural forms surrounds an equally plastic sky complete with comic-strip rays of light.

Within the context of the area of Gateshead, Nils Norman’s animated film The Art of Urbanomics (2003) almost perfectly addresses the homogenization of urban redevelopment. Modernism is again referred to, this time through a cartoon of Charles Baudelaire, who traces town planning and its disruption from Parisian Haussmannization in the 19th century through Situationist psycho-geography to the new symbolic economy and current petrification of the urban environment via architectural interventions, property development and gentrification. With a nod towards the way that art is consumed at Baltic – it’s a location for leisure and entertainment – the film light-heartedly describes the surrounding areas as ‘highly controlled street experiences, where everyone appears to be middle-class’ and where ‘undesirables have been moved out to the surrounding areas, except for the odd hot-dog vendor’.

On the floor below, Carey Young’s work was the most extreme proponent of relational practices. In terms of a British ‘post-relationality’, Young’s Win/Win (2005) involved the organizers of the exhibition learning negotiation skills with a trained instructor, a process that the artist then videoed. It made me wonder what the attraction and motivation is for artists who willingly work with bureaucratic systems such as these – you get the impression that any ‘openness’ in the experience actually lacks any real antagonism or understanding. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Daria Martin is described in the catalogue as having a practice that could be categorized as ‘super-subjective’. Her seductive 16mm film Soft Materials (2004) evokes nostalgia for a variety of avant-garde genres. Similarly, Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska – who in the catalogue somehow get lumped in with the category of post-relational practices – present footage of archival screen tests taken from various collections on the exhibition’s tour, including a selection shot at Manchester’s art schools during 1929 and 1930. Shown next door to Martin’s film, contemporary reflections on everyday life in video works such as Rosalind Nashashibi’s Hreash House (2004), which represents the comings and going of life in Nazareth, and Ergin Cavusoglu’s Tahtkale (2004), which shows black market currency traders in an Istanbul bazaar, are thoughtful and provocative, yet one can’t help wondering how interesting some of the video work – with its occasional lazy lapse into a kind of faux documentary approach – really is.

Fortunately the weight lent to video in the exhibition was more than made up for by traditionally idiosyncratic examples of British practice, such as those represented by artists such as Richard Hughes, Rebecca Warren, Gareth Jones and Christina Mackie. The cartoon monumentality of Warren’s female nude and its slippage into abject formlessness in TLGEIAFDP (2005), together with Hughes’ Roadsider (2003), a replica phantom bottle of piss left in the corner of the gallery, made one of the finest combinations in the exhibition. Hughes’ work especially made an unexpected impact, as if someone (perhaps an unknown undesirable, such as those mentioned in Norman’s film) had discarded it as a reminder of the world outside. Strangely, the only artist to employ photography in the show was Anna Barriball, who altered found snapshots with fleeting traces of inky soap bubbles.

I would have liked to see a more diverse set of practices in this show: more antagonism, less conservative ‘relational’ work and greater risk-taking. Perhaps with the unpredictable, erotic and transgressive potential of a number of the artists included in the Tate’s outing – something sadly absent in Gateshead – this forthcoming exhibition may deliver something entirely unexpected. We live in hope.