While recent media representations of Britishness have often been fictitious concoctions, and the Cool Britannia hype restricted to the inhabitants of three London boroughs, the
last few months have also seen high-profile representations of the British countryside. An alliance of rural campaigners promoted a nostalgic vision of Britain, demanding conservation and protection, and sought to exclude urban types and their erroneous ways. It is debatable whether these two well-orchestrated versions of British society are in any way representative of life at large in 90s Blairite Britain. Cool Britannia was fomented by style editors as an artsy package, with all the heterogeneous market appeal of The Spice Girls, whilst the countryside alliance seems to be a self-serving operation with a latent credo of Forever England.
But of course Britain, and in particular England, is running rather short of green and pleasant land. Our territory is the most intensively farmed in Europe, and recently the multinational industry of agriculture has been embarrassed by a series of scandals, including 'mad-cow disease' and the impending threat of genetically modified crops. But although the reality may be grim, an idyllic image of the English countryside as a patchwork of fields and hedgerows, with little villages and ruddy-cheeked farmers, lives on, perpetuated in the collective unconscious by the fiction of radio and television drama, and the early indoctrination of children's nursery rhymes. It is to this childhood understanding of England that Daniel Oates has returned. In the bucolic realm of his show, 'In My Green and Pleasant Land', it is plausible that Old MacGregor has a farm, that Little Piggies do go to market and that Jack can still climb up the beanstalk.
Living in America for the past eleven years, Oates has indulged in an expatriate fantasy of English life. He has fashioned his vision into brightly coloured, chubby sculptural vignettes of Englishness which sit on five hillocks on the gallery floor. These are cheery in a gloopy way, all curves and cartoonish features. Upon one, Untitled (Bird) (all works 1998), an oversized blue bird contemplates a squiggly pink worm that emerges from the green sward. On another mound, Untitled (Knight), a knight on horseback struggles valiantly through a ploughed field, almost submerged in mud, whilst his castle teeters on the brink of the horizon. The smooth green surfaces of the other hills bear imprints of enormous bird feet: but there are no traces of industrial intervention, or signs of motorway intrusion. Indeed, all the nasty effects of Modernity on the landscape are missing. There are no combine harvesters, electricity pylons, cars or processing factories, but instead, a naive vision of green countryside with birds and oak trees.
This innocent fantasy is continued in a series of small gouache paintings that hang on the gallery walls. These have been subjected to the same perspectival curvature as the sculptures: their edges are bounded by confined arcs, shaping the contents into motifs. They share this inward-looking aesthetic with the cheerily warped images of greeting cards, and, like the sculptures, depict a rural realm with childlike whimsy. In scenes from this faraway land a snail creeps up on a kipping bugs bunny in Untitled (Rabbit), a forest glade sprouts ears in Colour Study (Ears) and in Colour Study (Maze), a gardener clips the hedges of a maze.
Oates' fictional realm points out the spurious nature of well-spun presentations of national character. His vignettes encapsulate a retrospectively childlike understanding of British life, combined with an adult attempt to disregard social and cultural context. But the warped perspective employed by Oates foregrounds the exclusivity of nationalist representations: the unreal curvature emphasises the capricious character of myth, and its wilful exclusion of prosaic reality.