We love the Barclays Young Artist Award. There is a spirit of democracy in the fact that everyone who exhibits gets something, even if PR demands that there is a winner - or identical winners in this case. Unlike the Turner Prize, all the artists that are selected exhibit equally and there is no individual show to highlight the winner as having been instantly elevated to the ranks of the great and good. This year, however, the Barclays exhibition seemed somehow less than the sum of its parts. Beautiful as the Serpentine Gallery space is, there was the feeling that you were looking at examples that represented a larger body of work, which is perhaps inevitable as the selection was made on the basis of the artists' degree shows. It is hard not to feel that, had they been given the chance, each of the exhibitors could have handled a room on their own with ease. Previous Barclays exhibitions have been somewhat fragmentary: this year, however, there was a sense of a concern with the everyday, what we might call real life, and an interest in the media used to document it - video, photography and audio tape - running through the work of many of the artists.
Georgina Starr's conversation piece, a sound installation, presented cover versions of dialogue recorded in public places around South Kensington. Rather like watching a film with your eyes closed, the conversations were acted out by the artist rather than simply repeated in front of a microphone. The result is a sound work that has a sense of space around it: the voices move through the room, objects are picked up and put down and you can involve yourself in the same way that you latch onto other people's conversations in a café. What separates it from the voyeurism of eavesdropping is the sense of reinterpretation: you know that the voices belong to one person, however outrageous the accent. Starr's work has always had an involvement with the intangible: at her Slade degree show she exhibited a recording of a whistled tune whose notes had been decided by the patterns created by a circling vortex of litter in the wind at a London main-line station - what started life as gusts of wind ended up as breaths of air. Also at the degree show and, briefly, at Anthony Reynolds Gallery this winter, were video works in which paper cutouts, animated by the invisible and unpredictable force of static electricity, acted out recorded conversations with reckless abandon. The bizarre movements of the figures were then documented as dance steps whose instructions included impossibly complex diagrams - of the ballroom dancing variety - of how these might be performed, presuming of course that the minor inconvenience of gravity could be circumvented.
Laura Thompson's Drawings for Camera begins with simple actions such as moving an outstretched arm slowly through 360 degrees to create a circle. This brings to mind Alberti's famous story of Giotto, who, when asked to demonstrate his genius to a prospective client, simply drew a perfect circle. The initial sequences of Drawings for Camera seem to be about art and the process of making it: in particular the relationship of the body and gesture to the painted mark, evocative of 50s abstraction. However, any sense of purism evaporates as the mark making process rapidly becomes more bizarre. The sequences begin to involve everyday objects, and as they do so the camera angles change to ever more unlikely viewpoints. A paper carrier bag, placed on a diagonal at the centre of the screen looks innocent as the artist approaches cautiously and picks it up. As she does so, the bottom falls out of it spreading what looks like gravel into an attractive 'painterly mark' with an appealing swooshing sound. Things are well out of hand by the time the artist attempts to drag a black bin liner across the bottom left of the screen, putting all her effort into it. The bag appears to be going nowhere until suddenly it splits. An unidentifiable granular substance pours out with an even more delicious rushing sound, accompanied by a thud as the artist falls over, suddenly released from the weight inside the bag.
The Wilson twins' work, as everyone and their dog wants to tell you, invests the mundanity of domestic interiors with an air of sinister apprehension. This is certainly the case with earlier images such as Construction and Note, which appears to depict a successful suicide attempt, but much of the atmosphere is suggested by the coloured lighting of the photographs, which is inevitably reminiscent of David Lynch sets and Cindy Sherman photographs. The work seems to be more of a self-dramatising process that gives authority to the banality of everyday life. There is a contrast between the matter-of-factness of the objects that accompany the photographs - the rails, mouldings and beige paint - which we know are fake, and the unreality of the spaces depicted in the photographs, which are real. The objects and painted areas surrounding the photographs create a self-contained environment for the images, preventing them from becoming too luscious and voyeuristic - too photographic in fact. The way that the photographs are mounted and placed echoes this: some are hung on the wall while others rest on the floor, leaning against the wall as objects. One of the most interesting aspects of the photographs and also, rather surprisingly, the video piece is the strange confusion of scale that occurs. The lighting of the interiors seems out of sync with their scale. Dramatic sweeps of colour and light play across the spaces, lending a grandiose air to the crumbling Kings Cross interior. The blurriness of the photographs, and especially the video, means that at first glance it is often difficult to work out how large things are. It is not until you recognise an object, or a person walks into a room, that the true scale becomes apparent with something of a surprise.
Notions of scale and domesticity gone awry occur in Hilary Wilson's sculpture, where recognisable domestic furnishings have undergone a subtle transformation of proportion to become a kind of hybrid furniture-object that no longer seems to have a comfortable place in the world. There is an unnerving contrast between the exquisite veneered finish of the tactile bedstead sculptures and the roughness of the chipboard cabinet piece. The latter appears as an unformed object, somewhere between a prototype and the kind of vague apparition that might appear in a child's nightmare. Renato Niemis also deals with the associative power of finish, although in a very different way, in two constructions that mirror creative and administrative spaces in their reconstruction of archetypal gallery and office interiors. The gallery space has parquet flooring, track lights and no skirting board or door mouldings, while the office space has both of the latter, a suspended ceiling with inset fluorescent lighting and nasty grey carpet - all the essential ingredients that render their respective spaces identifiable. Yet, when seen from the outside, both are identical and unfinished in the sense that they are interiors without exteriors: the timber and plasterboard construction is clearly visible in a damning indictment of British building practices.
In a similar manipulation of recognition, Suzanne Walker's paintings play a game of opposition with the mundane and the elevated status of abstract painting in a series of works that present the silhouettes of tower blocks as monolithic, monochrome forms - effectively dismissing the transcendental pretensions of abstraction in one fell swoop. The only other painter in the exhibition, Glenn Brown, questions the authenticity of the painted mark in a series of works that transform the heavily textured paint of Frank Auerbach and Karel Appel into immaculately smooth surfaces that mimic every detail of the paint handling but which no longer carry the meaning originally invested in them. Another form of authority, in this instance gender-based, comes under analysis in Tacita Dean's photoworks, which continue her investigations into the historical dominance of the male view-point with a reinterpretation of The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha.
Siobhan Hapaska perhaps suffered most from the limited space of the Serpentine Gallery. Her work in the Goldsmiths' MA exhibition involved an extraordinary range of materials in unexpected configurations that seemingly defied their innate characteristics. In Three, wood veneer was painstakingly laid into formica to create organic shapes that suggest random dribbles of paint. Another work, a heart-shaped speaker cabinet complete with veneer and cloth grille, emitted not the hypnotic security of the heartbeat, but the unsettling roar of cars moving from side to side in front of the viewer, instilling all the sense of trepidation involved in attempting to cross a motorway. Yet, if the complexity and contradictory nature of Hapaska's work were not entirely visible in the beaming pall-bearers of Alpha Jerk on this occasion, the great achievement of this year's Barclays Exhibition is that the bite-sized portions on view actually make you want to know more, and to see more, of each artist's work. In this sense at least, everybody wins.