ART / So what did they leave out?: There's a bit of this, a bit of that at the Whitechapel Open and New Contemporaries. But there's a lot of the other. By Andrew Graham-Dixon

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The Independent Culture
It is often said that East London contains the largest and most concentrated population of visual artists in Europe. This impressive if unverifiable statistic is presumably thought to be cause for civic pride: hard numerical evidence of the rule of culture and enlightenment in the borough of Tower Hamlets. But this year's Whitechapel Open exhibition proves - to adapt Mies van der Rohe - that more can often be less.

The fact that this year's Open has spread beyond the Whitechapel Gallery itself - the top floor of the Atlantis Gallery, in Brick Lane, accommodates the overspill - can be taken to reflect the organisers' view that the number and quality of submissions to the Open, these days, calls for a policy of expansion. But there is a case too for more stringent methods of selection. Roughly 200 artists, said to have been whittled down from 10 times that number, have been deemed worthy of inclusion, so the exhibition may be said to represent the tip of the iceberg of East London visual creativity. Much of it, however, calls to mind another kind of tip.

Looking at some of the work that has been included, God only knows what the stuff that was left out must have been like. Did space really have to be found for Milo Garcia's mechanised skipping rope? Were Max Holdaway's self- portrait busts in kitchen aluminium foil really indispensable, in the circumstances, to the overall impact of the exhibition? And was it really necessary to give audiences quite such a comprehensive overview of the state of bad splashy abstract painting today? Generosity - future selectors might bear this in mind - can be a fault as well as a virtue.

For the sake of clarity, this year's submissions have been divided into three categories: 'Three-dimensional and Installation Work', 'Two-dimensional and Wall-Based Work' (painting, to fuddy-duddies) and 'Film and Video'. Other, unofficially sanctioned categories also exist, first and foremost that staple of contemporary art practice, The Displaced and Slightly Altered Common Object: exemplary, in their witlessness and feeble would-be Surrealism, are Anita Ronke's silk- wrapped ladder and Jordan Baseman's bark-stripped branch of a tree with added human hair.

The Dumb Gimmick is another particularly strong unofficial category in this year's Open. Tim Meacham makes the running, here, with a small viewer-activated propellor which whirrs away pointlessly in space at the push of a button. A few exhibits along, Michael Marshall's Exterior consists of a photograph of the sea inset with a digital display which busily counts away the seconds: ah, the ineluctable tides of time, the grand rhythms of nature, the transience of life. This marks an advance on the Dumb Gimmick, pure and simple, being a Dumb and Portentous Gimmick.

It would be nave to expect any open exhibition to amount to much more than a pot-pourri of the hopelessly bad enlivened by the occasional genuinely interesting or arresting work of art. And this Whitechapel Open, like most, does contain a few works, by a few artists, which intrigue or at least raise a smile. Elizabeth Wright's Lilliputian arrangements of domestic or office furniture are acute reflections on the grubbiness of too much modern life: they are wonderfully if indefinably English, conjuring mini-dystopias of waiting-room and bedsit culture. Emma Rushton's My Ideal Man, four photographs of women smiling, complacently, while holding ventriloquist's dummies on their laps, is nicely poised between the absurd and the threatening. Jake Tilson's Jet Set, a hunter-gathered agglomeration of the freebies accumulated during a lifetime's air travel - headsets and shoehorns with BA logos, a cornucopia of plastic knick-knacks - is a neat little taxonomy of the modern consumer disposable.

These are hardly, any of them, great works of art, but they are at least temporarily memorable - which, in the circumstances, will do. Open exhibitions merely reflect reality, which is indeed that most art made is pretty poor, a form of perpetual white noise. But perhaps this year's Whitechapel Open could have been just a little more economical with this particular truth.

This year's 'BT New Contemporaries', at the Camden Arts Centre, seems, by contrast, a model of conciseness: just 36 artists, selected from a large sample of the nation's art students. Conspiracy theorists will note the presence, duplicated here, of some of the more questionable Whitechapel Open exhibitors. Do Milo Garcia and Anita Ronke have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the Zeitgeist, or do they just have friends in the right places?

Garcia, creator of the mechanical skipping rope, is represented by another infuriating - but, it has to be said, rather more effective - essay in mechanisation, this time consisting of motor- driven chairs which pull up to and back away from dinner tables set for two. These endless, ghostly assignations and arguments between invisible couples make so much noise that it is pretty hard to look at anything else in this gallery, suggesting that Garcia has learnt at least one of the lessons of the group show: upstage at all costs. By contrast Ronke, creator of the silk-wrapped ladder, shows no improvement on her Whitechapel Open form. Her contribution is a kitchen broom wrapped in a Hermes scarf: an object that can doubtless be teased into some metaphorical shape or other (a statement about the lot of woman, condemned to be drudge or beauty, perhaps) but which is really not worth the bother.

Lost youth may be said to be a common preoccupation of this year's New Contemporaries. Lucy Gunning, captured on video, comes across as 29 years old going on 10, as she climbs around her bedroom playing the game where you mustn't touch the floor: an inconsequential but touching piece about not wanting to get old (let alone old enough to become a BT New Contemporary). Miles Chalcraft exhibits the rocket which, like a child with boffin tendencies, he launched, with camera attached, to survey the place where he lives from the air. The resulting photographs show not much, just grey and urban waste: a way of suggesting, this, that the child's aspirations are usually stymied; that we all have to come down to earth, some time.

For the rest, like the Whitechapel Open, the show is the usual babble of competing voices, noisily reworking old strategies: a bit of deconstruction here (Fiona Banner writes out, in longhand, the entire plot of The Hunt for Red October, to produce a conceptualist's sampler intended, presumably to mock Hollywood banality); a bit of neo-Surrealism (Hadrian Pigott's washbasin made out of sculpted soap) there.

Once - according to myth anyway - artists lived and died in squalor and were recognised after their deaths. But now, you get the impression that an artist might live and die in squalor and no one would ever know about it. Bob and Roberta Smith, who are unusually knowing and disillusioned for New Contemporaries, have made a video about how difficult it is for artists to get noticed. This may, in fact, be the most topical work on view in London at the moment.

The video consists of Bob Smith, a drily witty gentleman who might consider an alternative career as a comedian if things continue to go as badly for him as they evidently have done so far, recounting his many failures to receive critical notice and his many humiliations at the hands of those from whom he has sought representation or exhibition space. Bob Smith, cut dead by curators, ignored by critics, insulted by dealers, emerges as a kind of modern-art Everyman. His small parables of disappointment amount to an allegory of the life of the average, not particularly successful contemporary artist - the kind of artist who, along with 2000 others, can be counted on to submit to the Whitechapel and just about every other Open going. These are poignant art-world tales, of grim persistence in the face of almost universal indifference. They are memorable too: black humour surfacing, as it does not often do, above the sea of white noise.

(Photograph omitted)