Beyond these four walls

Do today's artists have anything to say about society? Michael Bracewell searches one exhibition for answers

"Imagined Communities" demands that art comes down from the intellectual higher ground that it can occupy so easily, and allows itself to be adjudicated by the "public". In this much the exhibition is both by and about life beyond the gallery walls.

As contemporary society is multicultural, so this is a necessarily international exhibition, with works by prominent artists from France, Grenada, Italy, Russia, America and Britain. Together, they present questions about the role of the individual within the local, national or global concepts of community.

Aesthetically, the temper of the exhibition is volatile, like the debate around its subject, ranging from the meditational melancholy of Giuseppe Penone's atmospheric casts of the steps in a northern mill, to Denzil Forrester's bright and frenetic paintings of nightclub interiors. The sheer eclecticism of the works provokes as near a comprehensive analysis of "community" as one could hope to achieve.

Beginning with our sense of ourselves as isolated individuals, drawn instinctively to consider the reality of other people's lives, Sophie Calle's assemblages of text and photography give rise to a powerful moral conundrum while articulating a romantic loneliness. This prevents the works from being merely clinical or exploitative.

In The Hotel, Calle transforms her experience as a chambermaid working in a Venetian hotel to create open-ended narratives about the visitors whose rooms she was cleaning; in The Blind she photographed 23 blind people and "asked them what their image of beauty was". The resulting photographs and texts comprise a gentle exercise in transgressive behaviour and the breaking down of taboos, lulling our scruples over the intrusion into people's privacy or perceived disability by admitting the universality of perception and curiosity. But if Calle's work is poignant and permissively romantic in its description of personal or private worlds, then Gillian Wearing's now established juxtapositions of public and private behaviour seem slightly contrived and at ease with their own cleverness.

For Dancing In Peckham (1994), Wearing prepared herself to dance without music in a Peckham shopping centre by repeatedly listening to Gloria Gaynor and Nirvana, but the inevitable video of her performance does little to challenge our notions of personal expression or the removal of restrictions on behaviour. This is like art for The Word generation, going for laughs or credibility under the guise of investigative journalism.

As a comment on "community", Wearing's collaborations with the public share a formulaic and opaque neatness with Christian Boltanski's Children of North Westminster Community School (1992). Where Wearing's work is propelled by highly animated behaviour, Boltanski presents a barrage of stillness, but the results leave one feeling equally short-changed.

Boltanski's presentation of 144 photographic portraits of a year's new pupils is intended to raise questions of artistic status and describe the fate of identity within a community, but the medium of souvenir portraiture is too dulling to comment upon itself. Despite the best intentions of either Wearing or Boltanski, their works make one feel that the public are being used as stooges for some purely personal or prescriptive agenda.

Exactly the opposite is true of the epic statement on public opinion and artistic "authority" that have been created by Tim Rollins & KOS. KOS (Kids of Survival) are "difficult" teenagers from the New York area with whom Rollins collaborates to make monolithic paintings on pasted- down pages of a classic text - Animal Farm, The Scarlet Letter, Frogs. The results of a grassroots interaction with a local community, there is an elegant grandeur in these paintings that is both political and wholly lacking in sophistry, giving voice to a collective while retaining a personal identity.

The importance of this compelling and provocative exhibition lies in its testing of modern art as a truthful or effective mirror of our complex modern society. Its success lies in its suggestion of many questions and its avoidance of any answers.

n 'Imagined Communities', Oldham Art Gallery (0161-911 4653) to 24 March; then on tour (details: 0171-921 0837)

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