Dedicated manipulator of fashion

Jana Sterbak, creator of the dress made out of flesh, has pared her new work down to the bone. By Adrian Searle
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The Independent Culture
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1955, Jana Sterbak moved with her family to Canada in 1968, where she completed her education. She is an artist of our times, a perfect 1990s example of an emerging player with an international career on the move. Sterbak's works navigate the artistic Monopoly board, popping up hither and thither in the contemporary museums of the world, accompanied by weighty catalogues bearing agenda-setting essays of earth- shattering relevance and borrowed texts by writers such as Italo Calvino and Paul Bowles. A star is born, fostered by careful curatorial midwifery and judicious product placement.

Her work presses all the right issue-buttons. Dealing with the body, with identity and the charged space between the personal and the public, Sterbak works across media; she has a certain literary flair and she sometimes makes knowing jokes about earlier hero artists such as Beuys. She uses specially crafted objects and ready-made elements; she makes videos, films and photographs; and her modus operandi ranges from multimedia performances to delicate geometric constructions using pins and thread. Her themes run the gamut of contemporary fixations, and she has an impeccable grasp of the artistic manners and fashionable materials of the moment. Never mind how often one halts in front of her work and recalls pieces by other artists, from Rebecca Horn to Robert Gober, from Barbara Bloom to Mel Bochner.

Travelling from the Antoni Tapies Foundation in Barcelona, via the Musee d'Art Moderne in Saint-Etienne, a mini-retrospective exhibition of the 40-year-old artist's work has just arrived at the Serpentine Gallery. Her most famous work - Sterbak's equivalent to the top hat or the little racing car counter in the Monopoly game - is a dress made of fillet steak, a biltong frock called Vanitas - Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic. It was the main attraction in the artist's otherwise unremarkable corner of the Tate's "Rites of Passage" show last summer. The shrivelled meat dress is missing from the Serpentine, and a quick check of the catalogue reveals that much else besides has disappeared on the journey from Barcelona to London.

So was the work stolen by Catalan separatists? Was it kidnapped by anti- government protesters in France? Was there a shipwreck? No: Sterbak's depleted exhibition has been hijacked by the artist herself, who edited it down to an arid minimum. The show is a model of exclusion, proving the falsehood of the modernist adage that less is more. Here, less is just less. A projected video in one room, a film and an object in another, a telly and two chairs, a photograph and a small, geometric wall piece in the third, a spotlit dress, an electrified couch and a vitrine containing small works in the fourth. On Sundays, a man in a specially adapted military uniform, whose arms form a continuous, restraining tube, haunts the galleries, but the rest of the time that's it - and Sterbak had to be persuaded not to pare the show down further.

This is hard going for first-time viewers of her work, and her rigour, or rather her lack of generosity towards the audience, dashes any hopes that might have been raised either by her reputation or by her appearance in the Tate's show. This is zero-degree cool, and it isn't even particularly dramatic. Sterbak has also blocked out many of the windows of the Serpentine, perhaps to protect the innocent dog-walkers and in-line skaters in the park from accidental scrutiny of her oeuvre. But clearly she wants our full attention, and is keen that there's no backsliding, no daydreaming and no staring out of the windows by her hapless audience. So sit up straight and pay attention.

Stumble into the Serpentine and one of the first things you encounter is a video of a man reading - falteringly, and in French - the revolutionary 18th-century "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen". He stutters and stumbles over key words in the document, whose paragraphs he delivers in reverse order. At least one can sit on an Arne Jacobsen chair to watch and listen to the booming, muffled delivery of the monumental text. The chairs, of course, are important: though if I'm not mistaken they're actually designed by the Danish designer Verner Panton. Anyway, here Scandinavian designer furniture equals Modernism equals failed Utopian dreams equals the possibility of fraternity and the near equality of everyone everywhere being able to afford an uncomfortable late 1950s gewgaw.

Nearby hangs an over-blown, sepia-toned photo of a bald guy with a bar code stamped on the back of his neck. Sterbak's Generic Man is a pretty generic artwork, as the bar-code tattoo has been a favourite among body- politic-conscious art students for some years now. Actually, students have already learnt that the bar code as unsettling body decoration is a cliche, and have stopped making this little gesture. It must be said that Sterbak's version dates from 1987, so maybe we should be blaming her for its origination: but it is one of those ideas that someone had to do first, and fate chose Sterbak.

Originality, however, isn't Sterbak's strongest suit, though she would surely point out that the death of originality has been a major leitmotif of art since the 1970s. But if you are going to deal with the end of originality, you ought at least to try to do it in an original way. Glamorous novelties, rather than originality, then, are the order of the day here. A see-through organza dress, with male chest hair sewn into the bodice. A flagon of male sweat, to dab behind the ear for those testosterone moments. A whip with a phallic glass handle, the lashes a tress of long, female hair. Some cones made from measuring tapes, wound tight and teased out into the shape of a rhino's horn. A metal couch, next to which stands a Van de Graaff generator (that beloved toy of third-form physics lessons), erratically spitting an arc of sparks on to the couch's metal frame. A large wire hemisphere, which pitches and yaws, by dint of some hidden mechanical device, around the gallery. A film projection accompanies this work, showing the same object, but containing a man who fights to maintain his balance. He looks like he's practising a new gimmick for the next series of Gladiators.

There is one odd and memorable video piece in the show. Hurrying, as though late for an appointment, a man paces around the tarmac of a deserted airfield. He trips an endless path around the fuel silos and the hangars, a White Rabbit who has misplaced himself, scurrying purposefully yet pointlessly about. Behind him he drags a tubular wire cage, attached by straps to his shoulders and shaped somewhere between a dinosaur's tail and a supermarket trolley. We follow him going nowhere and arriving nowhere, while the camera takes its own little circuit of the damp, deserted airfield. Finally he discards his daft contraption and wanders off. The video, perhaps a summation of Sterbak's work, is a monument to inconsequentiality and the futile expenditure of energy. Another game of Monopoly, anyone?

n At the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (0171-402 6075) to 25 Feb