Simon Starling: Never the Same River, Camden Arts Centre, London

Starling's show slips between histories as he brings together works from CAC shows of the past 50 years
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The Independent Culture

I'll admit there was a time when I didn't get the whole artist-curator thing, when it struck me as a con: scour collections for works by people more talented than yourself, put them in a show, mumble something about "meta-art" and bask in the reflected glory. It took Mark Wallinger's Russian Linesman to persuade me that there was virtue in the process, and Simon Starling's Never the Same River at Camden Arts Centre to do so again.

Camden Arts Centre is an oddity among London's public galleries, and all the better for it. Although it has a long history of putting on clever, prescient shows, its relative distance from the beaten track makes it a bit of a secret. You can look at good modern art there without being elbowed by Italians, which can't be bad. Artists love it, Starling, a Turner prizewinner and one-time CAC artist-in-residence, prime among them. In Never the Same River, he brings together works from CAC shows over the past 50 years, the result being both a homage to the gallery and a meditation on artspaces in general. Put broadly, Starling's take is this: however you cut it, showing art means showing history.

One of the first works in Never the Same River is a plywood lounger, made for the nearby Isokon flats in 1936 by the Hungarian émigré Marcel Breuer, and exhibited at CAC in 1975. How many histories is that? Breuer's furniture was intently forward-looking, Modernist. Yet we see it backwards, as a design classic, almost an antique. Would Breuer's deckchair have looked like that the last time it was shown here, when the designer was alive and the streets around inhabited by his fellow Jewish refugees? History refuses to move in a conveniently straight line. In trying to historicise art, institutions are doomed to fail.

And so Starling's show slips between histories, some of its works being about the slipperiness of history. Matthew Buckingham's False Futures is a continuous 16mm loop of a bridge in Leeds, shot in 2007 and echoing a similar shot of the scene made in 1888 by the French cinematographer Louis Le Prince. Although Buckingham's work is not a recreation, it occasionally coincides with his own continuous voice-over description of Le Prince's film: a woman enters bottom left just as Buckingham's voice describes a woman doing so. Coincidence, synchronicity or manipulation? We never know. And while Le Prince's movie is barely a minute long, Buckingham's is endless, a flicker of time generating filmic eternity.

We're short on words this week, so I'll just say that among the artists with whom Starling plays time-games are Graham Gussin, Francis Bacon, Susan Hiller and Francis Upritchard, each represented by a work shown at CAC some time in the past half-century. Most foxing of all is Mike Nelson's Studio Apparatus for Camden Arts Centre, which is itself both a meditation on, and a piece of, history. The work, a trademark Nelson walk-through, was first erected at CAC in 1998. As you wander among its wooden sheds and Sprite-can fetish objects, you feel that Nelson was trying to outsmart history – creating an anthropology for a tribe that seems familiar but which never existed. And yet Nelson has himself been outsmarted, because his installation is now itself an artefact, a recreation. History always wins.

To 20 Feb (020-7472 5500)

Next Week

Charles Darwent goes wholesome with Norman Rockwell at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Charles Darwent: Visual Art 2010

Best Show A tough call, in a good year. The Gauguinfest at Tate Modern managed to stay acutely focused in spite of its size, while the Courtauld's tiny Cézanne's Card Players made typically much of little. The best new work? Without a doubt, Fiona Banner's minatory Harrier and Jaguar at Tate Britain.

Worst Show It was a relatively lemon-free year, although two of my least favourites also came courtesy of Tates. Tate Britain's Eadweard Muybridge seemed to overlook its subject's impact on art, right, and should have been at the Science Museum. Tate Modern's Exposed was just too big, although it gets a special prize for having the most rude bits.

Most Unfortunate I had the good luck to walk across Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern before it was shut down on health grounds. The experience will live with me. The work is still sublime, but to have such titanic effort come to so circumscribed an end seems sad.

RIP June 2010 saw the passing of Sigmar Polke, German painter, inventor of the Polke-dot and lyricist of the sock and the potato. Polke's own school, Capitalist Realism, out-Warholed Warhol in celebrating the unutterably banal. He is rumoured to have priced his work by doubling whatever his age happened to be and adding three noughts. You have to love him for that.