VISUAL ARTS : The words-to-that-effect version

A word-blinded Tom Lubbock finds some of London's most prestigious contemporary art galleries talking a good exhibition
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The Independent Culture
In a lecture last year, George Steiner deeply regretted the fact (as he saw it) that none of the world's artists had yet responded to the 1969 moon landing with a work appropriate to the epic sublimity of the event. I doubt whether Fiona Banner's Space Exploration, showing at Frith Street Gallery in Soho, would satisfy Steiner on this score. But it's like this.

On a piece of paper, measuring 226.6cm by 324cm, Banner has handwritten in marker pen capitals an account of the Apollo 11 mission, in the form of words exchanged by mission control and the astronauts, from count down to "um, I can see my footprints". There must be, oh, many thousands of words, filling the sheet from ceiling to floor. And that's it.

Interpretation: the hi-tech epic of space travel is mimed and half mocked by the low-tech labour of filling the sheet with all those words by hand, a perhaps equally futile operation.

The viewer is faced with the dilemma. You can treat the work as a piece of writing and read it in sequence (improbable - it would take very much more time than you'd usually spend on a gallery exhibit, it's hard to read, and boring). Or, more likely, you treat it as an image, just registering what it is, perhaps dropping in on the text for a few phrases, and then leave it, knowing you've missed most of the contents.

In its way, it confirms Steiner's regret. The grand event exceeds our ability to comprehend or represent it. You vaguely register the whole thing, but can't take it in entirely, and what you do take in is just the odd technical detail or banal bit of astro chat.

That seems a likely reading, at least. The trouble is, of course (the old trouble with some sorts of "concept" art), that while the work may occasion these thoughts in a co-operative mind - that is, a mind that has mostly had them already - it doesn't do anything to make them more real. So it seems redundant. It enjoys what you might call "benefit of catalogue". You wouldn't want to see Space Exploration twice. Having read about it, you hardly need to see it at all. That it's only on view for five more days doesn't much matter.

Move down to the ICA for an exhibition by Abigail Lane, "Skin of the Teeth", which I have rather similar feelings about. Lane's work deals with ideas about crime and evidence and human traces, and the major piece here is Bloody Wallpaper. The whole of the upper gallery is decorated in a repeated red on white pattern, quite pretty at first, but which on further inspection, coupled with a glance at the gallery notes, turns out to be a murderous blood spatter plus bloody hand prints derived from a scene-of-the-crime photo. There's also a huge red ink pad (in fact, dry) suggesting the prints might have been made by visitors' hands. The notes add that the spatters "evoke the tradition of gestural expressionism" which is true only notionally; no one would mistake them for action painting. But still, you've a number of ideas up and running.

Where to, though? Almost anywhere. The tension between the pretty and the guilty is just there for the taking. You have, in effect, the materials for something like a macabre joke. But they're held in elegant, laconic suspense. Make something of me, the work asks; as much as possible, please.

Which is to say, in reality, that Bloody Wallpaper makes itself available to the going art discourse, conscious that the relevant cues will be picked up by the relevant people. And so, for example - since in this discourse the general inculpation of the fine art tradition is a prevalent theme - a reference to "gestural expressionism" will of course be spotted. But the truth is this discourse chugs along very nicely with only minimal artistic input; very minimal artistic input is just what it requires.

Along at the Chamber of Pop Culture, an occasional exhibition space in the old Horse Hospital by Russell Square tube, you find something with a very different sort of approach, Alison Musgrave's Rubber on a Swing. This is a show with a specific and explicit subject: the relationship between prostitution and its clients. It doesn't draw any knowing parallels between prostitution and the fine arts (plenty are available). It's hardly even recognisable as an art show and it's not addressed only to an art audience. It's being advertised in phone booths. Expect more than the usual six of fellow viewers.

The gallery is decked out in slightly fantastical and arted-up bondage equipment, though probably not so remote from the real thing. A giant rubber camera flashes continually at visitors. And one exhibit makes the point most plainly, a display of role reversed "calling cards" - in effect, "client cards". Stuck to the traditional luminous lemon yellow, lime green and cherry pink pieces of cardboard are some absolutely awful looking male mugshots, the sort found in company in-house journals. And each one has printed on it the client's supposed self-description. "Mr Boss. Will accept all orders. Boot licking a speciality." "Bubbly company director. Seeks hot wax correction."

The centrepiece is a "peep show", entered through plastic curtains. You're greeted by the artist (neck to ankle in rubber), required to remove shoes and socks, led into a darkened, chamber, seated in a cubicle and strapped in with a safety belt. But since Musgrave's object is to take the emphasis off the prostitute as exploitee, and to evoke rather the client's anxiety and vulnerability in the transaction, it would be wrong to give away what follows. (Opening hours are rather odd. Ring 0171-713 7370.)

I'd meant to lead this review with Kiki Smith, the quite celebrated New York sculptor. This hasn't worked out. Smith's work is art about the (female) body, sometimes directly figurative, sometimes more metaphorical and symbolical, and principally an art of suffering. It's now on show at the Whitechapel Gallery (with more at Anthony d'Offay), and given that the Whitechapel exhibition is the first major public display of Smith's work in this country you might have expected something like a select retrospective. In fact, and unfortunately, the gallery has invited the artist to put together a show of recent work.

This reflects a common clash of interests between those who organise exhibitions and those who go to them. Of course, if you're frequently zipping over to New York, as curators tend to be, then the latest stuff is what you'll be interested in. It's also, naturally, what artists and their dealers are more interested in getting shown (and sold). On the other hand, if the show had been put together more selectively, then the gallery would surely have decided that the newest work wasn't, as it happened, the strongest.

Smith's work is anyway extremely variable, always verging on the tearjerking. Some of it, especially the body ghosts made of paper, cloth and glass, has a beautifully fragile pathos (none here). Some has unquestionably striking ideas: a crawling figure laying a continuous 10ft-long turd, say (not here). But some of it, without benefit of repute, would be lucky to get into a Whitechapel Open, and this is mainly what we do have.

Blue Lake, the all-round photo of the artist's head, laid out like a projection of the globe, is neat, though I've seen it done before. Too much looks like Amnesty propaganda, images of oppression and tentative liberty, heads weeping chains from every orifice, bodies bound in look- what-you've-done-to-me postures. There are some good ideas here - an interesting revision of the traditional Penitent Magdalene, for instance. But the making doesn't bring it off. It's better when you read about it.

n For details see listings below