EXHIBITION / Stupid like a conceptualist: Tom Lubbock examines Wonderful Life at London's Lisson Gallery, where 40 artists and 110 works jostle for room

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The Independent Culture
WONDERFUL LIFE: it's a great title, anyway. The Lisson Gallery's current group show takes its name from the book by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould. The subject of the book is the Burgess shale, a site in British Columbia which was found to hold the fossil remains of a wide range of soft-bodied creatures - evidence of that vast proliferation of life-forms known to paleontology as the Cambrian Explosion. The shale contained fossils of many more creatures - many more kinds of creature, that is - than now exist in the oceans. The application to this exhibition is not hard to find, though it's nothing whatsoever to do with biology.

For the Lisson Gallery, this show represents a sudden and unusual proliferation. There's the sheer quantity for one thing. This is a gallery accustomed to giving its exhibits a good deal of space, room to resonate. Now, it has never looked so cluttered. Here are 40 artists, and 110 works, jostling for room. It's like the RA Summer Show. Furthermore, it is a new kind of content for the Lisson. The gallery, which among contemporary private galleries is definitely establishment, is generally known for a pretty cool late modernism. Solid and poetic sculptors like Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor are its famous names.

But the works in Wonderful Life are predominantly - what's the right label? - school-of-Goldsmiths, neo- conceptual, quite jokey, ideas-based stuff; at any rate, art which is of a newer generation than is normal in this space, and much more talkative. The names here aren't total newcomers. They've mostly been shown elsewhere. But, with one exception, they're none of them on this gallery's books. For the Lisson, it would be a significant shift. As things stand, though, it looks more like a conscious experiment.

Think again about that title. Wonderful Life. It sounds like a ringing declaration - look at this plethora of interesting new artists we're now giving a platform to] But what gives it piquancy is a lurking irony. What the Burgess shale showed was evidence of an evolutionary experiment: a proliferation of new life, followed by a massive 'cull' - all those life-forms that didn't ultimately make it. And so there's the suggestion here, which I think must be deliberate, that quite a few of these artists aren't going to make it either.

That's not itself a very controversial point, but you don't expect to find a gallery saying it. It's a hint that the artists here have been selected not too selectively, or not with the fullest confidence. The gallery's attitude comes over something like this: 'We're not quite sure about this stuff. We know it's big at the moment. But it would be a big departure. We may want to move in this direction, or we may not. And the best thing, rather than trying to discriminate at this stage, is to take a job lot of it. Put it on, all together, in the between-season summer months. No big risk there. And just see what it looks like in situ.'

And what does it look like? Well, there's too much to precis, but here are some works that are more or less memorable and describable. Roderick Buchanan's Full Scale Premier League Goalmouth is a strip of metal the regulation eight yards long, fixed to the floor. Christine Borland's Blanket Used on Police Firing Range, Berlin: Repaired is just that, a striped blanket with stitched-up holes lying on a low platform. Now these works may not sound all that talkative or articulate. And true, one's immediate reaction to the pieces is not very inspiring. With the goalmouth, it's something like: they really are pretty wide, aren't they? It does look wide, in a relatively confined art gallery. With the blanket it might be: well, I never thought to see one of them.

But this is an art gallery after all. And to rescue your experience from utter futility, you're obliged to become pretentious. You think about, maybe, the similarities and dissimilarities between the worlds of art and sport, or the way an arbitrary measurement becomes the focus for mass emotions, or the distance between a cosy thing like a blanket and the violence which it bears the signs of - for yes, I'm pretty confident that that work is about signification. And I say pretentious because the works themselves provide no follow-through: they just sit around provoking these and countless other possible reflections, while taking no responsibility for them and doing nothing to substantiate them one way or the other. It's not very satisfying.

Things which articulate their thoughts a bit are more admirable, because at least you can see what's there. Often they're very like jokes. Simon Patterson's The Great Bear takes the London Underground map and replaces the stations with names of celebrities and famous historical figures, not quite at random, but with no discernible consistency. Adam Chodzko's The God Look-Alike Contest was created by putting an ad in Loot asking for people who thought they looked like God to send their photos to him. There are 12 of them framed in a row, a couple of gurus, a couple of tarts and several who did it for a gas. It's not really necessary to spell out the philosophical / sociological reflections which you might draw from these works. But as jokes they aren't too bad. You might have found something very like the first in an old Monty Python book, and something like the second in Viz - though as jokes they do feel half-fulfilled, as though just missing a punch-line, and as if the required response wasn't a laugh so much as a wide-eyed 'wow'.

That absence of pay-off is, I think, a common piece of cultural etiquette; it's what makes it feel like art. But it can be put to use. Georgina Starr's Crying is a four-minute video and, like most art videos, the same thing happens over and over, but it's quite effective and surprisingly well acted. A young woman sits in a non-specific space, and sobs desultorily, quietens down, sobs again, and so on to the end, in a helpless way that manages simultaneously to arouse and frustrate one's sympathy. The only piece I particularly liked was Jane and Louise Wilson's Garage, a large photographic tableau featuring two women (the artists presumably) engaged in an eccentric suicide pact which has the mysterious allegorical gravity of a Tarot card - one stands, her head in a noose, pouring water into a tank, in which the other's head is immersed. In a pendant photo, both figures have vanished from the scene. Completely gratuitous, but somehow stirring.

Then, on the other hand, there are ideas that are barely worth stopping for. There's Stephen Murphy's Self- portrait as a rabbit (human and rabbit face computer-fused). There's Thomas Gidley's photos of a hand holding up two books, the words 'missing' and 'found' on the spine, entitled Persons Missing, Persons Found: Proposal for a Series of Yearbooks. And there's John Isaacs Untitled (Elephant), a life-size baby elephant made of stuffed cashmere wool, lying dead in the middle of the gallery floor - well, I suppose it makes a powerful statement about what it would be like if a baby elephant, made of cashmere wool, had lain down and died in the middle of a gallery floor.

There's a danger of sounding as if one had dogmatic objections to art whose effects depend chiefly on its ideas, as if that were inherently dry, or tricksy, or just fatally deficient in traditional skills. I don't think this. So far as skills go, the genre has its own skills - or at least, ideally it does. But the trouble is, it seems very often to attract artists with no special aptitude. To put it simply, they don't appear to be very bright; their notion of what's an interesting idea or metaphor is pretty basic; they're easily impressed.

The further trouble is, the competition doesn't just come from within art. These artists aren't working in a territory that's peculiarly their own. True, their starting-points are slightly different from other people's. The works generally take off from looking at some object or material, from a visual experience of some sort. But the thoughts they issue in, their observations of the world, are very much common property, dealt with elsewhere, and dealt with better elsewhere (films, novels, books of theory and criticism). There's the dispiriting feeling that, actually, you can get it better at home. Leaving aside the world of books, I think a lot of people I know have more interesting thoughts than these works do, and most of them make funnier jokes. So you find that, if you want to enjoy it, you have to make allowances. Not bad, for an artist.

Marcel Duchamp, who is a remote ancestor to many of these artists, once remarked that he was sick of the phrase 'bete comme un peintre', stupid like a painter. But of course you don't avoid that just by stopping painting; intelligence is not, so to speak, a genre which you can decide to adopt. And given this choice of work, the Lisson's hugger-mugger exhibition - though it may have experimental motives - is almost the ideal kind of display. A rapid succession is what you need. It puts the minimum of pressure on the individual work and each work covers the tracks of the last. But I don't think it will help much when the great cull comes.

(Photographs omitted)