EXHIBITIONS / The art of nothing much: Sixties conceptualism lives on in the new show from Tim Head. Or does it?

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The Independent Culture
AN EXTREMELY boring book could be written - and probably will be - on the subject of installation in modern art. I don't mean the way people hang things but installation as a form. Or not. It's neither painting nor sculpture, not decoration and not architecture. The impetus seems to be negative. Installations began with Duchamp and other Dadaists who changed gallery spaces to make some subversive point. They didn't start any real tradition; but years later, in the early Seventies, installations were everywhere. They formed a subset of conceptual art, and were popular because they offered a way of being an artist without making finite objects.

This is where Tim Head came in. Having studied with the Duchampian Richard Hamilton, Head travelled to Paris and New York to meet older but similarly 'anti-form' artists such as Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Claes Oldenburg and Robert Morris. At his first exhibition, in the Oxford Museum of Modern Art in 1972, he used five mirrors and three slide projectors to alter perceptions of the gallery's shape. There have been about 20 similar installations, some of them at the Whitechapel, where Head now has a large exhibition. He showed there in a mixed-installations show a couple of years back. His contribution was a room painted in imitation of the barcodes found on commercial packaging. This doesn't sound much, and it wasn't, but Head's space looked better than anyone else's. The bold, pugnacious design invited one to think both about the conventions of abstract painting and the nature of modern packaging.

That was the point. Cleverly, Head revived the criticism of the conceptual- art generation (often, like him, students or studio apprentices in 1968), that classic modern art was a bourgeois product. OK, OK. But you can't spend a lifetime in art with such a banal insight as your only nourishment. Conceptualism has obviously failed, both as art and as adult social criticism. Twenty years have gone by, and Head has not been able to rejoin creative art. He cannot give himself to painting. The upper gallery at the Whitechapel has been given to works on canvas which look much more interesting than the installations. Reflect on them, though, and you find desolation.

Head began painting in 1986 with a large picture on which one saw, many times repeated, an image of a cow taken from the design on a milk carton. Similar motifs followed, made more abstract, or at least less recognisable, by an intermediate use of photocopying. The Whitechapel paintings look as if they might have been stencilled or produced by some other mechanical means. In fact, they are hand-painted. Their inert and deadened look is because they might have been executed by anyone. Head won't give a personal touch. It would be too risky. Nor can he afford to venture into personal colour or expressive drawing. That would lead him into competition with whole-hearted painters. So his enterprise is in the nature of parody: not sympathetic parody but cool strategy.

The paintings succeed either by inadvertence (as in the small picture at the top of the back stairs) or by the boldness of their large format. The two best are Continuous Electronic Surveillance and Video Skin. Paradoxically, their effects derive from just those American modernist painters most maligned by the theoreticians of conceptual art. Other paintings, especially Replicator, may be the beneficiaries of a more homely influence, that of Bernard Cohen. The fact is that Head can't make paintings in a void. He can suggest, or ask his cataloguers to announce, that his pictures are about factory farming, the environment, the nullity of video games: but the pictures will still stand or fall by aesthetic standards set by other artists.

Head wants to stand back. His intention is not to paint but to imitate painting. So he has a fascination with technical experiment - photocopying printing designs on sheets of plastic with an ink-jet scanning system. Digital Alarms is of this sort. Apparently, Head wished to make something that resembled not only a traditional painting but a giant credit card. Why? What on earth is the attraction of such an exercise? Head's motives are lucidly explained in a long catalogue essay by Marco Livingstone, a writer who normally specialises in Pop Art. In its own way, this catalogue is a model publication. But it assumes that it is just as interesting to be an art director in a graphic-design firm as to be an artist.

'Is it fanciful', writes Livingstone, 'to think that through our behaviour and attitudes we, ourselves, are turning into monsters, into the 'undead', the flesh-eating zombies peering out at us from Head's Cibachrome State of the Art?' We gather from such remarks that he has entered the spirit of Head's experiments. Others will find it hard to join him. Head's social criticism has led him into an odd form of contemporary despair. He seems alienated not only from society but from the art with which he aims to criticise it. Hence the sad emptiness of his installations. They are - in a precise sense - dispirited.

Whitechapel (071-377 0107) to 28 Feb.

(Photograph omitted)