Exhibitions: There is no such thing as society

The RFH's new show means to deal with the way we live together, but 'Imagined Communities' says more about the artists themselves
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The Independent Culture
THE FOYER at the Royal Festival Hall is an open space within the building that's often used by the South Bank Centre to house their National Touring Exhibitions. Visitors are mainly concert-goers and I wonder what they will make of Gillian Wearing's My Favourite Track, which is part of a travelling show called "Imagined Communities". Wearing's project has been to approach people on the street, choosing those who are listening to music through a headset. Then she has invited them to sing one of their favourite songs to a video. The results are lined up on five screens and played simultaneously. It's all very noisy; unpleasant too.

On another video is Wearing herself, dancing in a shopping mall. There's no music and we are told that her steps are in time to a couple of popular numbers that she's singing in her head. This piece is more ingratiating than My Favourite Track but still makes one wonder why we should give it attention, there being so much else of more interest in the world. And why do these videos feature in a show that purports to deal with community? Surely they are about solipsism and lack of communication. And that is the paradox of "Imagined Communities". Its organisers set out to present ways in which artists respond to modern society. But the results show that the way we now live together has somehow enfeebled art. It looks powerless against the very tendencies it hopes to describe.

The show mainly fails because so many of its 10 artists are inadequate. Only the painter Denzil Forrester and the sculptor Guiseppe Penone display art that is the result of personality and true imagination. We can associate their work with the creative life. Alas, too many other contributors are merely tinkering around the edges of art. The use of new materials brings up the usual problems. You can play pop songs in a gallery, stack videos to the ceilings, invite your audience to do things on the Internet, and yet all these things guarantee nothing. New technology is too much treated as an end, when it's only a means.

This criticism also applies to the oldest kind of new technology in modern art, the use of the camera. Obviously the Internet, used here by the Russians Komar & Melamid, has not yet developed to the stage where it can offer perfect and aesthetic images. Nor can video and television; photography was able to do so pretty well from its origin. Today it has its own varied and sophisticated standards. But camerawork in "Imagined Communities" fails to match up. Christian Boltanski's 144 separate photos of children in the North Westminster Community School are neither good enough as portraits nor an interesting comment on the conventions of school photography. The New York artist Gary Simmons shows a similar piece, hundreds of shots of African-Americans posed in front of his own ill-painted emblematic backdrops.

This piece is about racial stereotyping, a recurrent theme of the show. Simmons's message is crudely conveyed, which is a pity, and I cannot see that he will become a better artist without developing more subtle photography. Sophie Calle also lacks finesse, though her work involves worming her way into other people's lives and secrets. We are given her rather old (1981) installation The Hotel. For a month Calle worked as a chambermaid in a hotel in Venice. She unpacked visitors' belongings while they were out of the room, then photographed their trivial or perhaps treasured personal effects. The catalogue says that in this way Calle reverses the traditional cultural role of men as voyeurs and women as their subjects. Does this argument have equal force when she goes through women's handbags?

For The Blind, Calle sought out people who had never seen and asked them what their image of beauty might be. Then she took their photographs. It's odd how this exhibition about community keeps coming back to muteness and blindness, isolation and ignorance. The show has no political message. We don't need artists to tell us that racism is wrong. Tim Rollins and KOS (his teenage friends from the Bronx) have made a foolish mural with politicians' heads stuck onto animals' bodies. I can't take Rollins seriously as either an artist or a social thinker; but there are other views, put forward in Kobena Mercer's catalogue essay.

One does need an amount of exposition to follow this show, and the free explanatory leaflet is better than the catalogue. It helps to know that Penone's sad-looking cast of steps comes from the old Dean Clough mill: the steps were worn down by generations of workers. I'm not sure how much new cultural theory has to be applied to Denzil Forrester's paintings. He was born in Grenada but has lived his adult life in London. His two highly coloured pictures, which perhaps have traces of a West Indian palette, were painted more than a decade ago. A more recent one, B-Side Skank, is better, Forrester is an interesting artist. Someone ought to give him a proper show.

! RFH, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to 27 October.

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