Film: A glimpse of the great lilac yonder

Heaven: An Exhibition That Will Break Your Heart Tate Gallery, Liverpool

Heaven has always had one useful quality for theologians, namely that it is non-existent. Consequently, everyone from Aristotle to Aquinas has been free to make up Elysiums of their own: heaven as a place of ambrosial food, ticketless flight, oneness with God, etc. Now the Tate Gallery Liverpool has got in on the act. Heaven, according to its latest show, is contemporary art. More exactly, heaven is contemporary art as shown at the Tate Gallery Liverpool. You know this for two reasons. First, a sign at the door says "Welcome to Heaven". (Curiously, the celestial colour-scheme turns out to be lilac: I'd always imagined powder blue.) This is only the physical manifestation of Heaven, however, its conceptual one being contained in the catalogue.

Entrance to paradise has, of course, always been notoriously difficult, and the Tate's is no exception. The show's catalogue is fuller of signifiers, paradigms and italicised quotations - one essay cites references in English, French, German, Latin and Greek - than a Sorbonneful of structuralists. This is problematical, and for two reasons. First, the catalogue to "Heaven" is so deeply impenetrable that you may find yourself longing for hell: a place, presumably, where people use short English words. Second, the Tate's catalogue calls the existence of Heaven into doubt. If there were a benign deity, would it have allowed Mr and Mrs Derrida to have had young Jacques?

All of which is a shame, because "Heaven" is actually that rare thing, an exhibition with an intellectual thesis behind it. The trouble is that unless you are familiar with the collected works of Georges Bataille, you may never know what that thesis is. Translated into mere English, it seems to run as follows. In the late 20th century, the need that led men to imagine a transcendent place peopled by immortals - ie, a heavenful of angels - has been satisfied instead by fantasies about icons of popular culture. The point of what I take to be the Tate's thesis is that the impulse behind the two sets of fantasisings remains unchanged, namely a wish to transform ourselves into something greater than ourselves. The end result may be different, but the act of apotheosis is the same: ergo, any contemporary art that plays with ideas of popular culture is actually religious art. It is, in fact, the art of heaven.

Neat, no? Well, yes, only too much so. You could say that transformation - mimesis, we used to call it - is what art has always been about. "Heaven" is like that ad that challenges you to find three reasons why the tube train in which you are sitting is like amazon.com. If you cast your definitions wide enough, they can be made to cover anything. If you are a Tate curator, this means you can include everyone from Jeff Koons to Katja Kloft in your show and watch the punters roll in.

This is not to say that "Heaven" is full of any old iron. It isn't. The show is packed with A-list goodies, such as Ron Mueck babies and Chapman- brothers war models. Most of these have been seen before, although some exhibits - notably Tony Oursler's extraordinary video, Separation, which projects a human head into a glass vitrine - are new. The question, though, is whether all these things hang together as a cohesive show and, if so, whether that show has anything to do with heaven.

The answer is yes and no, in that order. There is a unifying voice behind "Heaven", but it is not that of thwarted religious impulse. Rather, the show is notable for its fascination with the flesh, for its entirely self- centred obsession with - its celebration of - mortality.

Perhaps it is all to do with some millennarian sense of rebirth, but the word that springs most obviously to mind in describing the work in "Heaven" (and I do not mean it pejoratively) is "childish". Take the room containing the Chapmans and Muecks. The thing that strikes you is its curious sense of scale. Mueck's Big Babies are horrifyingly enormous; by contrast, the Chapman twins' miniaturise Goya's Disasters of War series into a battle of toy soldiers, magnifying their monstrousness in the process. Like children, we are in a world where things are either disproportionately large (because of our own smallness) or small (because they are toys). The work in "Heaven" is childlike both in its iconography and in the sensations it instils in the viewer.

Upstairs, the kindergarten continues. Koons's sculpture of Michael Jackson is a childish portrait: kitsch, in this context, is a symbol of traduced innocence. Wang Fu's sculptures of sleeping children, Unter den Sternen, also nibbles away at the innocence of childhood by exploring the overlap between sleep and the Freudian unconscious. Like many works in this show, Mariko Mori's blown-up photograph of a Japanese indoor beach, Empty Dream, uses the artistry of children - bright colours, mythical images - to examine adult fantasies. (Spot the mermaids on Mori's beach and you think: but mermaids are mythical. Then it occurs to you that the landscape they inhabit - waves, sand and sky - is itself a manmade myth.) Katja Kloft's Col. 228, a room covered in pink satin villi, takes regression to its biological extreme by turning one corner of the Tate's top floor into a womb.

In the end, it doesn't do to be too po-faced about "Heaven". Like most of the exhibits in it, the Tate's show is knowingly jokey. You can't help feeling, though, that there is also something singular and serious going on, and that it might have been interesting to know what it was. Preferably in English.

`Heaven: An Exhibition That Will Break Your Heart': Tate Gallery Liverpool (0151 702 7400) to 27 Feb

Arts and Entertainment
Above the hat of the toy gibbon, artist Mark Roscoe included a ‘ghost of a bird’ and a hidden message
art
Arts and Entertainment
Alien: Resurrection, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder
film
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable