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Home thoughts from abroad

Tony Cragg may live in Germany, but his sculptures at the Whitechapel are almost too British
Tony Cragg is a sculptor with a wide reputation. He is perhaps better known in Germany, where he has lived since 1977, than in Britain; and since he was born in 1949 it's fair to say that in his middle years he looks at British art from a German perspective. The present show is Cragg's second exhibition at the Whitechapel. The first, in 1981, was a popular success, mainly because of Britain Seen From the North, an outline of the British Isles formed by variegated pieces of cheap plastic stuck to the wall. However the piece was interpreted - and in the early days of the Thatcher administration there was much talk about its significance - nobody could say that Cragg was meditating on his home country with any fondness. He felt Britain from a distance.

He still does, but nowadays in a manner I find depressing. Looking at the 15 sculptures in the present exhibition one is continually struck by the similarities between Cragg's recent work and any amount of British three-dimensional art of the last 20, or even 50 years. At least Britain Seen From the North was original. But this show is full of things that come from other people. At one moment you are reminded of Henry Moore, at many more moments of Phillip King, then of Anthony Caro, of Bill Woodrow, Richard Wentworth, or Richard Deacon; and of more British sculptors besides these. Furthermore, the "look" of these sculptors is imitated frontally, not in weight, volume or mass. It's as though Cragg has responded to other artists by studying their work through photographs. Perhaps that is indeed his practice. Anyway, he still belongs to British rather than German sculpture, though at some remove.

There's no exhibition catalogue, though a guide is available. A more interesting publication is Germano Celant's handsome book Tony Cragg (Thames & Hudson, pounds 38), much of which is written by Cragg himself. His ruminations appear side by side with rather good photographs of his sculpture: camerawork that confirms his dependence on photography, since the images are often more intriguing than the original art. It's obvious that Cragg has a wide-ranging mind (he trained as a scientific technician before going to art school), and it's noticeable that he's more interested in the world of things than in the special realm of art. Nature, the environment, natural and man-made substances are his especial concern. Art is not. Here is the reason why Cragg is so content to be a derivative artist. He lets contemporaries and elders do the aesthetic work, while he concentrates on something else.

The most complete sculpture at the Whitechapel is Nautilus, carefully placed next to the front door. Immediately we have to think of Cragg's materials, and his use of new substances is a theme of the exhibition - Nautilus is made of Styrofoam and fibreglass. That's OK in theory, but the sculpture looks as if it's in imitation marble. This adds to the feeling that we have been given a new caricature of a classical statue. By definition, caricatures depend on a previous invention. And the problem with this sculpture is that it's not inventive enough, except in the materials that have been used.

Some sculptures initially look weird and then, 10 seconds later, one realises that they have a banal substructure. Spyrogyra is made from repeated curls of steel with a couple of hundred sandblasted glass bottles stuck onto the outlines of this armature. Therefore you can't really see what form has been established. Peer between the bottles and you will be disappointed. Such a strategy must conceal an inherent failing. Similarly, Cragg has tried to make fuzziness of outline the principle of Untitled.

A better work is Secretions. From a distance it looks promising, even though its rounded humps are so obviously taken from Henry Moore. When you are closer to the sculp-ture you find that it's in two parts, again like Moore. The older sculptor couldn't make magisterial work with more than two humps, so he separated different parts of his project. Cragg does the same, and with the semi- challenging ploy that every surface of his work is made from dice. He must have used thousands of them. I add that this strategy is reminiscent of another British sculptor, David Mach.

Everything in the Whitechapel is academic art dressed up as avant-vanguardism. I do not deny that there are virtues in academic operations. Sculptures are made in quantity, modern museums kept busy, international relations maintained, banks gratified, piazzas furnished, assistants held in employment (even though they spend uncreative months gluing dice onto the Styrofoam armatures of floppy elephants) - and all those things are good, in a sort of a way. But I want a cleaner and more truly radical sculpture. I also want new sculpture to contain evidence of its artist's emotions. Cragg might be more moving if he were less professional, and took more personal risks - like returning to the competitive atmosphere in London.

! `Tony Cragg - Sculptures': Whitechapel, E1 (0171 522 7878), to 9 March.