Largely immaterial; EXHIBITIONS

Dead bees in jars? Fluff from the washing machine? British art is up to its old tricks again, in 'Material Culture' at the Hayward

A big survey exhibition such as the Hayward Gallery's "Material Culture", which is subtitled "The Object in British Art in the 1980s and '90s", has many functions, and the first of them is to convince. Visitors may not like the work on offer, but they ought to leave a survey show with the feeling that a part of recent history has been authoritatively displayed. That was not my impression at the Hayward. We all know that something odd has been going on in three-dimensional art in the last decade. That oddness remains undefined, however, and I lament that "Material Culture" doesn't come to grips with the moods of contemporary sculpture.

One problem is that the exhibition looks so poverty-stricken. Eighties and Nineties new art, eager for immediate success and so aligned with riches rather than idealism, did at least have panache. Its verve has been lost in the present lacklustre installation. The whole show appears to have been done on a shoestring, as maybe it was. And the nature of the catalogue must be attributed to lack of funds. It's more like a pamphlet than a proper account of the exhibition. There's no colour, not more than half the exhibits have been photographed, the pictures are small, and we are given none of the usual details about contributing artists, not even their dates of birth.

The authors of the catalogue, Michael Archer and Greg Hilty, are also the organisers of "Material Culture". Their brief, co-signed introduction states that the exhibits are presented "not according to chronology or pre-existing categories of artists or styles, nor are they organised into coherent sub-thematic groupings. Specific works were selected for what they added to the show, rather than how typically they represented each artist. We consciously wished, however, to try to get to the heart of individual artists' work even if through surprising means. In particular, we were interested in what the choice said about their interest in the status of the object. The exhibition is therefore a controlled experiment; in another way, however, it is deliberately speculative, a gamble ... "

I dwell on the catalogue and its benighted codswallop because this is a show in which the artists take second place to its curators. Lots of the exhibitors - including Eric Bainbridge, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Anish Kapoor, Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas, Cathy de Monchaux, Richard Wentworth, Rachel Whiteread and Bill Woodrow - have done better work than we see at the Hayward, and I guess or hope that others have too. Yet weaker art has been more congenial to the apparently cloned minds of Archer and Hilty. For what reason? Hard to say, since their arguments are so miasmic and since they have so little interest in the history of art in the last few years.

What they plainly claim is that their three "most senior artists" (birth dates please!), Richard Hamilton, John Latham and Ian Hamilton Finlay, never really liked sculpture. This is true, especially since Hamilton and Latham were painters and Finlay was a concrete poet with a knack for publicising his interventions in the art world. Then Archer and Hilty say that "for the young generation, too, the category of sculpture has of itself little appeal". Dates again, please. For our curators have skipped three or four generations of artists from their consideration. The idea of the "object" as something resembling sculpture, yet not quite definable as sculpture, has been around since 1970 or so. This backlog is simply ignored.

The show presents things which are new, worrying, not inspiring, a bit clever, engaging from time to time, generally thoughtless yet with much appeal to curiosity. Abigail Lane's Blueprint is a chair in front of a print hung on the wall. The seat of the chair is made of that felt ink- pad stuff; the print seems to represent Lane's bottom. Richard Wentworth's Tract (from Boost to Wham) consists of sweet wrappers placed between the pages of a dictionary. Rebecca Warren's Every Aspect of Bitch Magic is a small plinth with a dead bee in a jar, a safety-pin, a pair of knickers, washing-machine fluff and other things. Damien Hirst exhibits cows' entrails. His piece is much more extensive than one would gather from the catalogue. Another artist who uses the Hayward's spaces is Susan Hiller, who has a similarly large cabinet of photographs, knives and so on. Cornelia Parker shows old-fashioned records in which cocaine was once smuggled and a pair of prototype guns.

More satisfactory work comes from people whom I would classify as real sculptors. That is to say, artists who like to form things, who have an aesthetic eye, who do not aim to divert the spectator but rather to present an invented object worth serious contemplation. Shirazeh Houshiary's Isthmus is both monumental and sensitive. Houshiary is getting better, and this cannot be said of any other artist in the show, except perhaps for the under-represented Grenville Davey. Richard Deacon is also a genuine artist. His contributions come from a dozen years ago and I think have all been seen before. He seems to belong not to a different period but to a different exhibition. This show has no context, for it's not historical, is pseudo- intellectual, and lacks taste.

! Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (0171 960 4242), till 18 May.

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