Learning to get the hang of it

The Royal College of Art has a new course in curating, but its first fruits, as seen in two shows, suggest little new is being taught

The Royal College of Art has established a new two-year MA course. It's called Visual Arts Administration: Curating and Commissioning Contemporary Art, or VAA for short. About 15 people each year take the course, and most of them aim to work in modern museums or to become freelance curators. I've been looking at the VAA curriculum and the exhibition "You Are Here," which has been put on by VAA students in their second year. Both the course and the show are international, desperate to be up-to-date, and not quite convincing. A visitor to the RCA's galleries might ask, for instance, why so much expertise in curatorship is needed to present an artist who simply trails a lot of brown thread on the floor.

This is the work of Cildo Meireles, a Rio de Janeiro artist of no great renown, though in the last decade he has often turned up in surveys of contemporary South American art. His piece was first made in 1981 and has been reconstructed for the present show. It's called La Bruja. That is to say, it's a broom; and if you follow the threads through the various galleries you find that they have a common source in a broom handle. So an object of utility has been made into something suggestive. Quite how much is suggested by La Bruja is up to the spectator. I find it trivial. But turn to the catalogue and you can read three pages about its significance as well as learning about Meireles's other works, which include silk-screening anti-imperialist slogans on coke bottles.

Such a contrast between a slight work of art and a portentous catalogue essay is typical of "You Are Here". The VAA project as a whole may be similarly balanced. The catalogue of this show is highly professional. It is expensive, well designed and printed, full of helpful photographs and artists' biographies, and it bristles with acknowledgements to no fewer than 13 sponsoring companies and 111 individuals, many of whom are quite prominent in the art world. This catalogue also serves as an advertisement for the VAA course. Its introduction reveals that the Arts Council of England provided the "core budget" for the exhibition. We also find that the Arts Council helps to fund the course itself, surely an unusual arrangement. Looking at this triumphant piece of promotion, anyone might think that something of importance was going on.

However, the show itself still looks like a student exhibition, ie organised by some students for the benefit of other students. There are the usual problems and failures. At one point Meireles's threads have to be covered with perspex. One piece (by Mona Hatoum) depends on electric light, but the plugs don't work and were still not working three days after the private view. The ugliest exhibit, the Swedish Mike Bode's Corridor, has been given the most prominent place in the display. Rooms to the side of the show are not sealed off, so you think that their contents - chairs in stacks, pots of paint - might be another installation. Plastic coffee cups have been left behind. Bored invigilators are reading books. Anyone who knows the informal nature of art schools will be used to this atmosphere. I don't mind it at all. But the fact remains that the presentation of "You Are Here" is not as smart as the publicity.

The idea was to present 11 installations. The VAA curators believe that installation art is a dominant form these days, which may be true. However, it has been going for a while, with the result that many pieces seem to have been recycled from days gone past. How many times have we seen rope on the floor, slide shows in darkened rooms, fantastic furniture, games with curtains, boxes, sound effects and all the rest of it? "You Are Here" suggests that installation no longer has anything new to say. Artists continue to make their different contributions. But their means tend to be the same, and all too many of their installations, at the RCA and elsewhere, are filled with cliches.

Bode, for instance, presents a large and long box-like structure with doors at either end. Go inside and you find yourself in a simulated hospital corridor. The idea is woefully tired. The international nature of the exhibition is sometimes intriguing, sometimes dull. Bill Fontana, who is American, gives us something that cannot be seen and is furthermore inexplicable without the catalogue. His Vertical Water is the recorded sound of the Niagara Falls, but the noise seems to come from a crisis in the central heating. The two best pieces in the show come from Valeska Soares (Brazilian) and Hanna Luczak (Polish). Soares strews artificial flowers on the floor: at the far end of her room is a little shrine made from beeswax. The effect is beautiful, and something has been said about both femininity and Catholicism. Luczak has large bows and arrows, taut and ready to fire. This is also about femininity, for the underlying theme is of birth and the fear of war.

On the other side of London a jollier exhibition has been devised by Ciara Ennis, who is a first-year student on the VAA course. She calls it "Houseworks" and the show is to be found in a basement in Underwood Street, on the borders of Islington and Shoreditch. This is a venue occasionally used for rave parties and there's a hint of this part of modern life in Ennis's reception. There were 700 people at the opening, but since then just a handful of visitors each day. A not uncommon pattern in the many independent group exhibitions held all over eastern-central London, and one that gives the impression that new art is fast-moving and throwaway.

Technically, Ennis's show could be faulted. She has invited too many artists, she hasn't used the walls, and the sizes of her various exhibits are repetitious. Never mind. Ennis is clearly a talented young woman who has a good theme and has done her best for her contributors. She understands them, and doesn't make a big fuss about art theory. Though never explicitly stated, the theme of "Houseworks" is the environment of young artists in east and south London - the student digs, the grotty shared houses, but also the fun of being young and imaginative. The work is often derivative, but in a frank and cheerful way, as though the Hackney area had developed a visual lingua franca. I like this democratic note, especially as the VAA course is likely to augment the ruling class of administrators. Among the artists in "Houseworks" are David Cheeseman, Simon Tyszko, Nicholas Bolton, Emma Caplin, Suresh Singh and Anthony Gross.

`You Are Here': RCA, SW7 (0171 590 4494), to Fri. `Houseworks': 30 Underwood St, N1 (0171 336 0884), Fri-Sun, and by appt, to 26 May; seminar today, 2-4pm.

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