Life, the universe and everything

Sex, drugs and existentialism: the South London Gallery's latest exhibition claims to be about everything, with a potential audience of everyone.
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The Independent Culture
Tracey's week was murder. Saturday morning found her with a hangover of such virulence it etched its way right through to Sunday night; by Monday she bloomed with toothache and her chin was a garden of scabs; by then, she'd delayed her morning-after pill too long and had to rush off and get an IUD fitted. Tuesday's hospital appointment for a chest- scan threatened her with the possibility of emphysema and by Wednesday she'd burnt her gums with oil of cloves, developed an abscess and needed to have the tooth extracted.

These are the life and times of Tracey Emin, whose description of her little season in hell, in all its forensic detail - replete with diary entries, dental casts and a framed intrauterine device - sets the solipsistic tone characterising much of the work in "Minky Manky", at the South London Gallery. There's a lot of hanky-panky going down at "Minky Manky", which the show's curator, Carl Freedman, describes as being "about everything, and with a potential audience of everyone". It is also, he says, about fundamental questions of existence, the mundane and the ordinary. Phew. All human life - and certainly most of Emin's life - is here: her other contribution is a tent covered in the appliqued names of everyone the artist has ever slept with from the year she was born (1963) to the present. Her mother, aunts and cousins, schoolfriends and childhood sweethearts, her room-mates and one-night stands, her two aborted foetuses and a choice selection of art-world beaux, are all memorialised on the canvas walls, including, right above the tent-flap, the name of the show's curator.

Suffering for your art seems to have become fashionable again, but there's a lurking suspicion that art-making is masturbation among the artists here. Sarah Lucas's main exhibit at "Minky Manky" is a free-standing lavatory, next to which sits a wooden chair - a vest stretched over the back, a pair of Y-Fronts pulled over the seat. A thick candle sticks proudly out of the pants and a plaster arm curls its hand about the candle. Subtlety has eluded Lucas, who has added verisimilitude to this dank scene by dropping a cigarette-end down the loo and spattering her onanist's underwear with nasty dribbles and spurts of white paint. While there's a temptation to dignify One Armed Bandits (Mae West) by comparing it to Duchamp's urinal, or to the work of Ed Keinholz and Bruce Nauman, or to view it as an empowering post-feminist critique, Lucas will have none of this: the point of the piece is its full-frontal, in-your-face smuttiness, its thorough-going banality, its paralysing heartlessness. From across the gallery, a cast of the lower part of her face, forever frozen into a clenched rictus, stares back at us, and at her own creation.

"Minky Manky" might be about life, the universe and everything, but one of its consistent sub-plots is that of the role of the artist. Gilbert & George celebrate their common humanity by crawling around dead drunk among spilled glasses, fag-ends and empty bottles in a work called Human Bondage from the 1970s, and Nineties duo Critical Decor show a photo of themselves wandering among the sunbathing lost souls on a holiday beach, like tourists among the damned. Nearby, there hangs an original poster for Tony Hancock's film The Rebel (possibly the best, and certainly the funniest film about artistic life ever made), which was re-titled Call Me Genius on its American release. The Rebel played on the stereotype of the modern artist as an insincere, self-aggrandising con-merchant, inhabiting a world of intellectual pretension and money-obsessed corruption. That artists play on, and play up to this perception should come as no surprise. It is a kind of double-bluff born out of the cynicism and self- centred narcissism of the late 1980s: call me genius, call me mad, but please call me.

A new work by Damien Hirst - who perfectly fulfils the collective fantasy of the artist as crazy genius living on an existential knife-edge - forms the centrepiece of the show. Called Still Pursuing Impossible Desires, it is an absolutely riveting, ridiculous tour de force. A large, striped beach-ball hovers in a steel-and-glass vitrine, with no visible means of support. Like Pepper's Ghost, however, the effect is achieved with mirrors. The fact that this is an illusionist's box only becomes evident when one walks around the back of the vitrine to discover a second work, apparently occupying the same physical space as the first. Here, half a beach-ball sits on the floor, its other half seemingly fixed to the rear wall. The longer one looks, the more the spatial enigma deepens. One struggles for forgotten physics, the laws of reflections and refractions. But even when logic prevails, it is somehow inadequate: the work remains an occasion for pure wonderment.

The mysteries of nature and the universe, the other-worldly and the cosmological, provide a fine counterpoint to the earthier side of "Minky Manky".

Mat Collishaw has abandoned the violence and pornography of his earlier work to create computer-assisted photo- graphic simulations of flowers, and, in Steven Pippin's Cosmos 1995, an old-fashioned record deck spins inside an immaculately constructed, slowly revolving plexiglass bubble. No sound comes out of this quasi-scientific astrolabe because the record deck sits inside a vacuum, just as the world spins in space. The universe, it turns out, is dumb, and no one out there can hear us. Meanwhile, back on earth, people write diaries, have sex, get drunk, pursue impossible desires and make paintings.

Gary Hume's paintings in "Minky Manky", and at White Cube, begin with everyday images which he re-works in household gloss paint. But something peculiar happens between the discovery of the initial image and its transformation into a painting. Funny Girl, at White Cube, began life as a portrait of the late Peter Cook, but somewhere along the way the raddled comedian was transformed into a girl with a benign smile. Another work, based on a portrait by the 15th-century Flemish artist Petrus Christus, has ended up a yellow blob on puce shoulders. A couple of wing shapes taken from a stick-on tattoo is now titled Astrix (sic), becoming an emblematic, anthropomorphic flare.

Deep, enamel-like colour (straight from the DIY paint shop) floods the graphic, cropped images. Hume wants his paintings to be beautiful: they possess a strange, floating awkwardness, touched with hysteria. The drawing makes you want to laugh out loud, but uncanny elements and distortions keep getting in the way of straightforward readings of the work: a gigantic black baby might be turning into an octopus; the feet of two naked couples stand on a black lawn, two spectral black-on-black pools of paint hanging in the Rorschach blot of space which separates them. As much as he is painting commonplace images from popular source material (in the past he has immortalised Patsy Kensit and Tony Blackburn), Hume is representing his own, knight's-move thought processes. Whatever he does, he keeps running into himself, as though the self, in the end, is the only subject.

n `Minky Manky' is at the South London Gallery, SE5, to 14 May. Further details below