Little people and big ideas

Consumerism is the hot dish of the day: Michael Landy throws away his tiny figures, while the Hayward celebrates the giant hamburgers of pop artist Claes Oldenburg
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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL LANDY is a youngish artist who graduated from Goldsmith's College in 1988, and his installations always cause a stir. It's hard to decide whether he is a humorist or an obsessive, though I think he's the latter, especially on the evidence of his drawings. These intricate sheets are at the Waddington Gallery. On the other side of London, the Chisenhale Gallery houses Landy's new installation. Both shows are part of a project he calls "Scrapheap Services", and we are told that Landy has been working out its details for the past two years.

It might be interpreted as a parody of the contemporary service industries. Yet Landy is not at heart a satirist. Like many obsessives he accepts the world, and simply hammers on at one aspect of life. The Chisenhale space is organised as follows: under a harsh neon light we find shiny waste-disposal units; there are five free-standing round bins, four bins on grey poles, two wall bins, three trucks and a large shredder (a real one). Five figures are in the middle of sweeping or disposal operations. All the bins are in red gloss paint and the figures wear red uniforms.

There are also two metal placards on poles. They are advertisements for "Scrapheap Services" in the form of landscapes devised in a mock-Thirties style. None of the placards, the bins or the mannequins are remarkable in themselves, or as an ensemble. The piece is made to work by all the little figurines that are scattered on the gallery floor or make a pile, chopped up, under the shredder. And these are not remarkable either, except in their quantity. There must be many hundreds of thousands of them. Who but an obsessive would go to such lengths to manufacture useless little stick people in such quantity?

God? That might be one answer, though there are no signs that Landy's piece has any metaphysical intention. Since his tiny figures are stamped out of rubbish, mainly cardboard containers and tin cans, it's more likely that he's thinking of consumerism. At the Chisenhale there's a video, suspended from the ceiling at the entrance to the gallery, that repeats advertising slogans about tidiness and getting rid of people who are in the way. Thus we quite quickly realise that "Scrapheap Services" exists to exterminate. So the installation ought to be gruesome. Instead, it's utterly bland.

Previous works by Landy have had an almost innocent realism and an interest in recycling. He has shown, for instance, a brightly painted, apparently brand-new, market-trader's stall; and in his installation Market, he used plastic bread trays and artificial grass. These pieces worked well because their components were in themselves sculptural. Banal stacks of plastic trays had their own nature but also resembled the structures of minimal art. The problem with "Scrapheap Services" is that it has no composition at all. It is a tableau: that is, a scattered presentation without inherent form. A sort of crazed realism is to be found in the bins and the shredder, but it was a mistake to include the mannequin figures who do the sweeping, for they are not realistic at all, and the piece as a whole needs tightening up.

There's a similar absence of composition in Landy's pen drawings. These have titles that are broadly the same as the pseudo-advertisements on the video: We Love the Jobs You Hate, or Bin It for Britain, or We Don't Sweep It Under the Carpet. Without a doubt, they are remarkable sheets, but their distinction is not quite aesthetic. The interest lies in the fanatical detail and tiny handwriting. Each drawing contains thousands of bits, plus slogans and memoranda. It's dispiriting to observe that Landy has no natural drawing style of his own. I suspect that he has been affected by children's books. More obvious is the fact that every single motif in these 12 big drawings is taken from a prototype in commercial illustration, as though Landy had deliberately put himself in thrall to non-art.

At the Hayward Gallery, an over-large exhibition is devoted to the often over-large sculptures of Claes Oldenburg. The show quickly becomes tedious and demonstrates all too clearly that Oldenburg has not had enough ideas in a career that has now extended for nearly 40 years. We also see that he hasn't got much plastic sense and therefore regularly fails to create interesting shapes and volumes. In truth Oldenburg is not a sculptor so much as a maker of models. A smaller and better-chosen display would have presented us with a more convincing artist. As things are, the work looks repetitious and simply not clever enough. I find that photography gives Oldenburg's pieces a sharpness they do not possess in reality, especially if the camera uses artificial light to emphasise colour. Model-making so often requires colour that it's a pity that Oldenburg has been rather casual about his palette. But then - all his work is casual. That's part of his undeniable charm, and the reason we forgive him so much.

By coincidence, this retrospective adds to other recent British shows by the American sculptors Jasper Johns and Carl Andre. I remarked a few weeks ago that Andre, like Johns, had a bright beginning around 1959 and then deteriorated fast. The same happened to Robert Rauschenberg. Now it's even more obvious that Oldenburg suffered the same fate. His best work and his best contribution to art was when he began. In 1960 he was part of the New York group that organised the first "Happenings", with their emphasis on chance, litter and street art. Soon he converted the props for these performances into separate sculptures, generally made of plaster-soaked burlap over an armature. They represented food or other common objects and were presented as part of Oldenburg's conviction that he didn't see much difference between going to a department store or a museum, since he quite enjoyed both experiences.

At the Hayward, the earlier pieces are most satisfactory when they have a raw feel. They were probably influenced less by Oldenburg's American contemporaries than by Dubuffet. Oldenburg was not content with them because he wanted a more ample art. Then he hit on the idea of making models of typewriters, light sockets, drum kits and other things. The trick was to alter their nature by making hard things soft and floppy. Thus they had a more malleable and even chummy look. And only the hard-hearted would not find them likeable. Alas, the discovery of this "soft sculpture" was not enough. Pop art would have been the poorer without Oldenburg's genial offerings, but he's still a minor artist.

! Michael Landy: Chisenhale, E3 (0181 981 4518), to 28 Jul; Waddington, W1 (0171 437 8611), to 13 Jul. Claes Oldenburg: Hayward, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to 18 Aug.

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