The truly East of England show; EXHIBITIONS

Blockbusters don't all happen in London. Britain's largest contemporary art exhibition is in Norwich (not far from the Netherlands)

The contemporary art scene in northern East Anglia is both aggressively regional and inclined towards Europe, a combination that gives a special flavour to the "East" exhibitions held annually in Norwich. This year's version is the seventh, and the most extensive, for it is housed in three places: the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, the Norwich Gallery and the freshly painted studios of the School of Art. Lynda Morris, its organiser, points out that ''East'' has become the largest international exhibition of contemporary art held annually in Britain. She also insists on the show's orientation. She and her colleagues concentrate on "an imaginary geographic line from Glasgow through Norwich to Amsterdam and Dusseldorf as a counter balance to London".

This may now be a common attitude in the vales of Wensum, Yare and Waveney. When modern East Anglians want to visit other parts of the world they fly from Norwich and change at the user-friendly Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Morris likes the connections between Norwich and the Netherlands and as usual there are Dutch artists in "East". A veteran of the conceptualism of 25 years ago, Morris has probably also been influenced by the way that new art in those days was mainly successful in self-consciously independent German cities. This explains the shrine to the late Konrad Fischer, a reconstruction of the dealer's first Dusseldorf gallery - but without any work in it at all - by the Dutch artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol.

Many visitors will regard this tribute to Fischer as a waste of space and energy. Yet it reminds us that the new generation believes that modern art began around 1970, so that Fischer (the selector of a previous "East" exhibition) may be honoured as a founding father. Almost all the exhibitors in this year's show are in some way the children of the conceptual art of a quarter of a century ago. Hence the scantiness of traditional painting and sculpture. But painting won't quite go away. Alex Landrum and Anthony Freestone have to paint placards to convey their messages. Sa'ad Hirri's Paintings Without Paint are stretchers covered with fine gauze. Willie McKeown presents three absolutely monochrome canvases in pale colours. Like Hirri, he benefits from the calm, lucid light in the art school's upper rooms. We are not being offered painting but an installation.

Consciously or not, the selectors have placed most of the weaker artists in the Sainsbury Centre. Notoriously inadequate as an art gallery, the SCVA makes poor art look worse. Two artists succeed by being so critical of Sir Norman Foster's building and Lord Sainsbury, the University's benefactor. Matthew Cornford and David Cross have erected something that has no aesthetic value yet raises all sorts of interesting points about the values of today's East Anglia. They call it New Holland, the name of a leading manufacturer of farm machinery and a phrase often used of East Anglia itself.

Basically, it's a turkey-breeder unit. Cornford and Cross have made an exact copy of a battery shed they found on a visit to one of Bernard Matthews's intensive factory farms, a significant part of the rural economy in Norfolk and Suffolk. The shed is made from the usual polyester-coated pressed metal. There are no doors or windows but you can hear house and garage music, with a sort of gobbling insistence in its rhythms, coming from inside. The unit is sprawled across the lawn outside the SCVA building, an artificial greensward that leads down to a Henry Moore statue, a river, and a helicopter pad. Thus the picturesque pretensions of the site are mocked. So is Foster's airport-like architecture, and perhaps too the methods by which the Sainsbury supermarkets feed us.

Cornford and Cross say that they have no particular stake in the animal- rights movement, preferring simply to make comments on the world as they find it. One of their previous installations consisted merely of security fencing around small grass plots on a traffic island in the middle of Hanley in Staffordshire. The citizens must have wondered what was going on; or perhaps they just accepted it as par for the contemporary course. This is typical of the laid-back attitude of new artists to social themes. Sometimes it works as art, sometimes it doesn't. Jamie Wagg is the painter who made a stir a while back with his copy of the security camera shot of Jamie Bulger being led away to his death. He says that his work is about surveillance. In the art-school foyer he has mounted two cameras and television screens. Look at them and you see your back. This doesn't work as art.

Far more interesting are the sculptures made by Mark Hosking, who comes from Plymouth but lives in Amsterdam. They are adopted from United Nations handbooks sent to third-world countries. These books have diagrams and they tell you how to make the simplest kinds of wells and irrigation devices. This is his starting point, though not his inspiration. Nor is Hosking exactly inspired by his artistic influence, Anthony Caro, whose open construction and colour he mimics. He's looking for a half-way point between machinery and art. Once again, one notes a cool, detached attitude toward social matters. This is a curiously unidealistic exhibition. Lots of the artists have political themes, but you know that they don't want to change the world. They just (as Morris suggests) look at things from a different axis. "East" makes me think that developments in art at the end of our century may be in regional awareness rather than in innovation.

For the legacy of Seventies conceptualism is so powerful that nothing is exactly new. Here are Joanne Moar's eight videos on the floor, and how many times have we seen this before? Moar (a New Zealander who lives in Dusseldorf) once taught English as a foreign language; in this piece core English words appear on the screens with spoken equivalents accelerated to a babble. It's pretty boring, but the theme of internationalism is relevant to the exhibition.

! Norwich Gallery & School of Art (01603 610561), Mon-Sat, free; UEA Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (01603 456060), Tues-Sun; to 30 Aug.

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