A jolly good show all round

As long as you remember that it isn't, despite appearances, some definitive statement about The Nation's Art Now, the British Art Show is well worth a visit
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The Independent Online

Official! The British Art Show is a five-yearly survey of contemporary British art organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It's been happening for the last 20 years. But it changes. Each time, the curators - appointed by the Arts Council - have interpreted the brief slightly differently. Previous shows have included as many as 112 artists and as few as 25. Some have been weighted towards established, some towards emergent names. But the last two, like Nineties' art generally, certainly had a young bias. What now?

Official! The British Art Show is a five-yearly survey of contemporary British art organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It's been happening for the last 20 years. But it changes. Each time, the curators - appointed by the Arts Council - have interpreted the brief slightly differently. Previous shows have included as many as 112 artists and as few as 25. Some have been weighted towards established, some towards emergent names. But the last two, like Nineties' art generally, certainly had a young bias. What now?

The British Art Show 5 opened last week at eight galleries across Edinburgh. It has 55 artists, and the spread of age and fame is generous and surprising. There are, for instance, some unexpected oldsters, like Paula Rego and David Hockney (a series of portrait drawings, bafflingly bad). There are some pretty well known artists in their thirties - Tracey Emin, and this year's meteor Martin Creed (a room half filled with inflated balloons titled Half the Air in a Given Space). There are some kids. There are also some not very well known artists in their forties - the kind of artist who has suffered most from the recent youth cult. In these general terms, it's a rather sensitive bit of curating. But generalisation is actually what I want most to resist. This sort of occasion is a breeding ground for generalisation.

Anything called a British Art Show will be a bad context for presenting art because every work in it is likely to be viewed as an instance of the State of British Art. And the larger the show - 55 artists is pretty large - the more the individual piece is going to be subsumed under this general topic. But the topic is pure distraction. The condition, the direction, the dominant trends and themes of British art now? These are things of nothing, pointless talking points, matters on which it is quite unnecessary to have any opinion at all. Be interested in works of art by all means. A good one comes along every so often. And so long as, when it does, it can reach some sort of audience - well, that should be the limit of our concern for the state of British art.

That's what I think. But it's not how the British Art Show thinks or how it functions. It is aimed at two audiences mainly. The first is what in pop music, cinema and advertising would be called "the industry" - all whose work it is to administer, promote, curate, commission and fund the visual arts. And the show provides them with a list of those artists who can be considered a respectable bet over the next few years. It is to all intents and purposes The Salon. And for any not-fully-established artist, inclusion is a coveted mark of official approval. It's no guarantee, but it certainly won't do you any harm.

But the show is not just a check-list of individual names. It's also very much in the business of trends and themes - something which is of course the absolute meat and drink of arts administrators. They love trends and themes because their interest in art is essentially general. They need a steady and plentiful supply of the stuff, and then they need handy ways to select it and to package it. A British Art Show can send out helpful directives, about ups and downs and ins and outs.

For instance, a canny visitor to The British Art Show 5 may notice that there's no so-called Bad Painting in it. That was a little trend that flourished recently, deliberately ham-fisted brushwork, but it's not included here. There's very little ironic painting either, except for Glenn Brown's shiny-surfaced pseudo Auerbachs. More strikingly, there are very few artists who were featured in the major British contemporary art event of the last five years, Sensation. Indeed, there are very few who have been collected by Charles Saatchi or are represented by White Cube Gallery. In short, and it can't be coincidental, BAS5 turns its back on the phenomenon of YBA. (Go on, admit it, you like hearing about these trends, don't you? And you probably want me to tell you what the new trends are going to be. Well, I won't).

And the second target audience of the British Art Show? It is none other than the general public. The exhibition is contemporary art's five-yearly open house. And here again, the exhibition's official standing, the "British" in its title, its promise of an "art now" statement, are important. That's what it takes to make it into an event, and draw wide media and public attention. Not that the visual arts have an urgent need for the big public. Its audiences don't, after all, directly pay its bills. That's mainly done by private collectors and publicly funded curators. No bums on seats here (though the growth of corporate sponsorship has introduced some market pressures).

Still, there remains a strong desire to get through to a wide public, and especially - in recent years - to persuade it that it can enjoy non-traditional, non craft-based art forms. And audiences have been courted with invocations of the new, the vital, the diverse, the inventive, the dynamic, the relevant, the excellent and the vaguely patriotic, with which we are all now extremely familiar - but contemporary art publicity has been speaking Blairish for ages. (One curator in fact speaks of a current crisis in British art, but that, I presume, is strictly for insider consumption: in the art world, you understand, a crisis is just as good as a renaissance). And now of course we have a new millennium too!

So the whole context is fantastically unpropitious. And the only advice is to be philosophical and try not to think about it. Try not to visit this show in the role of either member of the general public, or of art worlder. These masks are blinkers. Try at all costs not to think about the state of British art now. Then you may perhaps see something to your advantage.

You may see: Susan Hiller's awesome video installation Wild Talents, which samples child psycho-kinetic incidents from various fiction films and edits them into a spectacle of engulfing disbelief-suspending wonder; Laura Ford's Chintz Girls, a scene from a Goyesque nursery, seven life-size, chintz-covered figures of little girls, each caught in the act of twirling out her skirt; one of Tracey Emin's embroidered blankets, a work that makes something objective out of the confessional; Lucy Gunning's Untitled tableau of hurt and startled furniture; Rachel Lowe's video of a pen-holding-hand's helpless attempts to draw the passing scene on the window of a speeding car; Chad McCail's impossibly hopeful poster-images of the world's evils being simply removed.

And: Mike Nelson's Lionheart, a "camp" constructed in a gallery, which vividly conjures the life of a survivalist/outlaw, living wild in the woods, with gin-traps and short-wave radio and a display of college kid baseball caps and T-shirts, the trophies of his prey; Kathy Prendergast's carefully hesitant drawings of city maps which treat the clearly marked streets and blocks as if they were something organic like a leaf-skeleton or the rings of a tree; Paul Noble's obsessional-style drawings of his lovingly imagined dystopic city, Nobson (and are you picking up some sort of imaginary place theme, maybe? Put it right out of your mind).

And: John Wood and Paul Harrison's video piece in which their bodies are calmly subjected to various weight and measure experiments; Carol Rhodes's beautifully reserved overhead-view industrial landscape paintings; and plenty of blanks, dumb trifles, laboured ironies, attitudinising, tedium, and total crap besides. But 11 good things at least out of 55: a reasonable percentage, a perfectly fair share of someone else's choice of contemporary work. No, as a show, it's not a bad at all. (Always remembering it's not in any sense the show). From Edinburgh it tours through the year to Southampton, Cardiff, and Birmingham. Check it out.

The British Art Show 5, a National Touring Exhibition from the Hayward Gallery sponsored by Habitat, is showing at eight galleries across Edinburgh until 4 June. Admission free. The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Belford Road; Dean Gallery, Belford Road; Fruitmarket Gallery, Market Street; City Art Centre, Market Street; Collective Gallery, Cockburn Street; Stills, Cockburn Street; Talbot Rice Gallery, Nicolson Street; Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden. Then touring to Southampton (June), Cardiff (September) and Birmingham (November)

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