Beauty in a handful of fluff

Domestic Bliss | South London Gallery
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The Independent Online

You may have seen some odd contemporary art practice in your time - quilting in cigarettes, painting in elephant dung, pickling in formaldehyde - but probably none so strange as Tonico Lemos Auad's. Walk into the South London Gallery this summer and you may well find Lemos on his hands and knees, picking away at a fawn-coloured carpet with his fingers. With each scuff-scuff- scuff of Lemos's digits, dust-bunnies spring from the floor: balls of fluff which the artist conjures into small reclining figures. These dot the floorscape like sunbathers, bar the fact that they are headless. One, for some unknown reason, has the head of a bull lying next to it: a minute Minotaur, formed from the unpromising clay of a handful of carpet lint.

You may have seen some odd contemporary art practice in your time - quilting in cigarettes, painting in elephant dung, pickling in formaldehyde - but probably none so strange as Tonico Lemos Auad's. Walk into the South London Gallery this summer and you may well find Lemos on his hands and knees, picking away at a fawn-coloured carpet with his fingers. With each scuff-scuff- scuff of Lemos's digits, dust-bunnies spring from the floor: balls of fluff which the artist conjures into small reclining figures. These dot the floorscape like sunbathers, bar the fact that they are headless. One, for some unknown reason, has the head of a bull lying next to it: a minute Minotaur, formed from the unpromising clay of a handful of carpet lint.

There is something magical about this process. Arte Povera artists liked to work with unconsidered materials, but they never hit on anything so deeply overlooked as house dust. To see Lemos's work is to watch something being invented of nothing: an act not just of creation, but of Creation. The Brazilian turns a few hundred square metres of fitted carpet into an Attic landscape, peopled by figures among whom we pick our way like big-footed gods. Antelope Carpet, the installation's name, is an extraordinary work, full of ancient echoes of flesh and dust, mythology and Jung. Mostly, though, it is extraordinary because it so ordinary.

You can find it in a show called "Domestic Bliss", put together by a group of students on the Creative Curating course at Goldsmiths College. This in itself is enough to make the exhibition worth visiting. Until recently, gallery curating in Britain was regarded as an incidental skill, something that keepers (whose qualifications were academic) picked up as they went along. After years of moaning about the resultant lack of professionalism in British curatorship, several colleges now offer full-time courses in it: among them Goldsmiths (alma mater of just about every Brit artist worth his salt) and the Royal College of Art (whose course is run by Sir Nicholas Serota's wife). If you want a preview of tomorrow's art trends, "Domestic Bliss" is arguably the kind of place you should be looking.

So what do the Young Turks have to tell us? One instantly refreshing thing about "Domestic Bliss" is how un-Young Turkish it all is. If you'd expected tricks, tricks and more tricks, think again: this is a small show that revels in smallness. It is also - a refreshing departure, if you've had your fill of Brit art smart-arseness - almost entirely devoid of irony. The exhibition's title means what it says.

Instead, "Domestic Bliss" sets out to find beauty in the banal, apotheosis in carpet-lint. Hanging above Lemos's floorscape are a pair of installation pieces by Yukinori Yamada, a Japanese artist working in London. You might like to think of Yamada's work as anti-Warhol. Where Warhol used soup-tins to ironise beauty, Yamada uses fruit-juice cartons to create it. One piece, Stay With Me, turns birdseed boxes into birdcages: collapsing the bird-image still further, these themselves become bird-like, floating gently on pieces of twine. Instead of seeing domesticity as entrapment, Yamada's cages are all about domesticity as liberation. In a time when new art tends towards the declamatory - soiled bedclothes, giant anatomical dolls, penises grafted onto faces - the quietness of Yamada's rhetoric is courageous. Like all the art in "Domestic Bliss", it is about inscape rather than landscape: about finding inspiration in tiny movements, folds of paper.

One curious thing about the show is that while its chief curator is a woman, Naoko Usuki, five of the six artists in it are men. Whether or not this is an intentional piece of gender-bending, the fact is that that Austenian love for slightness which pervades "Domestic Bliss" is male-produced. (A moment of confession here. When I saw the show, Ms Usuki was cleaning the carpet with a dustpan and brush: I assumed she was a piece of performance art.) Far from mocking the unheroic scale of domestic life, the five male artists go out of their way to embrace it. Much of their work is to do with being meticulously crafted: the papier-coupé of Yamada's bird-cages; the hand-picked lint of Lemos's mythological figures; the innumerable silk bookmarks that Peter Wüthrich has woven into a net called Die Kunst des Schauens [The Art of Looking].

As it happens, the only artist in "Domestic Bliss" who seems to see this meticulousness as a synonym for obsession is also the only woman in the show. Prada's works are quietly subversive, turning the idea of craft into a portrait of something like madness. Her 6724 Blows takes its name from the number of hammer-strokes Prada needed to make it, an oblong of nail-heads and drinking straws. This is embroidery care of Dr Rorschach, housewifeliness as practised by Kathy Bates. It seems unlikely that Prada is a big fan of washing-up.

'Domestic Bliss': South London Gallery, SE5 (020 7703 6120), to 10 September

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