There have been very few major surveys of contemporary art in Britain. In scale, ambition, funding and impact, nothing competes with the biennial jamborees in Venice, Sao Paulo, Sydney and New York, let alone the epic Documenta in Kassel. In an attempt to redress the balance the Arts Council established The British Art Show in 1979.
More than 20 years down the line, and with the fifth show just opened in Edinburgh, the significance of the event is now clear. The past four British Art shows have contained 90 percent of all Turner Prize nominees and every single winner bar the first. They've provoked approval and opprobrium in about equal measure and have corresponded to a surge in interest in contemporary art. Only in Britain could something so successful be teetering on the brink of extinction.
Roger Malbert, senior curator of the Hayward's touring programme which runs the show, said recently that he thought the current manifestation might be the last. Why? Because the whole notion of Britishness is problematic. It's true that the idea of national identity is a tricky subject. But why shy away from using large surveys as a means of exploring what it means to live and work and think (heaven forbid) on these small islands?
If you're now expecting me to explain exactly how 55 artists aged from 23 to nearly 80 showing work in eight venues across Edinburgh can encapsulate the state of the nation, forget it. But if you believe that Britishness is about a range of experiences and ways of seeing, then the British Art Show has a good deal to offer. It's an exhibition that is broadly inclusive. For the first time there is work on show by artists living in more than a handful of metropolitan centres outside London. There are stars from David Hockney to Sarah Lucas and newcomers like Kenny Macleod and Lucy McKenzie. There are artists whose work has developed over 40 years as well as those who've emerged from the YBA firmament.
Childhood and adolescence loom large in a childish and profound sense. In the elegant confines of Inverleith House Martin Creed has almost filled an entire room with multi-coloured balloons into which the viewer can plunge. In the Fruitmarket Gallery just above Waverley Station, Graham Fagen presents a series of photographs which depict a more delinquent vision of childhood: a wooden crossbow made with elastic bands and nails; a bottle of Brut and a cigarette lighter; all starkly illustrated and catalogued as if from an adolescent armoury. Tracey Emin's often moving memories of a traumatic childhood are also there, scratching away in the subconscious mind long after you've seen them.
At the entrance to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, Cerith Wyn Evans has placed a golden crowd control barrier as if to stave off the hoards. Appropriation, like irony, is gold-plated in BritArt and the idea of distancing is merely a device. Of course there's junk aplenty, often inert but brought vividly to life in Mike Nelson's installations where rickety shacks are framed by a series of baseball caps mounted like hunting trophies in a baronial pile. Michael Landy wrestles with the problems of waste disposal in a maze of milk crates mounted with drawings and collages of fictional recycling plants, a de-humanised vision of endless consumption gone wild.
As if to highlight both a sense of loss and getting lost, Kathy Prendergast makes maps of all the worlds capital cities with no street names or labels, dysfunctional and dislocating but distantly familiar. In fact the whole show becomes a cerebral game of hide and seek in which certain images reappear along the way. Amikam Toren's "Armchair Paintings" pop up here and there; paintings found in bric-a-brac shops whose poorly painted surfaces have cliches like "When the chips are down" cut into them. They're both wilfully destructive and violently creative, a vast improvement on the laboriously painted landscapes which grace the walls of a thousand living rooms, looked at but rarely seen.
Painting is prominent, punctuating the show like visual alliteration. Glenn Brown produces flattened parodies of Frank Auerbach's thickly textured canvasses as if he's dug down into the surface and tried to reveal the ghost of what lies beneath. Paula Rego delves into her own psyche in works which harbour uncomfortable stories. Her "Tryptich", almost too tastefully displayed amidst the eighteenth century artefacts of the Talbot Rice Gallery, depicts a saga of abortion thrice told in a format redolent of a medieval altarpiece. At 65, she can match even the traumas of Tracey and suggest that there are deeper, ongoing traditions in British Art.
This is the strength of the fifth British Art Show. There will be those who will try and use the inclusion of artists like Rego as a stick with which to beat the work and reputations of younger artists. But this misses the point. Sure, certain artists get better with age and others burn out, but British Art is always reinventing and reinvigorating itself. The boundaries between different media get blurred and it increasingly becomes the job of the curator to highlight this. Here Jacqui Poncelet, Pippa Coles and Matthew Higgs (a major curatorial force in the making), have sought to represent a tableau of British Art as it now exists - inspirational for some, infuriating for others, a vast melting pot of talent and triteness, of complacent knowingness and experimental energy - but as such, it hits the spot.
'The British Art Show 5', eight venues around Edinburgh (0131 529 3795) to 4 June, then touring to Southampton, Cardiff and BirminghamReuse content