Dying is an art and they do it very well

In Memoriam | New Art Gallery, Walsall
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The Independent Online

Recommending a trip to Walsall in mid-December is not a thing you do lightly, particularly when its object is to see an exhibition called "In Memoriam". Walsall's New Art Gallery occasionally puts on shows with misleading titles - "Blue", for example, was really rather a happy affair - but this is not the case with their current exhibition. "In Memoriam" is about those issues of life, death and posterity that are depressing enough anywhere, never mind in Walsall. But this exhibition makes it worth the risk of SAD. Group shows that claim to uncover a new mood in contemporary art often turn out to be fibbing, and the curators of "In Memoriam" wisely make no such claims for this one. The curious thing, though, is that the consistency of voice in "In Memoriam" does suggest something new going on in British art; although whether - given the melancholy tenor of the voice in question - this is a cause for celebration is another matter.

Recommending a trip to Walsall in mid-December is not a thing you do lightly, particularly when its object is to see an exhibition called "In Memoriam". Walsall's New Art Gallery occasionally puts on shows with misleading titles - "Blue", for example, was really rather a happy affair - but this is not the case with their current exhibition. "In Memoriam" is about those issues of life, death and posterity that are depressing enough anywhere, never mind in Walsall. But this exhibition makes it worth the risk of SAD. Group shows that claim to uncover a new mood in contemporary art often turn out to be fibbing, and the curators of "In Memoriam" wisely make no such claims for this one. The curious thing, though, is that the consistency of voice in "In Memoriam" does suggest something new going on in British art; although whether - given the melancholy tenor of the voice in question - this is a cause for celebration is another matter.

The obvious place to start is with an installation by the Argentinian-born artist currently known as Echolalia. This consists of shelves, on which the artist has placed 2001 "limited edition small-scale sculptural works" (transl: artificial roses, an Echolalia trademark). Labels in Hallmark-schmaltz script invite visitors to help themselves, and then to leave "gifts [which] will form part of Echolalia's Walsall archive". To date, these include such ephemera as a feather, a £20 Monopoly note, a cassette, 200 Spanish pesetas and a flower made out of pipe-cleaners with a tag saying "To Echolalia, a rose for a rose".

If all this sounds familiar, then it is because the Walsall archive looks like one of those post-Princess-Diana scenes-of-tragedy at which people leave cheap flowers and stuffed toys. The piece is, perhaps, less a work of art than a sociological document. Although Echolalia's Barbara Cartland aesthetic is clearly taking the piss out of the public, that same public has treated her installation as a votive shrine. The question you muse over as you stand in front of it is what kind of millennial insecurity has made them do so?

It's a thought that occurs with Nick Crowe's New Medium series. Based on an actual website for the electronically bereaved called "Virtual Heaven", Crowe's works consists of a set of internet pages reproduced on etched glass and spotlit so as to project their message - "Michael Brian Denton, I'll see you out there some day in Virtual Heaven, your little sister Jennifer" - onto the gallery walls.

Where Echolalia sees ridiculousness in the need to garner posterity through public declaration, Crowe sees only pathos. The internet may be the product and channel of human rationalism, but it is dogged superstition that has turned cyberspace into an approximation of paradise. Crowe reflects this by recreating the web pages of "Virtual Heaven" as hand-crafted things, church windows of unstained glass. Like the heaven they apprehend, these exist in an irrational non-space; shadow cast by a material - glass - that seems incapable of casting shadows. There's the same spirit in Darryl Joe Georgiou's Amniotic, a work inspired by the birth of his son. The technology of Georgiou's medium (digital video) and of the thing it represents (an ultrasound scanner) is new, but the message it transmitsis ancient. Amniotic consists of a pair of video screens on which stylised embryos dance to a synthesised heartbeat. The sense is of some eternal rhythm at work, that technology can depict but not change.

Georgiou's installation may be about pre-vitam rather than post-mortem memorialisation, but the story it tells has the same plot as Crowe's: the triumph of the primitive over the modern. The question you might like to ask yourself is whether this makes these works anti-modernist: that is to say, whether they celebrate computers and ultrasound scanners by using them as media, or whether they set out to tame them by doing so.

One artist who clearly has no doubts on the matter is Gavin Turk, whose specially-commissioned piece, Bag II, puts traditional ideas of commemorative sculpture firmly in their place. Cast evocatively in bronze, Turk's piece is exactly what it says it is: a dustbin bag, sitting in the corner of the gallery like two elegantly raised fingers. Posterity is rubbish, it says; history is a dustbin. And yet - intentionally? unintentionally? - it's an ambiguous thing: deeply aware of its own beauty, and of the immortality that beauty brings.

'In Memoriam': New Art Gallery, Walsall (01922 654400), to 21 January, 2001

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