Thomas Sutcliffe: Strictures at an exhibition

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The Independent Online

There is an art to the titling of exhibitions. I don't mean the blunt utilitarian bits of the title - the ones that tell you who the painter is, or what the parameters of the selection are. I mean the fancy bit that is supposed to sound visionary and enigmatic.

You will know the kind of thing I mean. One bit of the title reads: "Dutch Maritime Painting of the 17th Century". The other reads: "An Eye Against the Wind" or "The Confident Tide" or "Latitudes of Meaning". One bit instructs and the other - notionally at least - entices. And the obligation to come up with something sonorously plausible is even greater when what's being promoted is a portfolio show - an exhibition which, by definition, implies that a disparate group of artists have something in common.

You can see a good example at the Victoria and Albert Museum right now. The businesslike bit of the title is pretty straightforward: "New Photography and Video from China". But the arty bit of the title is very good in its combination of vagueness and conceptual scope. In fact, "Between Past and Future" has a claim to being a Platonically perfect exhibition title for a contemporary show - given that it's not easy to think of anything that it would exclude.

In the case of the V&A's show, it does bear a little more directly on the content - a survey of recent art photography and installations from China, which turns out to be preoccupied with that country's recent past and its prospective future. It's easy to single out exhibits that tick off one element or other in the title: an artist called Hai Bo, for example, has dug up formal black-and-white portraits taken during the Cultural Revolution and attempted to restage them with the same people. That's unequivocally the Past, surely.

On the other hand, the many photographers who record the staggering pace at which new cities spring up in China are clearly fretful about what the Future might bring. And, while you could argue that any photograph ever taken will in some way relate to Past, Future or (failing those) Between, there is a temporal self-consciousness about many of these works that may justify the title.

For any Western viewer ignorant of recent developments in Chinese photography (pretty much everyone but the exhibition organisers, I imagine), it's an interesting show, one that's likely to overturn some prejudices. Still thinking Mao suits and socialist realism? Check out the work of Rong Rong, who has photographed installations and performance pieces by friends and colleagues. These include a striking image of the Chinese artist who smeared himself in fish oil and honey and sat for several hours in a Beijing public lavatory - attracting the attention of a large number of flies and, one imagines, anyone who walked in hoping to lighten their load.

It isn't the only work that reveals that Chinese artists are catching up with the wilder strands of Western conceptual art. One video piece records a hen and a cockerel pecking at pieces of rice while a male and female voice count the respective tally of grains, a curiously engrossing sight but not one that's easy to connect with China's tradition of scroll painting. And, taken all together, they mean you end up thinking quite a lot about the exact nature of Between - that connective route that links the Past and the Future.

One mildly tactless question that arises is whether they're obliged to use a Western road-map. But the truth is that one of the surprises the exhibition delivers is how unsurprising much of the work is. On this wall, you can see the influence of Cindy Sherman's posed costume dramas; on that, there's a touch of Nan Goldin. This looks like Wolfgang Tillmans, that's a bit like Andreas Gursky. These aren't for a moment slavish imitations, but there really isn't anything that would require translation for a visitor even halfway fluent in contemporary art discourse.

And that makes you wonder whether this is just a phase Chinese artists have to go through - in order to accelerate their journey from an intellectually repressed society to an imaginatively free one - or whether in the long run their artists will turn out to be just like ours. That would be a score for human common-interest, of course, but a bit of a blow for regional diversity.

I can't help hoping myself that they're just hitching a lift to speed up the process, but the tidy recognisability of the V&A's show - the smoothness with which it fits into your expectations of the kind of work that gets shown in galleries - suggests that that might be wishful thinking. It's perhaps a little harsh, but as I left I found myself thinking of another possible title for the show: "Neither here nor there."