Tom Sutcliffe: It's time to queue for conceptual art

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The Independent Online

I don't know whether you saw the story the other day about a mysterious surge of visitors for a small exhibition at the National Gallery but, if you missed it, it was essentially a tale of popular insurgency. The queues were for a small show of work by a painter called Clive Head, who produces works of a finely-detailed realism depicting ordinary scenes from urban life. And the point was that, without any large-scale publicity, word seemed to have got out about these paintings and stirred a response. His show had broken attendance records for the small, temporary exhibition space in which his three paintings were hanging, with more than 16,000 visitors in just two weeks. And behind those uninflected facts lay a larger implication. The prevailing orthodoxy might favour the conceptual, the minimalist and the non-representational, it ran, but the plain people of Britain feel very differently. They like stuff that looks like stuff – and they'll even wait in line to look at it.

It was a story that chimed interestingly with a big show that I went to see recently – the British Art Show 7 in Nottingham – which is the latest of a series of five-yearly surveys of contemporary work being made in Britain (though not necessarily by Britons).

It is currently on show at three main venues in the town and when I went – on a recent weekday – attendances seemed healthy but were still someway short of a reportable phenomenon. There were no queues that I encountered, anyway, and – in some sections of the exhibition – reasonably long stretches of time passed with no audience at all.

In some cases this wasn't difficult to understand. Entering the room in which Luke Fowler's video installation A Grammar for Listening was being screened, I saw a blurry projection of a busy ring-road somewhere, accompanied by a soundtrack of roaring cars. It's possible that its studied banality would have blossomed into something rich and strange, given a bit of time, but after a few more shots of arterial traffic and wan-looking urban shrubbery I decided it wasn't a wager I was willing to make, and moved on.

In the competition for public attention a work like A Grammar for Listening is obviously at a considerable disadvantage to one of Clive Head's paintings. The latter display a rare degree of skill, while the former employs a technology that is accessible to every Tom, Dick or Harry. More to the point, the latter foregrounds the reward and buries the intellectual effort while the former does exactly the reverse.

No one in front of Clive Head's painting Coffee at the Cottage Delight would waste even two seconds wondering what they were supposed to make of it, because what it's about is plain, and (if his champions are to be believed) long study will deliver something more. In the case of Luke Fowler's piece though, the struggle to work out exactly why you're looking at this drab bit of footage comes first and can't be side-stepped. And for quite a lot of people – suspicious of contemporary art and its opacities – this is a damning fact in itself.

They should take a look at Christian Marclay's piece The Clock – the highlight of British Art Show 7, though also a work that appears to take the demands of conceptual video art to an almost ludicrous extreme. If you want to see all of The Clock you're going to have to have 24 hours to spare, because that's the total running time of Marclay's assemblage of thousands of film clips featuring timepieces, watches and clocks, edited into sequence and shown in sync with local time.

"What the hell are we supposed to make of this?' you think on first entering. But an answer turns out to be unnecessary, because the thing itself is simply captivating. I intended to stay for five minutes and forced myself, reluctantly, to leave 20 minutes after that, drawn into the strange, plotless urgency of Marclay's film. Would it ever generate queues? Probably not, because it sounds so self-indulgently pointless. And would it ever generate headlines about a surprise popular reaction? Again unlikely, if only because it wouldn't carry that delicious charge of aesthetic upraising. It's showing at the White Cube gallery in Masons' Yard, London until Saturday evening, and if ever anything deserved a queue, it does.

Queasy riders: Perry and his ton-up teddy

I'm not usually a fan of whimsy, and particularly not of whimsy with a self-consciously juvenile twist, but I confess myself completely won over by Grayson Perry's latest enterprise, chronicled in a Radio 4 documentary earlier this week. On the ear it sounded mildly eccentric – a tour across Bavaria in the company of his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, who has featured in Perry's artworks before, and figures in his personal pantheon as a resistance hero and private deity. The purpose of the trip was one of reconciliation, designed to lay the ghosts of Perry's childhood fantasies of fighting off invading Nazi hordes (with Alan Measles' assistance) to rest. And again, on the ear, this sounded like the kind of personal quirk that could be decorously contained. On the eye though, as evidenced by a photograph of Perry on the highly decorated motorcycle on which he travelled, his arrival at Schloss Neuschwanstein (one of the stops on his tour) must have been mind-bending. The look of the motorcycle itself would make Liberace think twice, but Perry's suit, a weird mash-up of dirndl trimming, purple and yellow leather, and a bright green helmet with ornamental border, takes bad taste to the level of genius. Alan Measles sits in state in a pink and blue gingerbread monstrance on the back. The programme is available for a few more days on iPlayer. The photograph will, I hope, survive for ever as evidence of just what English eccentricity can achieve at its highest reach.

Archie's channel-zapper

Intriguing to hear the ITV chairman Archie Norman confess that ITV is aimed at the "lowest common denominator", and express his hope that the broadcaster could start investing in more upmarket programming. I look forward to the new Saturday evening schedules.

6.45 All New You've Been Framed! Excitement as Still Life By Candlelight (circa 1650, school of George de la Tour) is united with a recently acquired reverse-ogee, polished fruitwood frame. And red faces all round as a late Mondrian gouache turns up in a Louis XVI gilded surround with imbricated laurel-leaf ornament!

7.15 Harry Hill's Opera Eructation The comedian rounds up the flat notes and high points from the week at La Scala, The Met and Covent Garden. Stouffer the cat sings "Je suis encore tout etourdie" from Manon.

7.45 The Text Factor Andrew Motion mentors the sonneteers, AS Byatt encourages the novelists and Will Self guides the post-modernist short-story writers, all hoping to make it through tonight's read-off. Guest appearance by Paul Muldoon with the Michael Clark dancers, performing his latest poem live.

9.30 Piers Morgan's Life Stories Piers meets Rachel Whiteread CBE, catapulted to fame when she became the first woman to win the Turner Prize. She talks about her exploration of "negative space" and her pieces Untitled, Untitled, Untitled and Untitled.

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