Deborah Orr: Sadness, swans and swimming lessons... portrait of an artist not on Saatchi's list

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The Independent Online

On the lamppost outside the So Sad Show, a starving artist has taped up some shrivelled flowers in cellophane, in tribute to an imaginary roadside death. Or I think it's part of the show. Outside or inside the Guy Hilton Gallery, on Fournier Street, Shoreditch, London, it's hard to tell where art ends and entropy begins. Which is only fitting.

The gallery looks like a squat, semi-derelict and furnished from skips: crumbling, damp and mucky. The art is displayed chaotically inside, in a group show that takes sadness as its theme. A scrawl on the wall announces that Marcia Farquhar is sitting by the phone. Is it part of the show or has it been there for years? I call the performance artist in question, and she confirms that she's one of the exhibits. A framed A4 poster offers free swimming lessons for London artists on low incomes. This, I'm pretty sure, is for real. It appears to be the closest thing to a permanent fixture the building can muster.

There's the carcass of a swan on a makeshift table at the back of the upstairs room. Do I want to eat some swan? I don't think I do. Mark McGowan has eaten most of it already, anyway, in front of a load of television cameramen. They were disappointed, one and all, no doubt, that the artist's defiance of the law that allows only the Queen to eat swan, had not roused the ire of the Bethnal Green constabulary.

It's roused a performance poet though, who declaims from his notes on the evening's great occasion, to the polite applause and muted laughter of a modest gaggle of listeners. McGowan is pleased with the poem, in which Kate Middleton features with her Top Shop dress. McGowan's art is all about getting a reaction, so when he tells me that it's dreadful what the upper classes do to animals, and fulminates that they shoot stags, bury them in fiery pits and roast them with apples, I ask him what's not to like.

He looks a bit crestfallen, which is pretty rich from a man whose work has included kicking a crack-addict from Camberwell Green to the Maudseley hospital, dressing as a traffic warden then inviting the public to beat him with sticks, crawling the 55 miles from London to Canterbury with a rose clenched between his teeth, and attempting to leave a tap running for a year in an environmental statement.

McGowan's art is the sort that makes people fulminate about Arts Council grants, wasters and general artistic idiocy. Actually, though, he's good at what he does, which is to provide a momentary focus for the absurdity of life, and then see what happens next. He is as poor as any cock-eyed romantic could ever want an artist to be. A lot of the artists in the show have been on the scene for years - Bob and Roberta Smith, Jessica Voorsanger and others have been taking parts in anarchic exhibitions like this since the late 1980s when they exhibited in similarly makeshift spaces alongside unknowns such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Sam Taylor-Wood and so many others. Some, like Stella Vine, keep a foot in both camps, which is admirably tricky diplomacy, since one branch of Britart's financial schism offers such a powerful counterpoint to the other.

There's something splendidly courageous and uncompromising about these middle-aged-BAs still plugging away on the breadline, making art that's too conceptual to sell. And it's not about talent - it's willful. The refusal of cash is part of the point. "I have no money, which was fine when I was 30," one painting declaims. "But now I'm 40, I'm fucked."

One younger artist, Richard Dedomenici, is doling out black coffee with black milk. "It's going to be big," goes his pitch. "All the aesthetics of black coffee, and all the creaminess of white." Actually it's a solid-looking gunmetal grey. But it tastes all right. When we enquire as to purchasing niceties, the curator is flummoxed, and we leave a note asking the artist to get in touch. Artists, eh? You've just got to love them. And give them free swimming lessons.

* It's an ill wind that blows no one any good, and the news that salmon spawning will be late this year because of the mild winter does have a tiny upside. Again and again, I'm caught by wild salmon, hook, line and sinker, stepping into the fishmonger and thinking: "Oooh, wild salmon, I really must have some. Delicious." Traditionally, as I stuff my optimistic £60 back in my purse and fumble instead for my debit card, I cover the awkward moment by ordering an unfeasible feast of potted shrimps as well. This year, at least, the moment of temptation will come later. This year, at least, I'm on the alert.

Sex and drugs and A-levels

One of the joys of that much-maligned process "growing older" is that you get to hang out with teenagers again - your family, their friends, your friends' children, their friends, and so on. I know it's the done thing to despair of "young people", but the ones I have dealings with are breathtaking in their sophistication, their potential, their talent, their intellect, and their lust for life.

I'm looking forward to hearing their take on the new Channel 4 comedy Skins. Judging from the first episode, there will be much to discuss. Here is British teenage life in all its scary, decadent, defiant, dangerous confidence. Here are people with easy access to drink, drugs, sex, culture and crime, clued up on self-harm, eating disorders, addiction, and magnificently, recklessly certain they can handle it all and still get decent A-levels.

The most frightening thing is the multiplicity of temptations, choices and pressures they face, and the worrying rate of attrition that promises to result. The most difficult thing, as an adult, is working out how to offer support without judging too much or too little. This show may just capture some of the chutzpah and peril of being young in Britain today - which makes it something akin to a public service.

* It's Carole Malone I feel sorry for. There was the Sunday Mirror columnist, claiming to be right inside the story every journalist wanted. Then she was kicked out - quite unsurprisingly, hacks being what we are. She'll milk it for all it's worth anyway, just like absolutely everybody else.

The glee with which Channel 4 has continued broadcasting the ignorant digs and the petty prejudices aired in the house, and the stubbornness with which the broadcasters have insisted that racism is as solid and recognisable as a fork or a table, and different to clashes of "class" or "culture", says more about "our society today" than the women being so ineptly insulting before the cameras ever could. They're consistent at least in their tacit admittance that bullying is meat and drink to their format, with bullying always focusing on the things that are different about its victim.

The supposed ringleader, Jade Goody, is known for her inability to express herself coherently. It is entirely unsurprising that she and her cohorts fall back on someone else's unfamiliarity as being somehow to blame for their own inability to cope with the social interaction Big Brother is keen to contrive. These women resort to ugly clichés because they're stumped when it comes to working out what it is about beautiful, clever Shilpa Shetty that makes them feel inferior.

None of this says anything new about race and class in Britain today. The fact that so many people are keen to suggest that some hitherto unimagined subculture has been exposed says only how much more comfortable it feels when racist tendencies can be ignored. Except that can't be right, as a million more viewers have shown themselves appalled enough by racism and bullying to want to witness some for themselves. Like the little shits in the playground who enjoy watching cruelty, but are too smart to join in.

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