The object of seeing

A new exhibition at the Hayward celebrates the object in British art over the past two decades. A mirror, a skip and piles of dust - these are just a few of John O'Reilly's favourite things
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The Independent Online
Roland Barthes once remarked that in the modern world it is impossible to come across even the most natural object that has not somewhere been coded, packaged in such a way that our subsequent perception of it feels mediated. Can you think of sweetcorn without the Jolly Green Giant bumbling into your head or dream of surf without summoning up Old Spice? But however hard you tried, you could not have begun to imagine some of the objects on display in "Material Culture", the new exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery.

The subtitle of the show is "The Object in British Art of the 1980s and 1990s". With over 40 artists on show, its range is extensive; from Richard Deacon and Rachel Whiteread, who make work that belongs to a tradition of sculpture, to Damien Hirst, whose work owes as much of a debt to the disciplines of pickling and pharmacology. It doesn't attempt to group the artists together in terms of generation or as representatives of a certain British style. One space, for example, contains Anthony Gormley's cast-iron Still Falling, a cocoon-body hanging like a massive turd from the ceiling. Beside this, and attached to the wall, is Damien Hirst's striking, but comparatively restrained The Lovers - a cabinet containing jars of cow parts. And if Gormley's dense body demands to be looked at, Anish Kapoor's huge Curved Mirror on an adjacent wall completely distorts your vision, creating a hallucinatory sense of depth where there is none. The show's curators, Michael Archer and Greg Hilty, have constructed a curious narrative of objects. As Archer explains: "There are mixtures of things, so you find echoes and refutations as you move from one gallery to the next."

Take, for example, Tony Cragg's Spectrum - a jarringly pleasant rectangle of colourful, found plastic tat. It's laid on the floor right beside Gavin Turk's obscenely huge black skip, Pimp. Your initial impulse is to get a brush and pan, scoop up the bits of rubbish and stick them in the bin. It represents a continuation of his early work in which he masqueraded as a famous artist called "Gavin Turk", subverting the conventions that confer aesthetic value- the context of the gallery and the artist's signature.

While Turk's shiny black streetwise skip is a bold and brash pimp, Shirazeh Houshiary's monumental black Isthmus resembles the silent monolith in 2001. But perhaps the most discreet work is Christine Borland's spooky, ethereal, spectral "From Life", Berlin. The piece consists of 21 glass panels inserted high on the gallery walls. On each panel, Borland has placed a group of bones (the hand, the spine etc), sprinkled them with dust and then removed them. A spotlight directed at the glass leaves a negative trace of the bones on the wall. This exhibit is the endpoint to a body of work begun in 1991 when the artist worked with police detectives on a derelict site in Glasgow. She gathered material from the surroundings which was examined by forensic experts. The discarded bits and pieces told a story of the life and events of the people in the area. The results were displayed and discussed with visiting members of the public.

Fascinated by what detective-fiction fans call "procedure" and what artists call "process", Borland discovered by default that you could purchase real human bones and applied these methodologies to reconstruct the life of a skeleton. "The skeleton had completely lost all identity. It actually came from India and it was about the second last you could buy because they had begun an investigation there into how they were being obtained. It turned out there was an exact parallel to the situation here in the 19th century when early anatomists obtained their specimens by getting destitute people bumped off."

Just as the fictional detectives in Barry Levinson's slice of verite- TV drama Homicide insist that their job is about giving a voice to the dead, letting them speak, so Borland's piece was about returning an identity to what had simply become a commodity, a product. Working at the University of Glasgow, Borland established that the skeleton belonged to a 25-year- old Indian woman. She then went on to reconstruct the head which became the focus of the work; the final piece was a bronze bust. "You are used to associating bronze busts with commemorating the great and good but this was trying to do that for a complete unknown."

The work at the Hayward was originally shown in an abandoned factory in Berlin. "It's just a shadow that you could blow away. It relates to the fragility and vulnerability of the human situation and I felt dust was a fitting end." But if Borland's work is about letting the dead speak, Susan Hiller's collection of artefacts, From the Freud Museum, seems to present a different dilemma. When James Joyce referred to history as a nightmare, he was pointing out that the problem with the dead is not that they have been silenced, but that they never shut up. The mixture of found objects, artefacts, relics and text in the cabinet sets off a string of interminable associations.

Moving through the gallery, you are faced with a mix of the startling and the unobtrusive. Cathy de Monchaux's Graft is quiet to the point of almost disappearing. It seems strange to admit to being seduced and annoyed by a "thing". In the late 1980s, she produced lush objects constructed out of metals and velvet.

From a distance, Graft looks like a series of shelves that offers the promise of being functional, of having some purpose. But on closer inspection, the finely detailed metal and silk structure turns out to be a tease - just decorative DIY. De Monchaux admits that the acceleration of contemporary life can make things difficult for artists. "The invention of everything has speeded up. You can make Dolly the sheep or a mouse with an ear on its back. I think it makes it harder and harder to make things." It's an disturbing thought, but judging from the strange fruit on show at the Hayward, British artists have already marked out a space for the unlikely, the eccentric and the improbably beautiful.

`Material Culture': at the Hayward Gallery, London, SE1. Booking: 0171- 960 4242. To 18 May