British Art Show 7, The Hayward Gallery

Blanche magazine

Every five years this touring show pulls together the finest and most interesting new artists for a group show. Setting out to be the beacon of contemporary British art it suggests itself to be the one stop shop to catch up on what the best of the crop we've got have been doing with themselves for the last few years.

One complaint often thrown against conceptual art ever since Sensation back in '97 is the issue of style over substance. It's a boring and boorish complaint, but a few of the pieces in here made me feel it to some degree. Roger Hiorns' work usually skilfully weaves science with art to create sublime objects or installations, but here his installation of a municipal bench with a flame burning away, tenderly watched by a naked male model, doesn't have any subtlety or intrigue usually in his work. It's just a powerful image which doesn't seem to have any depth or reason, and the cynic in me wonders if the only reason it is included is because it makes for a punchy poster image for the show.

For me there is too much film work, causing the gallery experience to frequently involve leaps of faith through the black curtain into the projection spaces. Eyes take time to acclimatise to the darkness and the physical breaking of continuity only gets in the way of reading one work against another. Film work is more popular than it ever has been, but if there were more pieces which used moving image in the main gallery space or as a part of the whole work - such as Haroon Mirza who flickers previously unseen images of Ian Curtis through his sculptural machine which conjoins hearing with seeing - then it would have seemed a tidier way of curating the show.

Having said that, the stand-out piece in the show, and for me the best new work of the year, is Christian Marclay's The Clock. A 24 hours long film, it is a hugely intricate montage of moments from every film imaginable. Whenever a film pictures a clock or mentions the time, Marclay has cut the section out and layered it into his work. What results is a 'real-time' tour-de-force which never has it's own narrative, but continually folds these disembodied filmic moments into one another forcing imagined stories and continuity between all the fragments.

If there is some kind of theme which constantly pops up it is perhaps that of the anti-aesthetic, the deliberate visual distaste made to immediately distance the viewer before allowing them to re-engage with the work. Perhaps this is a forbearer of the impending arts cuts and art saying “look, i'm not just here as prettiness to decorate, I have stuff in me which isn't nice to look at”. Sarah Lucas's sculptures appear to be deformed intestines, the inside made visible, the ugly made presentable. Milena Dragicevic's paintings are all titled Supplicant and disturbingly sit somewhere between portrait and abstraction - we don't know if we should fear or feel sorry for the uncomfortable faces looking back.

Even the landscape paintings have a sense of dystopia and failure to them, George Shaw's paintings of Coventry have a beautiful finish, quality and veneer but the photographic subject belies the gloss of the image by presenting rather gloomy locations. Gritty realism replaces the romance of landscape paintings of the past. Nathanial Mellor's small sculptural head continually vomits into a bucket which only feeds the tube which in turn carries the matter back to the sculpture. Repeating and repeating, he never gets better, he never stops.

I am not sure this really makes a case for where British art really is now. Every week London hosts countless new shows, so to try to contain all this creative energy into a five year show is a brave and, perhaps, foolish task. There are some moments in this which seem to have the zeitgeist, but all too regularly it seems contrived to fit in certain names and doesn't seem to reflect anything about the state of play. Take a day off and spend it flitting between the hundreds of small and eclectic galleries around London, I think it will offer a much wider and more interesting insight into the current position of British Art.


Hayward Gallery, London. Afterwards to Glasgow then Plymouth.