The first thing we see at Nottingham Contemporary is Brian Griffiths’ ‘The Body and Ground (or Your Lovely Smile)’, 2010, a tattered canvas tent shaped like a bear’s head, its flapping orbits gazing blindly onto the street: the perfect introduction to an exhibition opening under the shadow of George Osborne’s austerity measures.
Selected by curators Lisa le Feuvre and Tom Morton on the basis of ‘significant contributions to contemporary art in the last five years’, some artists have upped the ante with new work, while others stay firmly in their comfort zone—particularly the painters. Technically, George Shaw’s crepuscular landscapes just get better and better, but he’s content to remain the Gauguin of Coventry, investing everything in the mastery of his medium rather than considering new subjects. Roger Hiorns, on the other hand, challenges our perception of an artist committed to grand schemes. His ‘Untitled’ features a youth in underpants sitting on a steel bench. The bench is set on fire; the youth watches it go out, then leaves. That’s it. The effect is at once quotidian and mythic, like watching Narcissus on his tea break.
Charles Avery’s sculptures, drawings and writings map the cultural topography of an imaginary ‘Island’. His vitrined sculpture depicts an amorous encounter between the ‘Hunter’ (the narrator of his literary works) and ‘Miss Miss’, under the allegorical auspices of a watching snake. While Avery’s technical flair is indisputable, his metafictional rubric is beginning to feel superfluous. His best work has a solipsistic grotesqueness—like forced rhubarb brought into the light—but this piece looks gauche, unintentionally comic, like a prop from the diorama of some provincial museum.
Down at the New Art Exchange is Christian Marclay’s extraordinary horological opus ‘The Clock’, 2010, a 24-hour montage of film fragments featuring clocks, watches and characters seen at specific times of day. It’s synchronised with local time, and you spend the first few minutes flitting between the screen and your wristwatch. An adjacent room shows Duncan Campbell’s docu-portrait of Bernadette Devlin, the Northern Irish activist who in 1969 became the youngest ever MP at 21. Between Campbell and Marclay is an unfinished installation of bare MDF walls and a sickly projection of illegible text. This is part of Edgar Schmitz’s ‘In the Days of the Comet’, 2010, his exploration of the show’s ‘threshold spaces’. The guide tells us that Schmitz is ‘uneasy with the authority invested in an exhibition’. He’s not uneasy enough to decline the invitation to participate, but he’s uneasy enough to make anything intrinsically interesting. His morose offering does little more than fill a gap, and is instantly vaporised by the solar heat of Marclay’s show-stopping artistry—while the mere proximity of Devlin’s pungent charisma is enough to vanquish the liberal ideology that allows him to formally table such a tokenistic work.
You must pass through another of Schmitz’s interstitial gestures (cinema trailer music playing in the stairwell) to get to Elizabeth Price’s brilliant ‘User Group Disco’, 2009, in the upper gallery. The video is a 15-minute tour of ‘The Hall of Sculptures’, a room from her fictional museum The New, Ruined Institute. Our tour guide is the camera itself, which, supported by textual commentary, takes us through a taxonomy of objects familiar to us but baffling to the custodian of the enigmatic Institute. Our initially inscrutable guide becomes increasingly animated by such items as the ‘C. Smart Wheel Cover’ and the ‘Bliss Chromed Bottle Rack’, its rising excitement set to a soundtrack that just manages to leave your bowels intact as it crashes to a sudden halt—before resuming with the instrumental of A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’. The narrative voice is archly post-human, as though an automated planet were trying to assess the achievements of its former inhabitant, whose extinction is subliminally implied by the absence of Morten Harket’s piping falsetto.
By contrast, Nathaniel Mellors’ voice is defiantly anthropic. In the first instalment of ‘Ourhouse’, 2010, his six-part pataphysical drama, we follow the exploits of an ‘artistic’ family in their country mansion. An Oedipal dynamic prevails, the father applauding his daughter’s wretched sculptures while lamenting his sons’ indolence. All is well until the arrival of a metempsychotic foe called ‘The Object’, who scrambles the already unstable minds of this fauxhemian ensemble. The viewer is pulled two ways: wilfully arcane content is leavened by a Sunday night TV production style—as though an experimental filmmaker had requisitioned the cast and location of the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen . A strange compliment to throw at someone, perhaps, but it encapsulates Mellors’ theatrical assault on contemporary art’s cultural aloofness, its instinctive distrust of all things middlebrow.
He and Sarah Lucas, whose stuffed nylon tights on breeze blocks blend art school parody with Cronenbergian pathology, are the pick of the artists at the Castle Museum. Elsewhere, Emily Wardill shows her most ambitious film to date, and Ian Kiaer’s installation livens up the painting with its deconstruction of the Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov. Adrian Searle called this the best British Art Show yet. Let’s hope it’s not the last.
Sean Ashton is a writer and artist based in London
British Art Show 7 tours London, Glasgow and Plymouth throughout 2011