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Strange Events Permit the Luxury of Occurring, installation view, 2007

We are obsessed with context and comparison; we tend to ask not what an artwork is, but what it shares with other artworks. Propinquity is now a medium. Many group shows subsist on this truism alone, treating artworks as mere links in a chain of curatorial kinship.

Steven Claydon’s Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring is not like this, though it does occasionally commit sins characteristic of the junketing group survey, for example, the tendency to ‘contemporise’ dead artists through quirky juxtaposition. ‘Behold my irreverent placement of this Lynn Chadwick’, I could hear Claydon saying, as I regarded Chadwick’s ‘Pair of Sitting Figures III’, 1973, flung down like Cabbage Patch Kids beneath Keith Coventry’s ‘Endangered Species’, 2005.

On the whole, though, Strange Events fascinates by offering works from an essentialist past—by modernists such as Chadwick, Frink, Picabia and Paolozzi—alongside those of our relativist present. It is writhing with ideas, but they emerge directly from materials rather than from ‘discourse’ applied or ‘positions’ taken. Unlike other recent re-readings of modernism—old and new works are arranged didactically enough for this to constitute a re-reading—it does not ironise Modernism’s obsession with materiality and form, or lampoon its elemental piety (Mark Leckey apart), or use old and new art in order to pit essentialist notions of fixed, auratic content against the postmodern predilection for critical relativism. On the contrary, it shuns such dichotomy.

In his pamphlet essay Claydon as curator emphasises, via Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, that an artwork is a thing of ‘pure subsistence’, a thing ‘between substance and symbol’ that ‘distinguishes itself from the utilitarian or craft object through means of discretion or bombast’.

The majority of works here do not choose between discretion and bombast but combine both, a case in point being Elizabeth Price’s ‘Artefacts from the New, Ruined Institute’, 2005-07, photographic ‘still life’ approximations of record company logos.

The commonplace objects comprising each work (entitled ‘Monument to Phillips’, ‘Monument to Island’ etc.) seem both familiar and unrecognisable—as though assembled by someone with a tendency to mistake his wife for a hat.

A similar agnosia pervades Jim Shaw’s film ‘Initiation Ritual of the 360 degree’, 2002, in which people play musical instruments resembling body parts—the ‘Penis Slidewhistle’, the ‘Testicle Bagpipes’ and ‘Anal Violin’—in a ceremony that follows a bizarre, Gogolesque rubric. The participants carry the whole thing off with deadpan credulity—a pity, then, that the video projector was so loud you couldn’t hear the initiation rites.

In Bonnie Camplin’s film ‘Cancer’, 2004, a scientist explains the eponymous disease as his voice distorts and his face mutates. Carol Bove’s ‘Setting for A. Pomodoro’, 2005, is a sort of monument-cum-gymnasium-cum-sculptural obituary dedicated to the Italian sculptor.

Jenny Holzer’s hilarious ‘If things were a little different you would digest yourself through a cut in your mouth. It’s a relief to know there are provisions against this’, 1980-82, is a plaque bearing that statement. Such works refer initially to a world beyond themselves, but are then reeled back in by their internal logic.

One of the strongest works in the show (not listed in the inventory) is a chair by Eduardo Paolozzi constructed from studio off-cuts, its seat inscribed with a dashed centre line. It somehow manages to feel like both an actual chair and a diagram of itself. In his film ‘Carlton’, 2006, Simon Martin describes an ostentatious Memphis bookcase as ‘an object that wants to be something else’.

That is an accurate description of many works in this show, and a reminder of art’s ability to inhabit ontological interstices. Despite the formal elegance of his work, Martin is more essayist than film maker, and few artists possess his understated eloquence. Speaking of the modern, he states that ‘it seems that suddenly we arrived at today without quite knowing how we got there’.

By contrast, Mark Leckey’s film relies entirely on images. ‘The March of the Big White Barbarians’, 2005, is a video sequence of public artworks set to a homespun soundtrack that lurches into a parody of a Happy Mondays song. The implication is clear: this procession of plaza-fodder is Modernism’s embarrassing wardrobe. When cynics consider Modernism, they tend to think not of its early and middle periods, but of its dystopian culminations—the formalist regime that poisoned municipal architecture, or the corporate appropriation of Henry Moore et al. Although Leckey panders to this, the contrast between the ‘monstrosities’ he catalogues and Martin’s more thoughtful critique is instructive.

Sean Ashton is a writer in London