British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet

Nottingham is currently playing host to the seventh incarnation of the British Art Show, an exhibition that will eventually travel to three other UK cities in the next year. BAS7 is the bringing together of current British art from the last five years, showcasing 39 artists at three different venues across Nottingham: Nottingham Castle, Nottingham Contemporary and the New Art Exchange.    

The first question that springs to my mind is: is this the best of British art right now, or a prediction of what has the potential to be the best? Having previously shown the likes of David Hockney, Tracy Emin, and Damien Hirst, its prophetic potential is not to be underestimated or ignored. Established in 1979, British Art Show acts as a viewing platform for contemporary art being produced in Britain, art that is more than often limited to London galleries.  Although it will grace London with its presence next year, it has not been there since 1990, which really emphasizes that this is about displaying British art in Britain while it is still fresh. There has been some dispute over the fact that many of the chosen 39 artists are nonetheless represented by London galleries, limiting the overall effect of BAS7. Still I feel that those who are up in arms are missing the point, it is hardly a new or an avoidable fact that London is centre of the British art world and BAS7 is about making current British art accessible to wider audiences, no matter where it is from. 

With this in mind, the subtitle for the show: ‘In the Days of the Comet,’ becomes quite a poignant theme. It is inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name, in which a comet is seen in the sky emitting a bright green glow, so bright that it renders street lights useless, and ultimately acts as a harbinger of change in a in a corrupt world. When the comet enters the atmosphere its vapours bring about a profound and lasting transformation in the attitudes of human kind. So it stands to question, is this travelling exhibition meant to function like the comet? The repetitive use of the colour green on BAS7 media certainly suggests that this is not simply a detached abstract theme, though the door is left open for the public to decide whether BAS7 is really a bringer of change or if it only illuminates corruption before there can be change. To many people comets are just a beautiful spectacle, though they can be equally world altering. So which will be true of British Art Show 7?

British Art Show 7 @ The New Art Exchange by Isabel Roth

'The Clock' by Christian Marclay

Hyson Green’s New Art Exchange is perhaps the most manageable of the British Art Show venues, featuring the work of just four artists. But the three striking video pieces somehow seem enough to fill the building’s dark spaces. Look carefully and you’ll also notice Edgar Schmitz’s ‘threshold space’ works, which pop up in the unexpected nooks and crannies of all three British Art Show galleries. Eerie movie trailer music in the stairwell and haphazard projections that look like a work in progress are there to make you question your own expectations of a gallery experience.

Fresh from White Cube, no less, the centrepiece of the exhibition is Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’. With a running time of twenty-four hours, this painstaking project is stitched together from thousands of visual fragments that refer to particular times of day. Expect the unexpected as short clips from Little Miss Sunshine to old Laurel and Hardy movies and even Japanese thrillers appear in rapid succession, expertly edited so that the references on screen match the actual time of day. The ebb and flow of the piece is captivating, thanks perhaps to the use of overlapping music. It makes what is really a cut-and-paste exercise seem like an organic whole. For me half an hour slipped away unnoticed, but any more than this and you might start to get overwhelmed.

Next is Duncan Campbell’s ‘Bernadette’, another visual collage that knits together 1960s archive footage of Bernadette Devlin, the young Irish political-activist-turned-MP. It gives something of an insight into Devlin’s life, but I had the feeling you would need some prior knowledge of this complex figure to fully understand Campbell’s blend of documentary and fiction.   

Upstairs, fans of handheld whisks, cheesy ‘business-speak’, and philosophical ruminations on the universe will love Elizabeth Price’s ‘User Group Disco’. The New Art Exchange had to be specially soundproofed for the occasion and, with the film’s near-deafening A-ha! soundtrack, you can see why.

If you’ve got serious stamina and you’re looking for the polar opposite to the final Ocean before Christmas, why not enjoy a 24-hour screening of ‘The Clock’ in its entirety, ticking away from 10am, Friday 10th December, right the way through to 10am on Saturday 11th. Brace yourself for what is sure to be more than a little overwhelming, but still a completely unique way to round off the term. 

British Art Show 7 @ The Castle by Sasha Morgan Manley

'Nud Cycladic' by Sarah Lucas

The 17th century castle is the perfect oxymoronic location for the fantastic display of modern art that meets you as you ascend the grand sweeping steps of the gallery. The magical music that surrounds you as you enter the exhibition focuses your mind so that you expect a fairy-tale like world of art to greet you, but as I walked up the winding staircase and was faced with scaffolding, I was overwhelmed by the intentional unfinished look of everything. As I continued, I couldn’t help feel that I could be on the set of a thriller movie: the light fittings hanging from the roof and Cullinan Richards’ art trash (a collection of trampled canvases and open paint pots) add to a sense of incompletion – warning you not to go into the main gallery with any expectations. Nevertheless I was still surprised.

As I entered the first room there was no clue as to what would be found inside – only a plaque that read ‘Luke Fowler. A Grammar for Listening (part 1).’ I was met by a blurry video on a projector screen of something that I couldn’t decipher. There was a loud blowing noise in the background and I sat to down in the hope that in time I would understand what I was watching. After some time it become clear to me – aided by a title page as the film starts again – that I had been watching a walnut being burnt. Although bizarre, I was more amazed to realize that 10 minutes had passed without my noticing.

Around the corner I was met with a rainbow of vibrant art ranging from Michael Fullerton’s masterful oil portraits to Sarah Lucas’ ‘Nud Cycladic’ sculptures that looked like flabby limbs. My highlight of the gallery took centre stage at the end this energetic room: David Noonan’s untitled tapestry. This huge, hypnotic, monochrome piece is rapidly becoming known as one of the highlights of the show, and I wholeheartedly agree. It is a stunning piece of work which causes you to lose yourself in the impossibly intricate detail. From a distance I was sure that it must be an abstract photograph that had been created by special effects and the overlapping of many previous images, but it was only when I stood literally centimetres away from the 2.3 x 2.93m work of art that I realised it was woven. It was breathtaking.  

The show itself was an enigma to me. Despite being gob-smacked by Noonan’s tapestry, I still can’t deny that there were many installations that I simply didn’t understand, and that made me feel somewhat unsettled, especially when combined with the unfinished surroundings that had made me wary to begin with. Ultimately, however, I thought it was well-worth a visit, even if it is only to test your abstract comprehension abilities!

British Art Show 7 @ Nottingham Contemporary by Melanie Solomon

'Freichswimmer' by Wolfgang Tillmans

Contemporary art is not my forte. Even as an as an Art History student my knowledge and attention span begins to dwindle when considering anything produced after the 70s. But on hearing renowned British art dealer Anthony d’Offay talk at Nottingham Contemporary last month I felt that I should maybe give the contemporary world a second chance, as he really stressed the importance of appreciating the art produced in our generation. Having been goaded into broadening my knowledge of contemporary art, it seems with perfect timing that BAS7 descended on Nottingham just weeks later.

In all, there were some things that worked and there were some that really didn’t.  What stood out to me were Maaike Schoorel’s beautifully simple oil paintings; they gave me hope that the medium which dominated the art world for centuries might be finding its way back into popular culture. Wolfgang Tillmans’ ‘Truth Study Centre’, full of cultural noise in a museum style presentation, was definitely thought provoking. His other piece, worlds apart and quite deliberately placed in another room: ‘Freichswimmer’ was also stunning.

Roger Hiorns, known for his incredible crystallisation of a South London flat, has staged a surrealistic spectacle that annoyingly the majority of the public (myself included) will miss out on a chance to see, as it is staged at unspecified intervals. For the most part, all we see is a scrubby generic park bench, which initially made me roll my eyes as I abhor found art. But as a performance piece it sounds more tempting, after all, who could resist nudity mixed in with arson? Though, like the comet of the subtitle, blink and you’ll miss the fleeting opportunity to see Hiorn’s work in its full glory. Another frustrating piece is Haroon Mirza’s ‘Regaining a Degree of Control’, which truly makes me lose control: maybe that’s the point maybe you are meant to think ‘this is not art’. Everyone I saw looking at this piece seemed to struggle as to how they should go about viewing it, to understandably comic effect.  

This I can say about BAS7 at Nottingham Contemporary: there are certainly some pieces which have the ability to stand alone, but some seem to need BAS7 as a crutch to validate their existence. And though these pieces do not ultimately compromise the integrity of the show, I can’t help but wonder: do the public stream into this exhibition for its high profile publicity or for its actual quality?

Images by Alexander Newton

ArtsArts ReviewsLead articles
One Comment
  • Will Ellis
    12 December 2010 at 20:55
    Leave a Reply

    A very balanced and fair review of all three venues. Completely true that there is still some wheat and chaff in the contemporary British art scene.W.E

  • Leave a Reply