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Boxing Tilda.

The Serpentine Gallery is no stranger to the rich and famous. Situated in Hyde Park in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, it boasts HRH Princess Diana as a patron as well as a Vanity Fair gala dinner every summer guaranteed to set the parazzi buzzing. But the venue got more than it bargained for last fall when it put movie actress Tilda Swinton on show and over 21,000 people, including several national news crews, turned up in a single week. Not bad for a live-art event.

Swinton, previously known in the UK as the muse of the late filmmaker Derek Jarman and as the gender-hopping lead in Sally Potter's Orlando, 1993, is now probably more famous for being an art exhibit. In Cornelia Parker's installation at the Serpentine Gallery, The Maybe, 1995, Swinton played the toughest role in a career devoted to challenging ones: herself asleep. For seven consecutive days, eight hours a day, she lay motionless, eyes closed, in a raised, glass casket - a contemporary Sleeping Beauty in jeans and deck shoes, subject to intense scrutiny and speculation. Was she asleep? How die she pee? Was this an act of massive egomania or acute self-effacement? And was she a natural redhead? One art critic from a national newspaper became strangely preoccupied with a small blemish under her left ear. A poet came and read to her every day. There was much punning about actresses resting between roles. Tank Girl, and art being a yawn - as well as the perpetual chestnut of whether this piece constituted art at all.

What the coverage failed to point out, however, was that Swinton was one of the least bizarre exhibits in Parker's installation, which, in fact, had more to do with memory, mortality, and posterity than with hair color, natural or otherwise. Also what made The Maybe such an eerily unforgettable experience was the relationship of the slumbering actress to the other 35 cases containing such esoteric memorabilia as the rosary used by an exiled Napoleon, the rug and cushion from Freud's couch, the half-smoked cigar dropped by Winston Churchill when he heard that the Germans were suing for peace, Queen Victoria's stockings, Turner's traveling watercolor kit, and the shabby little quill with which Charles Dickens wrote the final sentence of what was to be his last, never completed work: The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In the same gallery where, a year ago, Damien Hirst suspended a lamb in formaldehyde, crowds now inspected the (surprisingly small) pickled brain of 18th-century computer inventor Charles Babbage (positioned provocatively next to the sparking apparatus of electricity's discoverer Charles Faraday) along with the headgear worn by Stanley and Livingstone for their legendary rendezvous in the Congo. These evocative curios made the presence of the dead owners almost palpable (Wallis Simpson's shiny black ice skates were certainly a more accurate portrait of her than any of Cecil Beaton photographs), while the one exhibit that was still breathing seemed curiously empty. That's celebrity for you.

The equally celebrated artistic duo Gilbert & George is also no stranger to the living artwork. The besuited pair declared themselves a "Living Sculpture" back in 1969 and even though they won the Turner Prize in 1986, the British art world has been scrutinizing them with suspicion ever since. Liberals can't handle their abiding love of Margaret Thatcher, let alone their penchant for depicting provocatively posed Afro-Caribbean and Asian boys, while the establishment has a major problem with two men in cheap suits making giant photographs of inner-city decay, flying under-pants, and hunks of rough trade.

But if there's one group that can't get enough of the deadpan double act it's the current "Britpack" generation of artists. Gilbert & George were the only oldsters included in Carl Freedman's "Minky Manky" survey of Britain's rude boys and girls at the South London Gallery back in April; and now they're back again in the same venue this time going solo - or rather duo - with their "Naked Shit Pictures," 1994.

The exhibition was originally planned for the Sackler Galleries in the Royal Academy of Arts, but the prospect of giant photocopies featuring the ubiquitous pair minus their trademark suits accompanied by massive pieces of their own excrement ultimately proved too daunting a prospect for that guardian of Britain's artistic heritage, so Picadilly's loss became Peckham's gain. G & G certainly know how to fill a space, and the wraparound spectacle of turd crosses, turd surfboards, and columns of crap provoked the inevitable outcry from the popular press, as well as confirming the fecal duo's status as aging Lords of Misrule.

But this scatological display has also won the renegade pair admirers from some unexpected quarters. The art critic of the Daily Telegraph, a publication better known for devoting its column inches to the Tory status quo, has possibly put his job on the line by applauding Gilbert & George's exploration of "what it is to be human," while British art-guru David Sylvester, whose favored Modern artists are Piet Mondrian and Barnett Newman, only last month compared the exhibition - in this very magazine - to a frescoed chapel. Within the British art establishment, shit, it seems, sticks.

The Royal Academy may be more prestigious, but it is appropriate that the artists whose motto is "Art for All" should instead be exhibiting their most recent offerings at a venue purpose-built in 1891 to introduce an impoverished area to the improving qualities of art. The South London Gallery is just one of an increasing number of spaces establishing the badlands south of the river Thames as the capital's current center for contemporary art.

Historically, the area has had a reputation for low income and bad behavior - and this turbulent heritage is reflected in many of its new art sites. The Lambeth "Ragged School" for "children of rude habits, filthy condition, and want of shoes and stockings" is now an art space called Beaconsfield - although the description of its 19th-century occupants could as easily have applied to East German performance artist Matthias Jackisch during his month-long marathon of detritus gathering, hair cutting, and arrow-firing that recently declared Beaconsfield emphatically open. Another newcomer to insalubrious "Sarf" London is Lost in Space, situated above a used furniture shop in the Brixton Road, a gallery launched in the long hot summer with "Multiple Orgasm," a mixed show of high-profile work by the latest art-school crop, including the giant female cutouts of Jun Hasegawa; and it continues to showcase the very latest in low-life cheek with shows like "White Trash: My Ideal Home Exhibition."

More established in the district but no less progressive is City Racing, three rooms above and behind a former betting shop of the same name near the Oval Cricket ground. Here, Sarah Lucas' first solo show in 1992 presented Penis Nailed to a Board, 1992, a custom-made board game based on London's notorious Spanner case in which a group of men were prosecuted for having consensual sadomasochistic sex. For City Racing's fall show of international video and poster work, Rirkrit Tiravanija presented a two-and-a-half-hour video that showed two bicycling artists lost in Amsterdam.

There's more pain and pleasure to be found at the Cabinet Gallery, run by Andrew Wheatley and Martin McGeowan, located in a Victorian apartment building in Brixton's Coldharbor Lane that looks as if it was taken straight out of Roman Polanski's The Tenant. Two years ago, in these sinister surroundings, the UK was treated to its first full-scale exposure to the self-portraits of Pierre Molinier, as well as to Jack Jaeger's provocative group show 'Please don't hurt me," (which included Gregory Greene's homemade bomb factory and an excruciating cuticle-slicing sequence from Valie Export). The Cabinet continues to stay firmly in the twilight zone with its recent series of paintings from artist and crop-circle creator Rod Dickinson entitled "Messages of Deception," 1995, which are accompanied by a handy field guide to supernatural phenomena.

Sometimes South London's brutish environment of discount stores, used-car lots, gangland murders, and pit bull terriers features directly in the art itself. Gillian Wearing (who also had her first solo show at City Racing) filmed herself dancing around to no discernible beat, sometimes wearing a Walkman, in Peckham's shopping mall; and in her latest video piece she bandages her face in a fair impersonation of the Invisible Woman, then takes a walk down South London's tacky Walworth Road, turning the camera to scrutinize passersby who respond with typical British reserve.

It was South London's past, however, rather than its present, that appealed to Robert Wilson when the Artangel Trust commissioned his first art installation in this country. HG, 1995, which opened in September on the site of the Clink Street prison close to the Thames at Southwark, always promised to be a crowd-puller: the medieval prison was so notorious that we Brits still refer to incarceration as being "in the clink"; but it wasn't well-known that parts of that venerable carceral institution still existed as a vast labyrinth of subterranean chambers extending almost as far as the disused Bankside power station, which is poised to become the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art.

Wilson (collaborating with sound and light specialist Hans Peter Kuhn and Peter Greenaway's art director Michael Howells) responded to the spooky site by creating an epic mystery trail that began with an unfinished dinner in a candlelit room and then wound through a maze of dark, dank chambers, encountering various tableaux and incidents en route. (HG apparently stood not for Hugh Grant as some wags had suggested, but for H. G. Wells, whose novel The Time Machine was published in 1895.) Although there were some memorable moments - a swaddled figure in a pool of light, a whiff of fresh air and a snatch of rain forest, a living axolotyl in an illuminated tank, a shower of arrows suspended in an expanse of ultramarine - the stars of the show were the vaults themselves. Even this modern master of spectacle, it seems, can't compete with the grim reality of South London.

Louisa Buck is an arts journalist and broadcaster who works for BBC Radio 4, The Independent, and UK GQ.
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Title Annotation:Cornelia Parker's exhibit at the Serpentine Gallery in London, England
Author:Buck, Louisa
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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