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Fever pitch.

If traditionally cricket has been the game of the elite, and football strictly for the lumpen masses, all that's changed now. These days, in order to have any cultural credibility within the U.K., it's almost mandatory to be a football fan. It all began when Bill Buford - then editor of the literary magazine Granta, now fiction editor of The New Yorker - published a runaway best-seller chronicling British soccer's hooligan element. Since then football frenzy has swept through the intellectual life of the U.K. - even Salman Rushdie has come out as a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

With England hosting the European Football Championships last June - for the first time in 30 years - this craze reached unparalleled heights, even spilling over into the art world. Manchester was designated the City of Soccer (even the IRA bomb that ripped out the city center didn't prevent the quarter final between Germany and Russia from taking place at Old Trafford Stadium the next day) and visual artists from across the globe came together to demonstrate their obsession with 11 men and a ball.

At Manchester City Art Galleries, "Offside: Contemporary Artists and Football" found Colombian artist Freddy Contreras striking a blow at the manly heart of football by customizing 11 of Vivienne Westwood's kinkiest red stiletto shoes with football studs and hanging them from nails, locker-room style. Sports addict Mark Wallinger exhibited a giant scarf entitled "Man United," arranged in a double helix that gave a biological twist to the name of the popular team Manchester United; while Simon Patterson - shortlisted for the Turner Prize this year - painted the gallery walls with the ultimate football fantasy: two teams made up of Christ and his apostles.

Inevitably, "The Beautiful Game" found its way South to the capital. At the same time as Wembley Stadium was playing host to the momentous match between England and Scotland on a makeshift pitch just near London's South Bank Centre, London's art world showed its true soccer colors with a hotly contested five-a-side football tournament between the city's contemporary art galleries.

Artist and curator Sam Denny organized the match as the culmination of a series of championship-inspired art events, and a "nice parody" of the art world itself, but there was little that was ironic about the gusto (and frequent fouls) with which the ten teams slugged it out against a backdrop of metal kit lockers filled with football-inspired artworks. After a lengthy break to watch the England/Scotland game on an alfresco wall of TV screens (England won, 2-0), the ultimate art-world winners were the "Total Art, Total Football" team headed by private art dealer Jeremy Hunt, who managed to fend off some nifty footwork from another football-crazy Turner Prize contender - Gary Hume of the Jay Jopling/White Cube team. Also worthy of special mention was the distinctive uniform worn by the Victoria Miro Gallery team: shirts emblazoned with Jake and Dinos Chapman's penis-nosed FuckFace mannequin, appropriately enough since both brothers were members of the team.

Victoria Miro's artists may not have conquered the football pitch, but this summer they were responsible for two of London's most talked about exhibitions. After the transgressive triumph of the Chapman duo's 1995 Zygotic Acceleration, Biogenetic De-sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged x 1000) - in which 16 genderless child mannequins, naked except for their shiny new sneakers, were joined into a ring and sprouted adult genitals in unexpected places - expectations for the brothers' first major public show ran high. "Chapmanworld" at the ICA (reviewed in these pages last issue) didn't disappoint. But, contrary to the claims of the catalogue, many visitors felt that the brothers' upended silver cyberperson gushing and pumping stage blood, and their room full of bizarrely fused mutoid munchkins gamboling amidst artificial foliage and wafts of dry ice, had less to do with Georges Bataille's visions of excess and Antonin Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty" than with a bad trip to Toys 'R' Us.

There was considerably more enthusiasm, however, for fellow teammate (and star player) Chris Ofili, whose three large new paintings filled Victoria Miro's small Cork Street space throughout June. For the past few years the Manchester-born artist of Nigerian heritage has mined the mixed messages unleashed by combining dotted African-Aboriginal style patterned surfaces with his now-trademark boulders of elephant dung (a constant feature in his work since a trip to Zimbabwe in 1992). In these kaleidoscopic, problematic new works, Ofili has refined and sharpened his ability to juggle and play with contentious issues of beauty, identity, ethnicity, and exoticism without ever descending into rigid polemic. Not only were the new paintings lavishly, outrageously decorative, with glitter, painted patterning, and collaged cutouts meticulously built up between translucent layers of clear resin, but their kitschily seductive appearance was further complicated by Ofili's choice of deliberately provocative - and savagely humorous - subject matter. Whether in Virgin Mary, 1996, in which an African-style goddess bares a beaded elephant-dung breast amidst a deluge of porno-mag images showing female genitals; or in Affrodiziac, 1996, in which a pantheon of collaged black heroes emerges from an intricate haze of painted pattern, each with an appliqued '70s-style Afro, Ofili confirmed his ability to present an elegantly moving target.

Less light-footed was the strike made by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco at, and in, the heart of the British establishment - a building surrounded by the Royal Academy, the Ritz Hotel, and Britain's most exclusive gentleman's clubs. This impressive Neoclassical mansion at 50 St. James' Street, Piccadilly, was built in 1827 for William Crockford, who promptly turned it into "Crockford's temple of chance" - an infamous Regency gambling den. Later the building had a more respectable incarnation as the Devonshire gentleman's club, but for the past six years it has stood empty (any patina of history removed by an extensive refurbishment in the '80s) in anticipation of an ever elusive corporate client.

Orozco's first major commission in the U.K. gave him the run of the entire space, and, seemingly in keeping with its location and history, he took as his theme the games we British so love to play. In the close-carpeted, garishly over-restored Georgian reception rooms, visitors were greeted by (and encouraged to use) that essential component of any gentleman's club: a billiard table, fully equipped with cues and balls. But this maverick model - oval-shaped, with no pockets and a single red ball suspended from a near-invisible wire, hovering ominously just above the green baize - required a whole new set of rules. Elsewhere, in the bland modern office spaces that made up the rest of the building, there were more reruns of the "Summer of Sport," Orozco style, with doctored photos from newspaper sport sections of cricket and - yes - football matches; empty deck chairs grouped around a game of bowls played on bolts of pinstripe suiting fabric, and a miniature model of the hallowed turf of Lord's Cricket Grounds - with the players inexplicably growing trees from their backs.

But the combination of unforgiving location and inappropriate subject matter meant that what was evidently intended as a characteristically gentle if satirical spin on British culture emerged as contrived and heavy-handed. Our snobbish, ritualistic obsession with clubs, secrecy, and sport is quite weird enough in its own right. ArtAngel Trust and Becks Beer, who commissioned Empty Club should have found Orozco a more appropriate context in which to trigger his particular brand of elliptical critique - so markedly in evidence when he hung a hammock between two trees in the sculpture garden of New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1993. This signature quality was readily visible, however, just a few streets away at the ICA's major survey of Orozco's work, which spanned some six years. There were no new commissions, but here the U.K. received its first - and very welcome - showing of such poetically subversive pieces as his amorphous plasticine Yielding Stone, 1992, and Orozco's now-classic severed and sutured Citroen DS.

A building more successfully occupied by an artist devoted to altered states was the Serpentine Gallery. Richard Wilson's Jamming Gears, 1996, was the last exhibition to be held before the gallery shut in September for a year of major reconstruction (earlier this year, the Serpentine won a [pounds]3 million grant for renovation and improvement, funded by Britain's National Lottery). This show took full advantage of future upheavals to continue Wilson's time-honored practice of working with and transforming architectural surroundings. (Among the structures that Wilson used as sculptural raw material this year were the elegant cubes and curves of Richard Meier's new Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona, though he is probably best known for his lake of sump oil which permanently floods a room of London's Saatchi Gallery.)

Despite a title suggesting a cacophony of clashing metal and free-form music - and the gallery's stipulation that Wilson be allowed "unprecedented freedom" with the structure - Jamming Gears was remarkably restrained, even elegant. Using a state-of-the-art precision core drill, Wilson pierced the Serpentine's floors, walls, ceiling - even a shelf of its bookshop - with smallish circular cavities, and then inserted the resultant cylindrical "plugs" of stone, cement, brick, and severed art books through the flimsy walls of three lime-green building-site huts, which had been placed inside the gallery. Besides turning the Serpentine's spaces into a kind of conceptual jigsaw puzzle, Wilson heightened the sense of internal/external displacement by tilting one of these workman's huts at a rakish angle to the ceiling, dangling another upside-down into a deep pit in the gallery floor, and allowing the third to burst cheekily through glazed French windows and portico into the park outside.

It's not only the Serpentine Gallery that is shutting its doors for a lottery sponsored makeover. All over London - and, indeed, the U.K. - galleries and institutions from Sadler's Wells Ballet to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden are cashing in their lottery checks and preparing to dim the lights. In the next few years their ranks will be joined by the Hayward Gallery, which stands to gain an extra space as part of architect Richard Rogers' grand scheme to transform the South Bank Art Centre into a "Crystal Palace" by glassing over its Brutalist concrete blocks with an elegant swooping canopy that will hover over the drafty ramps and walkways like a chic cocktail hat.

This heady combination of lottery funds and millennium fever has caused a flurry of interest in London's most spectacular and underexploited feature: the River Thames. London has gone bridge crazy. So far three competitions and a major exhibition at the Royal Academy have been devoted to the theme of straddling the capital's river - and this trend shows no sign of stopping. The Academy's show and competition focuses on the historical theme of "Living Bridges," and ends with a clutch of contemporary proposals - including William Alsop's plan to rehouse the ICA on a set of disused railway bridge piers at Blackfriar's. There are even plots afoot to build a footbridge from the Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside to St. Paul's, with the South Bank's "Crystal Palace" also pitching for two new footbridges across the water to Charing Cross Station.

In spite of all this transpontine excitement, however, a vigorous rivalry continues to rage between the capital's swankier North side, and its poorer - but hipper - South. In a city not known for its love of grands projets, and not helped by a Prince of Wales dedicated to keeping British architecture in an 18th-century time warp, whether any of these new bridges actually get to cross the Thames' troubled waters remains to be seen.

Louisa Buck is an arts journalist and broadcaster who works for BBC Radio 4. The Independent, and U.K. GQ.
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Title Annotation:UK artists
Author:Buck, Louisa
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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