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Teapot tempest.

A decade, virtually to the day, since "Treasure Houses of Britain" - a lavish celebration of the "country house experience" - opened at Washington's National Gallery, its negative mirror image went up at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center. "Brilliant!: New Art from London" - a brash attempt to present London's much-touted new generation of art stars in the context of their "inner-city experience" - may well assume the mantle of Britain's ultimate lifestyle export. Organized by the Walker's chief curator, Richard Flood, a long-standing champion of adventurous art from both sides of the Atlantic, "Brilliant!" is the first museum survey of 22 London-based artists who have come to the fore over the last five years (from the internationally successful Damien Hirst, whose 1988 show "Freeze" marked perhaps the defining moment for the emerging generation Flood chose to foreground, to sculptor Rachel Whiteread, to lesser-known multimedia artists Mat Collishaw and Gillian Wearing). Though many in the British arts community were initially delighted by the American interest, news of opening-night festivities featuring waiters and actors clad as bobbies and beefeaters set alarm bells ringing back home. Subsequently, some in the London arts community have been rather vocal in expressing their concerns that the presentation of recent British culture in "Brilliant!" may be as caricatured in its own way as that of its high-end predecessor a decade ago.

Much of the recent brouhaha centers around the catalogue and promotional materials for the exhibition. Instead of a work from the show, the catalogue cover sported an archival photo of an office block in Bishopsgate, London, devastated by an IRA bomb. Andrea Rose, visual arts director of the British Council (which supported "Brilliant!"), expressed her dismay. "Flood selected only that photograph, superimposed 'BRILLIANT!' over it, and implied that it equals the art - when there's nothing like it in the show. . . . England is quite a complex social structure. . . . I think he's misunderstood it quite grotesquely. The whole package is a trivialization that relies on outdated stereotypes."

Flood defended the catalogue cover, saying: "If that's the way it was seen, that's unfortunate. The cover came about because we were trying to define a cultural moment. . . . When you talk about the '90s, the three main specters are nationalism, terrorism, and AIDS. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the possibility of a utopian vision came apart everywhere. . . . The grace note is that in the middle of all this devastation we still have people contributing to the culture."

Rose's complaints demonstrate the difficulties inherent in presenting much of the recent British art in a sociocultural context. "General Release" - a British Council-sponsored exhibition at the 1995 Venice Biennale that attempted to come to terms with life on the British Isles at the end of the millennium - was propped up by a social chronology that included more than 5,000 mind-boggling facts. (Did you know that Leningrad changed its name back to St. Petersburg while Gary Hume's "Dolphin Paintings," 1990-91, were on show in London? Or that the conflagration at Windsor Castle in '92 coincided with an exhibition by Dinos and Jake Chapman?) Compared with this exercise, Flood's attempts to present a social context seem positively restrained. Nevertheless, not everyone agrees that the range of cultural symptoms mustered in the catalogue for "Brilliant!" makes sense when placed along a continuum. Artist Tracey Emin (who sent a tent to Minneapolis inscribed with the names of everyone she had ever slept with) is, for one, not amused: "I understand they had to get people to come to the show but the packaging went a bit too far. I was shocked by the way in which the photograph was used out of context. None of the artists knew they were going to use it. When the bomb went off I was actually going through Bishopsgate every day on my bike."

Another "Brilliant!" artist, Sarah Lucas, known for her acerbic meditations on yob culture, is more bewildered than angered: "Making a big deal out of [the cover] may be taking it too seriously. I couldn't tell whether it was taking the piss [out of] or enjoying the art."

Jake Chapman, who together with his brother Dinos was also included in "Brilliant!," thinks the whole ruckus over the packaging misses the point of the show and the work featured in it: "If anything unites the work it's that it's fractured, unreliable, irresponsible. It has a lot to do with the status of artistic culture in this country. It's always already marginalized. It already has the essence of being a subculture. It already conceives of itself as having no power. I thought the most interesting thing in the catalogue was the front cover. It seems hypocritical that the British Council should back essentially anarchic work, but as soon as that anarchism spills over into real life, to suddenly pull back. Richard Flood should plant a bomb in the British Council. You can quote me on that."
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Title Annotation:criticisms about British art exhibit's promotional pamphlet
Author:Hall, James
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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