East International 2000

Norwich Gallery / School of Art and Design

NORWICH, EAST ANGLIA'S bijou cathedral city, became a potential death trap this summer. Patrick Bateman wannabes had only to visit EAST International and invest in Simon Tegala's specially devised limited-edition piece, Murder with Impunity, 2000. This clearly signed, wickedly sharp, painfully trendy kitchen knife comes with a contract licensing buyers to do their worst, with Tegala committed to shoulder blame for “any indictable proceedings in relation to the Act.” His conceptual Grand Guignol practically hemorrhages issues: the artist as immoralist or redeemer; the power of money; the buying, selling, and “stealing” of human life: the nature of responsibility; the acte gratuit; the definition of “incitement”: the operation of laws; the dispensation of justice (an incomplete list). It's a smart, urgent piece in an absorbing, tendentious exhibition.

Drawing an average 1,200 entries annually, open-submission EAST International is staged in the Norwich Gallery and the roomy studios of the Norwich School of Art and Design, enabling some provocative display tactics. This year, News of the World, 1999, Lyn Lowenstein's alarmingly topical fake newspaper hoardings, adorned the school's railings (headlines included “SEMEN RUBBED ON BOYS' BODIES ENCOURAGES GROWTH” and “STRAIGHT SEX CAUSES BRITTLE BONES”). A Guide to Healthy Living, 1999, Frances Goodman's staccato lists of paranoid hygiene warnings (“Do not touch the latch of a public toilet,” “Do not let other people breathe on you in a public toilet,” etc.), appeared on stickers in lavatory stalls. This year's selectors were Sebastián López, director of the Gate Foundation (the Amsterdam-based organization that showcases non-Western contemporary art) and artist Keith Piper. Prioritizing “subject matter,” their selection emphasized artists mining the big seams—embodiment, morality, sexuality, post-identity politics, diasporic experience, colonial pasts and postcolonial presents—with originality, bite, and sophistication. Inevitably, some works were easily knowable, recycling cliched devices: Carljaycock's screen-printed patchworks mingling fragments of old maps and faded photographs, or Ajamu's superimposition of his own face onto early anthropological photographs (the non-Western other as freakish spectacle). But many boasted real originality, bite, and sophistication. Erika Tan's installation East, 2000, achieved the fiendishly tricky feat of melding beauty and critique. Bamboo cages, porcelain jars, spills of fragrant jasmine tea, piped bird song, chintz wallpaper, and tea chests stenciled with ornithological drawings paralleled the naturalization of nonindigenous birds in Europe (pheasants, goldfinches) with the Orient's enrichment of European culture. Beautifully judged, East marked through omission the terrible divide between the West's love affair with Chinese culture and its actual conduct toward the Chinese—not least its treatment of immigrants.

Two artists shared EAST International 2000's prize of £5,000 ($7,500). Jananne Al-Ani's five-monitor video work, A Loving Man, 1996, shows the faces of the artist, her mother, and her three sisters playing the old memory game in which turns are taken repeating, and adding to, a list. Here, the phrases spoken are reflections on their experience of estrangement from the “loving man” of the tide, the husband and father parted from his family both by personal and political changes; but the players laugh involuntarily as they flub their lines. Do their frowns express grief? Or memory placed under strain? A teasing gap opens up between emotion and expression: Al-Ani's serious, complex work brilliantly avoids the “confessional” mode's pitfalls. “An expression of cultural hybridity” would be the lazy description of Hew Locke's enormous installation Hemmed In, 1999, but that tired formula does the work's sheer idiosyncrasy a deep injustice. Previously sighted at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, jammed between marble columns, it's like the Bucentaur crossed with Brighton Pavilion, fantastically woven from cardboard packaging. This time, it's collapsed, unraveling, burrowing out of its studio—gorgeous, but also an encumbrance, a kind of Gregor-the-cockroach object that exceeds description: titanic stuff.

Rachel Withers