“Intelligence: New British Art 2000” and The British Art Show 5

“PEAS ARE THE NEW BEANS,” declares a 1999 painting by Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill) in “Intelligence,” the first of Tate Britain's triennial New British Art exhibitions. Trendspotters please also note: BritCrit may be the new BritPop. Curatorial glosses on “Intelligence” and the fifth quinquennial British Art Show (hereafter BAS5) agree that commercialism, ephemerality, and spectacle are Out, and engagement with audiences and social issues is In. With twenty-two artists, “Intelligence” is the largest show of contemporary art in the history of the Tate; BAS5 comprises fifty-five artists and will tour nationally into 2001. The spin attaching to these major surveys merits a little scrutiny—not least because they won't coincide again until 2015.

No one can miss the dig at “Sensation” flagged in the title of “Intelligence,” but its organizers, Tate Britain senior curator Virginia Button and Edinburgh writer-curator Charles Esche, are vague about their show's precise character. “Intelligence is not only an intellectual activity,” they suggest; “its emotional, spiritual, and aesthetic qualities can be discovered” in artists' work and viewers' responses. The big pitch is that “this notion of intelligence” requires visitors “to come to terms with the work . . . themselves”—but even Britpackery's worst excesses demanded that; gallery visitors are perfectly able to question, assess, and make connections without curators inviting them (as here) to play spy. Elsewhere, the curators propose that “corporate government and global capital will require us to think in different ways . . .. If not in art then where is the questioning going to begin?” Here, spin gives way to sheer amnesia, and some two decades of artistic and nonartistic questioning vanish into thin air.

The exhibitors in BAS5 were selected by artist Jacqui Poncelet, freelance curator Pippa Coles, and Matthew Higgs, cocurator at the London Institute of Contemporary Arts. Interpreting UK art trends in BAS5's catalogue, Higgs directly addresses the so-called Saatchi Effect and its aftermath, picturing a '90s scene awash with“orthodoxy and complacency” and shallow, market-led spectacle, followed by a “curious, but positive, moment” as artists reinvest in “issues”: “gender, race, class, sexuality, politics, idealism, boredom, and pleasure.” This subtly conflates BritArt, the media construction, with '90s UK art, an undervisited region where a great many artists and others worked to sustain, expand, and refine a wide range of critical practices and debates.

Each of these accounts flatters (and perpetuates) the consumerist mentality that demands a constant flow of “new generations.” Arguably, UK art's global reputation would gain more from a spot of revisionist history than from the announcement of a supposedly new critical mood. The shows themselves inevitably map out a bigger, more complex picture. Both offer an eclectic selection of “senior” artists (to give a partial list, Paula Rego, the late Donald Rodney, and Amikam Toren are in BAS5; “Intelligence” includes William Furlong and Michael Craig-Martin; Susan Hiller is in both shows). Neither ostracizes YBAs (Tracey Emin, Jonathan Parsons, Glenn Brown, Michael Landy, and Sarah Lucas appear in BAS5; “Intelligence” includes Gillian
Wearing, Douglas Gordon, Julian Opie, and, again, Lucas). Predictably, BAS5 betrays marked curatorial tensions, featuring works as diverse as David Hackney's uremarkable camera lucida–assisted 1999 pencil portraits and Art and Language's Sighs Trapped by Liars 510–602, 1997, extracts from the group's publications screenprinted on stretched canvases that are then assembled into small chair- and bed-shaped forms in a kind of deathbed scene.

But what of those curatorial claims: a new criticality, a new engagement with audiences? Though “Intelligence” visits a number of promising themes—naming and anonymity, fascination with the Other, the Uncanny, spectatorship, and collective identity—its offerings don't convince. Wearing's slow-motion film of an alcoholic woman, Lindsey, is accompanied by a sound track of her twin recollecting Lindsey's subsequent death and burial (Prelude, 2000). Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane's An Introduction to Folk Archive, 2000, documents, without qualification, “popular” cultural production as utterly different as Afro-European hairstyling, maypole dancing, and Northern Irish Loyalist propaganda. Bob and Roberta Smith's “collaboration” Stop It Write Now!, 2000, solicits written comments from visitors: Slogans include “TONY BLARE HELP POOR PEOPLE” and “CAPITALISM GETS MY VOTE.” This project seems to reflect on individual powerlessness and the vacuity of the “vox pop” with an almost Baudrillardian cynicism. Works like these, in which the artists organize or speak for their subjects, far outnumber those that explore the complexities of a politically aware self-representation.

BAS5 represents the latter tendency a little better: See Nothank, 1999, Graham Fagen's mock documentary about a housing estate in Glasgow (Fagen's hometown) or Lea Andrews's audiotape and slide presentation Made in Heaven, 1990/97, in which a “connoisseur” enthuses over mass-produced souvenirs collected by Andrews's parents. But these pieces are labored in comparison with Donald Rodney's whisper of a work In the House of My Father, 1997: A photograph of the dying artist's hand cradling a minute house made with steel pins and his own skin, Rodney's work is another useful, if lonely, reminder of a longstanding UK–based art of resistance, about which there's nothing “new.”

Neither “Intelligence” nor BAS5 is an out-and-out failure; each features a number of strong artists and effective works. But both shows are uninspiring, at a time when, many would argue, visual art in Britain has never been more diverse and exciting. To reflect this, such surveys would need to risk far more and to find innovative ways to present the full spectrum of forms that enrich UK cultural practice, including live art, site-specific installations, truly collaborative projects, and new-media work. Rumor has it that the British Art Show will undergo a major overhaul before resurfacing in 2005. The Tate would likewise do well to look very hard at what it wants its New British Art project to achieve.

Rachel Withers is a frequent contributor to Artforum.

“Intelligence” completed its run at Tate Britain on Sept. 24; The British Art Show 5 will be on view at various venues in Cardiff until Nov. 5 and in Birmingham from Nov. 25, 2000, to Jan. 28, 2001.