Matthew Higgs


Habitat Artclub Magazine, Spring 2000

Matthew Higgs: This 'British Art Show' occurs at a very particular time. I describe it as a moment of crisis for British art. Unlike the last 'British Art Show' in 1995 which took place at the peak of international interest in this yBa [young British artists] phenomenon in the last five years that international curiosity has been replaced by a genuine scepticism about British art. So I think 'The British Art Show 5' occupies quite an interesting moment, in that it doesn't have to be seen to contain or bracket a generation. The last one did that very well; it consolidated the careers of 25 artists. But what I found disappointing about that show was that it had so few artists in it. If you look back to previous installments, you went from maybe 120 artists, to 75, to 50, then 25. We could have ended up with a five-person show.

David Barrett: Which wouldn't tell us too much about British art.

And when 'The British Art Show 5' opens, there are actually going to be several other survey shows going on, so we felt that perhaps it didn't need to have that 'this is the new' quality. And so it's broadened its scope of enquiry. In the last show most of the artists were under 35, this time there are definitely cross-generational relationships. There are some artists whose practices developed in the late 60s-70s, and artists who emerged in the 80s, so there is a much larger generational spread, as well as geographical spread: it's not as metropolitan obsessed as the last show.

This all gives the show a different atmosphere. In the last show each artist was given an individual space, so you essentially had a sequence of one-person shows. You didn't get this idea of a working dialogue, or work in relation to each other. Even in the very simple sense that your sightlines were entirely concentrated on single practices.

This time, with between 50 and 60 artists, we're not trying to represent each artist's entire practice; often we've only chosen a single work. The responsibility of the selector/curator - and that grey area between those two activities - is going to be more important this time, in the way the work is installed. Certainly in so far as starting to develop some kind of conversation between practices.

So if you're not trying to present discrete oeuvres by individual artists, does that mean that the show has a collective sense of direction to it?

One thing that categorises the work overall, if it's possible, is that it has an informal quality. It has moved away from the spectacular work that was produced in the mid-9Os in Britain, although I don't necessarily think it was a definite reaction against it. So I think, perhaps unconsciously, artists have withdrawn from the necessity to make statements. A lot of the work is different in tone. Which perhaps makes the show more difficult to market, but in my mind it is a more appropriate response to what is going on.

Certainly - given the way that art centres have diversified, even within Britain - the need to give an overview has become less pressing this time, whereas the last show caught the mood just in time. What's interesting about the 'The British Art Show 5' is that this phenomena of British art in the 9Os has been largely exported, and it wasn't really until the last 'British Art Show' that the public had an opportunity to see all those artists together in Britain. The shows that had been supported by the British Council and the Arts Council - 'Brilliant' and 'General Release', for example - had almost entirely gone abroad. I think that's perhaps an oversight on the part of the institutions: it hadn't been discussed as a relevant thing to do. So while we were sending this stuff elsewhere... was left to Saatchi to put it together here.

Yeah. This suspicion, or scepticism that exists now is bound up in that. There didn't seem to be a critical dialogue going on alongside the work throughout the 90s. Only in the last few years have people actually found it important to address what was going on. We've been living in a kind of euphoria.

When you talk about scepticism, on whose part do you see that? Is this abroad?

I guess if we just look in terms of the way the international art world operates, it seems to me that there was a significant moment in 1997 with 'Documenta' [a major international exhibition in Germany]. While some British artists were included, they certainly weren't the artists who had been part of the jamboree over here. The works that employed spectacle were ignored. It seems to me that this was a clear signal that, for whatever reasons, there was a drift away from this kind of work. And again in the recent Venice Biennale where, in the curated section, there were only two British artists included in what was a 120-person exhibition. And even those two artists were Glasgow-based, rather than from the hyped London scene.

We can no longer assume that British art has an international position, so what happens next is that British art has to reflect internally to establish its current rationale and future potential. There is still a hangover from the yBa's, and we just can't rely on this position anymore. For me that's a good thing, because it opens up a broader territory, which is reflected in the fact that there isn't this urgency to make work that drifts towards statement and spectacle. British artists are now confident enough to make work that is more internalised, informal... slight, almost. It just has a different dynamic now.

So what is the state of British art? You must have seen more of it than anyone else while researching this show?

In terms of research, we must have looked closely at the work of more than 400 artists, and visited more cities than previous selection panels - certainly by the last two. So for me it was interesting to go to Sheffield, to go to Manchester, to go to Londonderry, to go to Belfast, to go to Edinburgh, to Cardiff, to Bristol, wherever. And it doesn't necessarily mean that those cities are represented proportionally in the final exhibition. But it is interesting to see that within these cities - cities that, throughout the 90s, we haven't traditionally perceived there to be art communities - there are quite dedicated groups of individuals working together to try to determine a situation for themselves. Obviously I don't think they're marginalising themselves, but they've perhaps learned the lesson from Glasgow and London in the late 80s: that unless you have a fully realised situation locally, then it's very difficult to participate internationally.

It will be interesting to see what will happen with all of these new institutions springing up around the country: the Baltic in Newcastle, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Walsall, Cardiff Centre for Visual Art. Will they have an impact on the local cultures, or will they be perceived as alien institutions?

Metropolitan institutions inserted into the regions? Is there really an audience out there able to support these institutions?

I do think that the expansion of visual culture in Britain has reached some kind of critical mass. And it's not that I'm being nostalgic for the early 9Os when things were manageable: when you could see everything and find some rationale for what was going on. I don't think it follows that there's a much larger audience for visual art now. I know the Turner Prize exhibition has a phenomenal audience, and that contemporary art has a higher profile through the popular press. But I would still be reluctant to assume or presume that there is this new mass audience for difficult ideas.

So you think that the artworld is overcooking. And I guess this is reflected in the show itself, with its broad range of practices?

To have made an overbearing statement with the show would have been totally inappropriate, because I just don't think that it's possible to do that anymore. If you look at the editorial in art magazines, or you look at the programming in London institutions, nobody's trying to develop a coherent line of argument within a programme. So the kind of 'isms' or categories that we lived through in the 80s and the early 90s don't exist anymore. Art theory has a problem framing the kind of art that is being made now. It seems to me that perhaps the last 'Documenta' exhibition is the most influential model for whatever happens next. This idea of 'poetics/politics' - it's so broad in what it can encompass. The book that accompanied the show basically dealt with everything. It seems to me that that was the first formal statement about the quandary that we find ourselves in collectively.

And I guess you think that's a good thing?

I think that in the short term it is a good thing. If you think about the start of the 70s, which was a kind of unresolved period coming on the back of the 60s - with its developments in Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Pop Art - it was kind of a grey area. But it seems to me that the kind of thinking that emerged during the 70s is oddly quite parallel to where we are now: a different idea of engagement and a preoccupation with the social. These are all current concerns that come from a collapse of certainty. Uncertainty is quite productive.

Now it seems that there is an incredible diversity, not only of ways of making art, but also of issues: what might be considered worth doing. Nobody seems to have pinned down one route through this morass of stuff.

I'm loathe to connect it to fin de siecle thinking, but throughout the 90s there has been an incredible acceleration in the dissemination of information. Information is mediated on a much quicker scale, access is far different to what it was in the 80s.

So if we started at the beginning of the 90s with that 'body' art - loosely described by the term 'abjection' - since then we've seen almost ten movements, or developments, in the space of ten years. Whereas we can kind of rationalise the 80s as either Post-Conceptual practice or its 'other' - which is Neo-Expressionist painting. Those two polar positions are how we now understand the 80s. Whereas in the 90s there are ten or twenty positions, and it is this which catches the commentators out. Just when you think you're beginning to come to terms with one thing, another situation has developed elsewhere.

The Venice Bienale reflected that because it was, like, everything. So we got the Chinese artists as the new 'Other', ie. the new yBa, or the new Scandinavian art. I mean it was only two years ago when everyone was interested in Scandinavian art, but now they're interested in something else. I guess the art world's searchlight has less patience these days.

But this acceleration of the media, is that ever going to slow down? Or is it just going to keep getting faster? In which case, perhaps we'll never really have any 'movements' again, or at least any quantifiable ones that have lasted more than about a year.

I guess historically we've always looked to artists to formulate change. And we have to wonder whether artists feel that that's a responsibility of theirs any more. You know, that classic Avant-Gardist position? I mean, is there a collectivity between artists any more? Perhaps there isn't.

I guess the way that the individual is prioritised within young British art - where the slippage between the work and the artist's personality becomes the meaning - this has determined the reception of work throughout the 90s. And I guess that perhaps tells us that there really is no sense of collectivity any more.

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