Launched in 1991, Norwich's annual open-submission exhibition has matured to combine an intellectual and artistic rigour with the welcoming friendliness that comes from its close association with the local art school (in whose studios most of the exhibition takes place). Continuing the exhibition's original mandate of employing a pair of internationally recognised selectors, one of whom is a practising artist, this instalment sees Jeremy Deller, with his well-known interest in politics and social engagement, teamed with Dirk Snauwaert, founding director of the soon-to-open Wiels Art Centre in Brussels.
As you might imagine, there are several artists here whose work deals directly with local politics. John Duncan, for example, has produced a series of photographs documenting the transformation of Northern Ireland following the withdrawal of British troops. These range from simple shots of divisional insignia being whitewashed out as barracks are appropriated for civilian use, to images of civic-regeneration work being carried out across the street from vast paramilitary murals, and concludes by focusing on building sites whose marketing billboards announce the new developments that are underway. Duncan masterfully draws out surprising links between the military, paramilitary, and property developers: their shared instincts for provocative display and enforced social change.
Murals, regeneration and local politics are also Roman Vasseur's recent subjects. Here he presents a collection of pieces concerned with the role of public art in the artist's home estate: St George's in Shadwell, east London. Exploring the possibility of offering a public artist - specifically a muralist - as a ritual sacrifice/public-art performance, Vasseur has created an epic, multi-panelled painting depicting just such an event. It has been produced as a gift for Shadwell's local councillors, although there is no mention as to whether they have any intention of accepting it. Freee, the collective name for Andy Hewitt, Mel Jordan and Dave Beech, also questions public art, its purpose, and links with regeneration, but in a more severe, direct fashion. They use advertising billboards to present statements such as 'The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property', or 'The neo-imperialist function of public art is to clear a path for aggressive economic expansion', and an offsite billboard has been co-opted for just this purpose.
More public-realm text can be found in No-Place (Spiral), 2006, by Rory Macbeth, who has painted the entire text of Sir Thomas More's Utopia around the outside of an electricity substation earmarked for demolition. The ideas of idealism and failure that this work touches on also leads us into the loaded terrain of colonialism and globalisation, subjects that Adam Latham explores with a peculiar set of artworks, including a series of drawings depicting Afro-Caribbean or Polynesian women in a way that suggests Victorian representations of the 'noble savage'. But this reading of the artworks is undermined by the inclusion of consumer products in the drawings, such as training shoes or Christmas baubles, and the drawing style suggests a hybrid of Paul Gauguin and Robert Crumb - making for a peculiarly unsettling set of images. Add these to Latham's gloss paintings of fantasy huts and a black hanging sculpture consisting of a mass of modelling balloons, and you have one of the more enigmatic displays within the exhibition (trumped only by Haris Epaminonda's haunting living-room installation and oddly disturbing set of photographic collages).
Duncan Swann's works are less problematic than Latham's, although they touch on similar concerns. Depicting white Europeans hunting in tropical jungles, Swann's paintings give the impression that they are artefacts of Britain's Empire days. Dreams of Owning the World, 2006, shows four pith-helmeted huntsmen standing amid an obscenely large trophy-mound of tiger corpses. But there are also works that suggest not everything will go according to the huntsmen's plans. The title of The Honeyseekers, 2005, seems to refer to the hummingbirds that are feeding in the foreground, but it could also be a reference to the distant canoe that is carrying rifle-toting Europeans. Just as you make this connection, however, the reading shifts again; camouflaged in the foreground are several huge alligators, eyeing up the now-fragile-looking boat.
Another painter who cleverly plays with disguised elements is Rosie Snell, for whom camouflage is not only a device but also the main subject of her paintings; tanks and warships lurk in her woodland scenes. Her peculiar painting technique, where the imagery is flattened and simplified even as the paint surface itself flicks between smoothness and heavy texture gives the artworks a tricksy, deceptive quality in keeping with the subject matter.
It is a measure of how clear-eyed the selectors have been that so many different subjects manage to sit happily alongside each other. Just as Snell's work segues the exhibition into issues around the militarisation of the landscape, so elsewhere the show seamlessly embraces religion (Mark Boulos), underground music scenes (Matt Stokes), mainstream representations of violence (Masayuki Suzuki), the economic co-option of remixed cultural production (Nate Harrison), and 16th-century local uprisings against the landed gentry (Ruth Ewan).
However, there is one work, 46 Missed Manicures, which could be considered as a keynote work for the whole show, partly because it is the first piece encountered in the exhibition (depending upon how you navigate the spaces). It is a simple but compelling video work that explores the everyday effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Instead of the usual sensational footage or tales of sentimentalised tragedy and nationalistic heroism, Theresa Nanigian uses a minimal aesthetic to display relevant but unusual statistics. She presents a plasma screen upon whose black backdrop a series of simple declarations fade in and out in white text: '30,000 cups of coffee not served', '1,261 empty seats at the opera', '20% increase in births nine months on', '500 cases of red, white and blue M&Ms distributed', '1,300 orphans', '42% of readers want suspect executed', '1,616 certificates issued without a body', '22,000 bombs', '100 unemployed actors'. The range is carefully pitched, from the effects upon individuals within the local community, to disturbing shifts in public opinion, to brutal military reprisals. It is an affecting and oddly poetic artwork, and it shares other characteristics with the show as a whole, being accessible, surprising, and potent.
Considering 'East' is an open-submission exhibition, and that it presents a large number of artworks dealing with a wide range of subjects - there are many more that cannot be mentioned here, and few dud notes - the exhibition still manages to come across as having a lucid sense of purpose. During a year that has seen higher profile and more slickly produced survey exhibitions in the 'British Art Show' and the 'Tate Triennial', the 2006 'East International' proves to be more focused and memorable, expertly dealing with profound issues through determinedly local and everyday references. Clearly Deller's artistic interests have played a major role in the selection, but the pair of selectors have pulled together an essential exhibition.
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