Put in place
Location: UK At Gimpel Fils, 30 Davies Street, London W1 until 7 September
Given it is the silly season, and that this is an exhibition in a commercial gallery, 'Location: UK' is a surprising, if ultimately flawed, polemic on the relation between place, identity and art in the UK.
Two years ago, the German artist Hans Haacke made a controversial intervention at the Reichstag by creating his own dedication, Der Bevölkerung (To the population), as an alternative to the inscription Dem Deutschen Volke (To the German people), which normally graces the building's front portal. Haacke's intention was to reorientate the notion of the true 'German subject', away from its basis in shared bloodlines, to more inclusive criteria (those inhabiting the same land mass). This show at Gimpel Fils follows a similar strategy; the terms 'location' and 'UK' purposely avoiding both nationalistic and ethnic connotations.
So it is disappointing that only a few of the 20 exhibited artists were born outside of the UK. A more interesting and politically pertinent critique would have incorporated less familiar and more tangential relations to these isles. The inclusion of old works by Martin Parr (chief prejudicial documenter of class mores in England), Sarah Lucas (represented by a saddening, but hardly unexpected, collage of tabloid tat), and Richard Billingham (with an image from his endlessly regurgitated documentation of a troubled family life) recall the familiar ways in which socio-political identity was dealt with in the 'Brit-art' of the 1990s. This reflects something of the tension of mounting curatorially adventurous shows in solely commercial environments.
Bank (aka art provocateurs Milly Thompson and Simon Bedwell) opens the show with a poster which has a mosque with the words 'Come to London' stencilled on it.
The provocation of the piece is the suggestion that London is a 'home-from-home' for Muslims; but it can also be read as a reflection on the generosity, or otherwise, of UK immigration policy. It is a powerful foil to the unholy alliance of New Labour, art, and tourist board that produced the Cool Britannia brand. Bank's piece finds a neat companion work later in the exhibition by Shez Dawood, whose photograph Super Billboard Scene shows the East London Mosque partly obscured by an advert in which an Indian actor plays Hamlet.
A large photograph by Mark Wallinger, The Word in the Desert III, shows a blind man seated on the pavement begging outside the locked gates of a Christian school. The message on the piece of cardboard lying at his feet reads, 'Teach us to sit still'. The spiritual and intellectual inertia and purposelessness this suggests about the 'native' Christian culture, finds an obvious resonance with the self-doubt and emptiness that defined the Millennium Dome experience. Peter Kennard has produced a dark parody of that event with a politically engaged 'photopoem' entitled Domesday Book, from which a digital print is displayed.
An aspect of this exhibition's conservatism is revealed in the press release, which claims that 'it is the immediate landscapes and environs which surround us that define who and what we are'. Increasingly, this is surely not the case. Whether because of economic, political, or environmental displacement, or digital technology, or recreational travel, immediate environments are increasingly mediated and eclipsed by distant and virtual ones, which are more relevant or more desired.
Hannah Starkey's photograph of the tyre marks left on a section of runway registers something of this reality. But it is most evident in one of the more affecting pieces in the show, a film entitled Fatima's Letter by Alia Syed, which - fractured but sometimes lyrical - evokes a subjectivity neither quite of the West or the East.
Paul Tebbs is a writer and critic