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Young, gifted and Brit

A tour showing the drollery and wryness of the YBA movement is about to open here.

Night Shift (2004) by Adam Chodzko

Nothing dates faster than an avant-garde art movement. Private Utopia: Contemporary Art from the British Council Collection at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery revisits art history with a touring showcase of more than 100 works by British artists. It’s an exhibition predicated on the “big bang” moment of the Young British Artists of the 1990s.

The show might represent the fag-end of the YBA phenomenon as a cultural export, symbolised by Sarah Lucas seen posed in self-directed photographs, puffing away on a cigarette while crouched on a toilet. The YBAs were bratty shock jocks whose original grunge aesthetic matched the post-Thatcher entrepreneurial spirit of the Blair years, when privatisation was the mantra and any plans for a public utopia had been abruptly cancelled. Nursing neuroses, disorders, syndromes and dysfunctions, the leading YBAs, not least Tracey Emin, made their private lives into vehicles that fast-tracked them to art-celebrity status.

Both Lucas and Emin, represented by early works, are the poster bad girls in Private Utopia. As artists with attitude, they confirm that scepticism, morbidity, sarcasm and disillusion are the predominant keynotes of this particular representation of “contemporary British art”: beauty is an unwanted by-product. Lucas’s self-portraits offer pointed commentaries on the sexism of newspaper tabloids and the kitsch of television soaps, while Emin’s handmade album of snapshots documents the first 13 years of her life as a kind of in-yer-face confessional: raw ingredients for psychotherapy.

Table and Chairs (2001) by Wood and Harrison.
Table and Chairs (2001) by Wood and Harrison.

Private Utopia arrives for its one showing in New Zealand via Japan, where it was put together by a committee of Japanese curators with the assistance of British art bureaucrats, and it has to be said there’s a certain edited refinement to it – a certain wistfulness, melancholia and, yes, tastefulness. But there’s a single work by transvestite potter Grayson Perry that wittily subverts this refinement. It’s a sexed-up ceramic, Village of Penians (2001), the gleaming, luxurious surface of which features a veritable forest of penises. Perry, imagining a folk religion based on the worship of the human phallus, blends notions of sexual identity with graffiti and horror-humour.

The grotesque and nightmarish also interest the Chapman brothers. Their set of etchings, My Giant Colouring Book (2004), loops around traditional fairy tales with Goya-esque mutant monsters.

Human Toilet
Human Toilet Revisited (1998) by Sarah Lucas

Horror, malformation and formlessness imply inchoate, anarchic impulses in the blurry transposed landscapes of Peter Doig – apparently based on those from violent horror movies – and such impulses are likewise troubling in the paintings of Laura Lancaster. Her portraits, based on anonymous faces in found photographs, seem to have been slapped on with a dripping squeegee and exemplify how much of the work in Private Utopia is about in-between states of being, with atmospheres tentative, undefined, mysterious.

Mike Nelson provides an architectural installation that you wander through as a disorientating cinematic, vaguely spooky space. Martin Boyce disassembles a 1955 chair by designer Arne Jacobsen to create a Calder-ish mobile that hangs listlessly as if to mark flotsam left after the high tide of Modernism has receded.

Cornelia Parker is likewise humorously pessimistic with her conceptual scenarios of heated pieces of meteorite rock creating scorch marks on maps lifted from the London A-Z. David Shrigley plays the idiot savant, providing childlike drawings that make philosophical points about the absurdities that underlie modern existence.

There’s much more droll comedy here – punch lines galore, in fact – from the Chaplinesque provocations of Martin Creed to the Laurel and Hardy antics of the Wood and Harrison duo’s pranksterish videos, which acknowledge that among the antecedents of this generation of artists is the British music hall tradition.

I'm Dead (2010) by Sarah Lucas

The original YBAs were associated with hype, self-promotion and the market; they imitated advertising, stalked celebrity, emotionally overshared and were ironically abject. Private Utopia seeks to suggest there has been a turn in the 20th century towards artworks that affirm communities and individuals overcoming personal adversity, as in the intense video works of Jeremy Deller and Elizabeth Price. But these exercises in “relational aesthetics” feel patronising, their quirky bricolage that of cultural dumpster divers, or of amateur ethnographers who can’t shrug off an inherent cynicism.

What stands out in this show is the drollery, the wryness. Jim Lambie provides two spinning record turntables, encased in glitz and bling and glowing like lollipops. Haroon Mirza delivers a knockout installation, certainly one of the most spiritually joyous. His Taka Tak (2008) buzzes, pulsates, crackles and flashes as he recreates the atmosphere of a night market in Lahore, Pakistan, from a few found objects and a lot of electricity.

Adding to the Britishness on display, Mirza augments both Ryan Gander’s taxidermied representation of an explorer still wittering on about the plunder of colonialism, and the tired ecological jokes of Marcus Coates’s faux-shaman figure. Private utopians, subjective geographers, pseudo-scientists and amateur ethnographers: it’s a gathering of tomb raiders.

PRIVATE UTOPIA: CONTEMPORARY ART FROM THE BRITISH COUNCIL COLLECTION is on at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery from 28 March 28 to August 9.

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