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City Racing 1988-1998: A partial account (London)

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Currently on at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (25 January - 11 March), collecting together several works from the artist-run London gallery space, which formed in a disused betting shop. Address: The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH. Telephone 0207 930 0493. Fa

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      11.03.2001 04:31
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      The 'City Racing' gallery was supposedly one of the most influential galleries in the development of British contemporary art in the 1990s. Founded in 1988, the gallery was formed by artists squatting in a former betting shop in South London, near the Oval cricket ground. Run by artists, the gallery was highly celebrated, admittedly among other artists, and became the model for the establishment of other artist-run galleries across the world. For much of the gallery's history, leading up to its closure in 1998, 'City Racing' was run by a group of five friends; John Burgess, Keith Coventry, Matt Hale, Paul Noble and Peter Owen. The exhibitions that took place over the gallery's ten years were notable for their ambitiousness, despite the minimal funds available to them. In celebration of the gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Arts has collected together several works from the gallery, selected by the ICA's Associate Director of Exhibitions, Matthew Higgs, who first saw them at exhibitions at City Racing. The works are almost all from early stages in the artists' careers, and a few of the featured artists have gone on to have fairly successful careers. For obvious reasons, none of the works installed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts can be site-specific ones from City Racing. To judge from the notes available to accompany the exhibition, this is a bit of a disappointment, as some of the gallery's site-specific works sound to have been the most interesting. THE GALLERIES Upon arrival at the ICA, passing the main desk and the shop, you immediate catch site of the original site that once hung above the 'City Racing' gallery in the Oval. From here, you proceed down into the first gallery. The first thing you spot upon entering the gallery is indicative, perhaps, of what to expect from the exhibition. Entitled 'Been there, done that, K.S.', Gustav Metzger's
      work (2000), is a recreation of a series of works he displayed at 'City Racing' in 1996, consisting of crushed, discarded cardboard boxes, bound by black and white twine. Frankly, this summed up the exhibition for me – rubbish recycled, and labelled art, with remarkably little thought to any kind of message or social commentary. Perhaps this reflects the fact that many of the artists at City Racing had yet to develop their methods for expressing their beliefs, when they exhibited there, but for me, this meant that the exhibition was quite a shallow, and uninspiring one. Also in this first gallery can be found Ross Sinclair's 'United States Diary' (1992), consisting of a stack of blocks bearing reproductions of American state flags painted in black and white, alongside some stencil printed messages painted onto the walls. Sinclair's messages attack what he sees as fundamental problems with the supposed democracy in the American political process. Rather than being content with expressing his opinions abstractly, he feels the need to resort to obvious and heavy-handed criticism, reducing the impact of his piece significantly. It's interesting to look at, and I liked his representation of the American state flags in such a straightforward and uncomplicated way, but the text of his stencilled messages severely detracted from the value of his message. On another wall nearby is Gillian Wearing's 'Masturbation' (1991/2). This consisted of two large prints, one featuring a woman masturbating, and another a man. In the centre of the picture each holds (using their free hand) a replica of the whole picture, thereby creating an unending series of masturbating figures, reproduced ad infinitum. It's interesting to see the early work of the artist who would go on to be nominated for the Turner Prize in 1997, already suggesting her interests in people's thoughts and feelings. But, nevertheless, the work is un
      inspired; I can't be clear what the message here is, and although the work is well executed, it seems to have been executed more for the shock it elicits in the viewer, rather than for any expression of ideas. On the far wall of the gallery is the work of another currently successful artist, Sarah Lucas, entitled 'Sod You Gits' (1992). Lucas's early work is themed around the depiction of events in newspapers, and is very interesting, as she had yet to be influenced by Tracey Emin into self-introspection. In 'Sod You Gits', Lucas creates a fabricated profanity-laden page of a tabloid newspaper, and blows it up to fill most of a wall. Paul Noble's 1993 work 'In the factual section', consisting of a large pencil sketch in a broad wooden frame, showing the unusual occupants of a library, is probably one of the more interesting pieces in this gallery. Several of the figures in the sketch are openly urinating or defecating on books or shelves. To my mind, Noble is making a somewhat heavy-handed, but nonetheless amusingly executed, attack on the devaluation of the reference section of libraries of late. The titles of books in the reference section are easily readable, and consist almost exclusively of puns; e.g. 'More Tea Slaphead by Gary Baldy' or 'Skeletal Surgery by Anna Tomical'. Another book, that is openly receiving excrement from a squatting figure above it, is open on a page about 'Magical Mind Reading'; exactly the sort of dubious non-information that seems to be stored in "reference" books. Other works that I enjoyed in this gallery, though with similar reservations, included John Burgess's 1994 work 'Politics, Sport, Religion (Agent & Inuit/Igloo & MI6)', consisting of a painted pub sign; Janette Paris's 'Plank Series' (1997-2001), a series of cartoon-style illustrations of a plank engaged in various "human" acts; and Jonathan Monk&#
      39;s 'Crash Bang Wallop' (1996), which was originally exhibited at City Racing as a triplet of exhibits – painting, sculpture and video projection. In Monk's work, the sculpture consisted of a smashed and crumpled motorbike, the video depicted the artist inflicting the damage on the bike with a sledgehammer, and the 'painting' consisted of the ground-sheet placed underneath the bike as it was beaten. From this largest gallery, the exhibition continues in a gallery on the first floor of the building. This gallery holds considerably fewer interesting works. Notable amongst them are Sarah Lucas's 1991 work 'Penis nailed to a board', consisting of a newspaper story, possibly fabricated, including several portrait photographs of people connected to the story. The story is printed on a piece of cardboard, and the portraits are raised at a sharp angle to the story itself, 'Guess Who?' style. Other notable works included Lucy Gunning's 'Eye' (1996), consisting of a perpetually looped 16mm film, projected onto a wall a short distance away, showing an eye; and Sally Barker's 1994 'Jelly Tits' consisting of impressions of womens' breasts moulded in 'Fruit Pastille' colours. In Mark Wallinger's 1993 piece 'Regard a mad mere rager', he presents a video of Tommy Cooper, played backwards, on a television positioned away from the viewer, which is viewed via a mirror. It's a remarkably uninspiring piece, with very little to actually say, but it's entertaining enough. Back on the ground floor, the corridor back to the lobby of the ICA is lined by a few final works. One of these is Jemima Stehli's 1997 piece 'Table 2', a photograph depicting a naked woman on all fours with a sheet of glass on her back. Whether Stehli is seeking to make a point about feminism is somewhat difficult to judge as the work is presented without any context tha
      t might be provided by other works. However, the most amusing, and for me, entertaining, of the works in the exhibition is Colin Lowe & Roddy Thomson's 1993-1995 work 'Sponsorship Letters', in which they present letters that they have sent from the gallery to various people and institutions across the world, soliciting funds or materials for their art. Alongside Lowe and Thomson's requests are some of the replies they've received, including London Zoo's refusal to 'hire' them a fox. CONCLUSIONS Touring the City Racing exhibition at the ICA is free to members of the Institute, or requires you to become a day member for the princely sum of £1.50. However, even at this price, the exhibition really won't be of much interest to anyone other than an art student, or someone specifically interested in the early work of several British contemporary artists. If you just have a passing interest in contemporary art, or are merely curious, it'd probably be best to give the exhibition a miss – a few interesting works, but very little worthwhile social commentary here.

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