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Surprise, Surprise - ICA

Feature by James Haddrell

IS A papier-mâché piggy bank made from the pages of the Evening Standard by a nine-year-old boy a work of art? How about a penguin made by his little brother? To the brothers’ proud parents maybe, but surely not to the exhibition going public.

But what if those brothers grow up to become two of the leading contemporary artists of their day? Does it then become valid to raid said parents attic and dig out the works produced in the classroom at junior school and put them on public display?

In our current celebrity-obsessed society it would certainly come as no surprise to see the childhood works of the rich and famous revealed for all to see, but Surprise, Surprise, the current exhibition at the ICA and the temporary home of the pig (by Dinos Chapman) and the penguin (by his brother Jake), isn’t supposed to pander to celebrity culture.

In the publication which accompanies the exhibition, co-curator Jens Hoffman writes: “Large scale group exhibitions – and typically the bigger institutions’ summer shows – tend to play most aggressively to [a] recognition factor, stimulating interest in the show through the promise that established artists’ names appear to present.

“The desire for broad appeal is matched by an offer of engagement on the basis of at least partial familiarity. As a strategy, this highlights the importance attached to the artist as a well-known figure or name, as distinct from the qualities of their individual pieces of work.”

If we take Hoffman at his word, then the work of the pre-pubescent Chapmans included in the exhibition is worthy of our discerning attention regardless of, not because of, the fact that they went on to become such accomplished artists.

Take my word for it. They’re not. The art rooms of junior schools are full of piggy banks and penguins like these. These are not the probably apocryphal rock drawings of Giotto which led Cimabue to take the fledgling painter on as an apprentice, or the boyhood sculpture of Michelangelo which led the Medicis to take him under their wing. These are standard examples of late 20th Century British children’s art. The only interest here is in the subsequent achievements of the two artists.

Of course, all of that is only true if the captions are to be believed, and with the Chapmans you never can tell. Maybe the works are ironic, produced for this exhibition, retro celebrations of childish art. But even it that’s the case, they’re still not very good.

Other works in the exhibition show a genuine early stage in a maturing artist’s development. Damien Hirst’s sculptural collage was produced early in his time at Goldsmiths, two years before he curated the groundbreaking and career launching Freeze; Chris Ofili’s Blind Mice was painted eight years before he struck celebrity gold as part of Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, and nine years before he won the Turner Prize; but is an artist struggling to find his voice as interesting or as affecting as one who has done so? On this evidence, the answer is a resounding no.

Other featured artists are represented by more recent works, not part of their development but departures from their adopted style.

Martin Creed, who won the Turner Prize (like it or not) for his empty room with a light going on and off, is represented by a rough painted sketch of a black flight of stairs.

With Vein, one of the most successful works of the exhibition, Anish Kapoor rejects the pure geometric or organic forms for which he is best known in favour of a trickle of bloodlike paint, endlessly flowing down the wall and disappearing into a recessed pipe. It is striking when compared to other works in the exhibition, but it won’t make you see Kapoor in a whole new light. It just makes you wish for one of his characteristic works instead.

As much as it strives to deny it, Surprise, Surprise is a summer blockbuster, an exhibition of work by headline grabbing artists, and whilst the works on show have been selected in a bid to delight us through confounding our expectations, the result is simply a summer blockbuster of sub-standard art.

The reason we know Hirst for his formaldehyde animals or his pharmaceutical satire, Chris Ofili for his detailed, decorative collage-paintings, or the Chapman brothers for their work as grown-ups, is because this is their best work.

If there is a surprise to be found at the ICA at the moment, it is the surprise of seeing so many poor works exhibited by so many highly respected contemporary artists.

Picture Credit: Dinos Chapman, Pig, (1970-1). Courtesy the artist and Jay Jopling/White Cube (London)

Surprise, Surprise
Until September 10, 2006
ICA, The Mall, London. SW1Y 5AH
020 7930 3647;
Open daily 12midday-7.30pm
Admission: Mon-Fri: £2, (conc. £1.50); Sat-Sun: (£3, conc. £2)