Gurning and Embroidered Knickers: A New Exhibition Presents a Portrait of Britain by Placing "Alternative" Artefacts-White Vans, Whoopee Cushions and Women's Institute Textiles-In a Fine-Art Context. It's So Very Patronising, Writes Rachel Withers

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During the Venice Biennale in 2003, naively drawn flyers were to be found scattered around the city. They invited artist-curator couples to compete in a race for a glittering prize: invitation to the biennale's ritziest preview parties. But this was no ordinary hundred-metre dash: the "Curator Lifting-Running Competition"--brainchild of the French artist Colonel--required artists to race with curators piggybacking on their shoulders. The race may never actually have happened, but that does not take away from the project's satire on current relations between artists and curators.


The rise of curators and "super-curators" hasn't come out of the blue. Twentieth-century modernist conceptions of art-making presupposed the need for a class of specialist professionals to mediate between "advanced", "challenging" artists and lay gallery-goers. In the past decade or so, however, the balance of power has tipped so emphatically towards curatorship that many canny artists have opted to reinvent themselves as partor even full-time curators.

Another symptom of the shift is the increased viability of art-making tactics that reflect curatorial, archival or museological activities. Artists such as Mark Dion--whose Tate Thames Dig (1999) displayed relics reclaimed from the mud of the river in a purpose-built cabinet--or Jim Shaw (who has collected, over the past 30 years, thrift-store paintings) research, record and redeploy existing artefacts, leaving curators with the not always straightforward job of installing "ready-curated" archives in their galleries.

The practices of curators--selecting, rejecting, classifying and interpreting--powerfully shape perceptions of art and its value. When artists mimic those activities, they inevitably place them on display. Indeed, they become the work's bottom line. Some artists curate as a conscious method, using it to examine big questions about the formation of knowledge or the production of cultural capital. Others piggyback. But making the call can be tricky, as demonstrated by two current shows--"Enthusiasm" at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and "Folk Archive" at the Barbican.


For the record, each venue's in-house curators have done an exemplary job of allowing each project to stand or fall on its own merits. "Enthusiasm" displays the fruits of research by the artists Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska into a previously undocumented area. Travelling all over Poland, the pair and their collaborators have painstakingly tracked down and archived a huge resource of films made by underground communist-era film clubs, apparently using stock hijacked from supplies allocated for official state projects. Soon to be made freely available online, the archive comprises thousands of hours of footage: animated cartoons, documentaries, satirical shorts, comedies, gay and straight erotica, experiments in abstraction, surrealist fantasies and more.


The artists have partitioned the Whitechapel's lower gallery using floor-to-ceiling drapes; selected films sequenced under the headings "Love", "Longing" and "Labour" play in each curtained area. Glass-fronted cabinets dating from the 1950s and 1960s display trophies: witty alternative Oscars and Emmys hand-made by club members.

"Folk Archive" is the joint project of Jeremy Deller (winner of last year's Turner Prize) and Alan Kane. Inspired by the understandably adverse reaction to the Millennium Dome's corporate presentation of "UK culture", the show features objects gleaned by the artists from across the country and proposes an alternative portrait, in Deller's words, "of all the energetic and enthusiastic things that happen around Britain ... when people make and improvise ... and are creative on an everyday basis".

The exhibits are loosely themed under headings: "Tea and Cakes", "The Street", "Work and Play", "Love and Death". …