The state we're in<br />
National identity - What is the real England? Alistair Robinson introduces an exhibition with a rang
In the past couple of years, there has been a shift among artists away from shock tactics to addressing who it is we're becoming and who we think we are. In contrast to the sensationalism of the 1990s, the show "The Condition of England" is rooted in how artists today have a renewed interest in politics. Rather than producing broadside polemics, however, those involved seem more concerned with mixing things up so that it is impossible to tell at a glance what's progressive and what's conservative, or what's tragic and what's comic. Most use photographs and film as forms of evidence, as records of who we are and what we share. The works in this show are signs of the times, records of a particular moment rather than monuments for posterity. They simply reveal how the world is changing, to make us look around ourselves in a new way.
Alan Titchmarsh in reflective mood
The Caravan Gallery, 2001 (Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale)
As well as undertaking a photographic survey of the state of the nation, Williams and Teasdale conduct questionnaires about lifestyle trends and tastes. One survey undertaken in Portsmouth resulted in such dubious statistical findings as: "99 per cent of people would rather die than arrange a pre-paid funeral"; "57 per cent of people kill their house plants without even trying"; and "Alan Titchmarsh is loved and loathed in equal measure".
See England First
Alice Anderson, 2004, video still
Anderson's video See England First examines picture-postcard mythologies of nationhood, unpicking the bucolic, pre-urban vision of the country that has such a long and often distinguished pedigree. The visual elements of See England First are disarmingly simple: Anderson presents us with a sequence of dated, second-hand postcards on to which human and animal figures, often out of scale, are overlaid. Such images rapidly transport us to a "timeless" landscape of rural tranquillity and agreeable weather as exemplified by the cinema of the immediate postwar years.
£150 Trainers, Mevagissey, Cornwall
The Caravan Gallery, 2004 (Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale)
Williams and Teasdale photograph English life in all its glorious idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. They show that humour is an inescapable part of English life. But humour is, generally, a means to an end: the pair deploy it as a tool to engage our curiosity while offering harder questions about who we are becoming.
Alistair Robinson is programme director of the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (0191 514 1235), where "The Condition of England" runs until 25 June