The grooviest hit of London's summer season is undoubtedly "Abracadabra," July 15-Sept. 26, an international survey show that takes up one large wing of the Tate Gallery's ground floor. The exhibition features 15 young artists whose work has elements of Pop, comedy and surrealism. Among the stars of the show are Maurizio Cattelan, Marie-Ange Guilleminot, Vik Muniz, Katy Schimert and Keith Edmier.
The show has received raves from most of the art-covering press, in part because it appears to satisfy London's thirst for a contemporary-art blockbuster. And with its buzzy title, "Abracadabra" claims a place in the series that began with "Brilliant: New Art from London" in 1996 and "Sensation: Young British Art from the Saatchi Collection" in 1997.
Maurizio Cattelan steals the show with his life-size stuffed horse suspended above the heads of the visitors in the museum's central entrance foyer. Titled Twentieth Century, the work is both tragic and elegant, a touching motif for a millennium that is ideologically exhausted and torn by war. Cattelan is, of course, the young Italian artist who had an actor dress up as Pablo Picasso for a "Projects" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and whose piece at the Venice Biennale -- a swami who buried himself in sand for hours at a time -- was much remarked upon.
"Abracadabra" features three other works by the artist, including Bidibidobidiboo, a little stuffed squirrel sitting at a table who has apparently commited suicide with the miniature handgun lying nearby; Stadium, a absurd, 25-foot-long table soccer game which the visitors are encouraged to use; and Charlie Don't Surf, a sculpture of a boy sitting at a desk, crucified by his pencils. Yes, school has started.
Other hits in the show include Keith Edmier's pair of gargantuan, fleshy pink water lilies. Called Victoria Regia (First and Second), the bizarre growths appear to float above the heads of viewers like props from a sci-fi movie. (New Yorkers may have seen this sculpture earlier this year on view at Metro Pictures in Chelsea). Edmier's work is best understood as an expression of superreality, fantasy and playfulness. Similarly, Vik Muniz makes exact copies of well-known photographs with drips of chocolate syrup. The completed chocolate picture is then photographed. The result seems oddly familiar but also looks delicious.
My personal favorite in the show is the work of young French artist Pierrick Sorin, who has produced a series of short videotapes, often starring himself. In Pierrick is Cutting Wood, we see the artist struggling to cut through a long plank. In a sequence worthy of the earliest silent films, we suddenly see a drag queen (Pierrick in costume) at the other end of the board, who starts to ride the shaking wood in a sexual manner. The saw-wielding Pierrick then begins to grind his end of the plank. The plank is finally cut through and Pierrick collapses in exhaustion.
Marie-Ange Guilleminot, who is known for her body-hugging sculptural dresses, first came to international attention in Kasper Konig's 1997 "Munster Sculpture Project." In "Abracadabra" she presents 14 dresses, including The Life Hat, a long tube of knitted fabric that begins as a hat but can be pulled down the body to serve as a pullover or dress. Her work is arguably both a functional fashion item and a fantastical sculptural performance. The Tate show would have been helped by including the artist's videotape, in which she demonstrates how the dress can morph from hat to cocoon to evening dress to Egyptian mummy. The shapely Guilleminot wriggles through the permutations in a way that is at times balletic, poetic and ludicrously funny.
Understandably, in such a jam-packed array, some work suffers in the installation. Paul Noble's smallish cartoon drawings get lost next to the three huge weirdly figurative photo-paintings by Xavier Veilhan. Likewise, Katy Schimert's bright yellow ceramics and accompanying drawings (recently on view at David Zwirner Gallery in New York) are overshadowed by the sheer volume of work that surrounds them.
The curators of "Abracadabra," Catherine Grenier and Catherine Kinley, make much of the esthetic light-heartedness in the works in the exhibition, writing in the catalogue that "the spirit is one of optimism and play, of fantasy" and noting that none of the artists "present a heavy-handed social agenda." As such, Cattelan's dead horse hanging high in the museum seems an ironic comment on the state of contemporary art and curating in Europe at the end of this long century.