In the revolving news cycle of themed exhibitions 'Days Like These: The Tate Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary British Art 2003' turned out to be far sharper than its curators claimed, particularly with regard to the new work it included. Certainly it was more intelligent than its predecessor, 'Intelligence'. True, the bar was set so low in the press conference by curators Judith Nesbitt and Jonathan Watkins talking about the so-called 'New Gentleness', 'aesthetic atheism' and – dread words – 'the blurring of boundaries', that the show had little difficulty clearing it.
Blurring boundaries in this case meant the show bled over the edges of the Tate. It required a map and Boy Scout savvy to find Margaret Barron's 15 cityscape paintings on adhesive tape, As It Was Is Now (2002–3), which she attached directly to lampposts and Pay and Display ticket machines in the adjacent streets, or David Cunningham's A Position between Two Curves (2003), which miked the Manton Street entrance and ramped up ambient noises through a feedback amplification device, or Susan Philipz stumbling through a tinkling piano melody in the main lobby. Her overlaid aural memory piece Company (2001) – in this case a piano bar version of the theme from Nicholas Roeg's film Don't Look Now (1973) – is a head-on collision between the present and the remembered that you don't realize you've consumed until it's too late.
The title of the show came from Mike Marshall's 2003 video of the same name, which featured sunlit flower beds being watered by a sprinkler – the sort of supersaturated temporal moment that suggests Burt Lancaster's garden-hopping in The Swimmer (1968). So what you got at first sight, and what assured popular approval, was a visual blow-out in the Duveen galleries. This is a colourful show – the placing of four black boxes for video side by side at the back of the gallery had the effect of clearing the main space for a spectacle that is unashamedly visual. David Batchelor's lightbox tower The Spectrum of Brick Lane (2003) is an elaborately cabled vertical billboard of pure fluorescent slabs and rusty dexion shelving, marooned in Jim Lambie's optically amazing, candy-striped floor Zobop (2003).
Also included was Richard Hamilton's old and new work: the 1965-6 Large Glass replica and Typo/Topography of Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass (2001–2), a schematic representation of the large glass in Guide Michelin style - definitely worth a detour. Cornelia Parker also nodded to Duchamp with her The Distance (A Kiss with Added String) (2003) - Rodin's The Kiss (1880–02) wrapped in one mile of Surrealist string. Next door, Tim Head's towering computer-generated projection Treacherous Light (2003) comprised millions of pixels endlessly and hypnotically amending and rearranging themselves. Next to it, Kutluğ Ataman's film of the keeper of the British collection of hippeastrum bulbs, The Four Seasons of Veronica Read (2002), depicted the saviour of the amaryllis flower cleaning and paring her bulbs in a relentless cycle of decay prevention.
So far this is the colourful weekend version of the show. But what sort of days in 'Days Like These' are we talking about here? Most UK days are a little more downbeat now that we appear to have a qualitative change in world affairs to deal with – days when any sort of political concern has been melded into sullen incomprehension or dissatisfaction. Now people are inclined to reflect that perhaps all this property might not be worth so much after the first dirty bomb, and an element of this show has a wise, invigorating circumspection. Oliver Payne and Nick Relph's film Gentlemen (2003) employed the subject of increasingly scarce gents toilets to riff on the paucity of club culture and the experience of being sold to. The film, which surprisingly gets only a passing mention in the catalogue essays, has a relentless morse code subscript, an embittered bitchy voice-over and rain-filled West End shopping streets marking the disappearance of a brass and tile monument to 19th-century civility and 20th-century drug use. 'It's almost like looking into the future,' the narrator explains – 'the one after World War III and mass destruction.'
Nathan Coley's investigation of trauma started with I Don't Have Another Land (2002), a model of the Manchester building destroyed by IRA bomb damage in 1996. For most people it started with bags in X-ray machines and then nail scissors, now it's shoes and belts, as if every airport security check has become a sort of unhinged adult pyjama party. Our expectations of ineluctable terrorism mean that Coley's installation Lockerbie Evidence (2003), developed from his spell as court artist in residence at Kamp van Zeist, is extraordinary. The replica witness box in Lockerbie Evidence is sublime – a veneered piece of sovereign Scottish territory constructed on Dutch soil to try a Libyan secret agent. It has suggestions of the wood-grained functionality of Richard Artschwager or of Mike Kelley's Craft Morphology Flow Chart (1991). Alongside it are 12 scratchy court artist-style drawings of evidence presented at the trial: briefcases, dry-cleaning bills and shredded, dislocated material.
Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed, 'The future casts its shadow into the past.' Such an intersection of information and story is there in Coley's Lockerbie work, and also in that of George Shaw, who contributes his 'Scenes from the Passion: The Middle of the Week' (2002), abandoned lock-ups and depopulated estate pubs from Coventry and the outskirts of the Forest of Arden. These are painted in his old school Humbrol enamels – images of forgotten childhood boredom made from photographs of the present, a complex looping of memory that eliminates the markers of the present, such as satellite dishes and plastic bins, but leaves an echo of their futility.
Dexter Dalwood's hybrid history paintings Ceaucescu's Execution (2002) and Nixon's Departure (2001) were two strong inclusions. It's well known that Pablo Picasso spent the twilight of his painting career catching up on some sketchy French TV, though he died two years before Watergate filled the screens. Nixon's Departure speculates on how the debasing of American politics, then as now, casts its pall – the riven White House overwritten with Picasso's end-of-the-line palm trees. At the same time Ceaucescu's Execution takes a televised spectacle and releases its horror through an evocation of Francisco de Goya's The Third of May 1808 (1814). This may not be the first exhibition for the age of proliferation, but in its careful reordering of experience, 'Days Like These' was basking in the future's cold shadow.
First published in Issue 75