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The Independent

Visual Arts
June 1st, 2006
A global tour going nowhere

Around the World in 80 Days
Sue Hubbard

Remember the image of David Niven trying to circumnavigate the world in a hot-air balloon? Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, on which the film starring Niven was based, pinpoints a moment in history when the modern globalised world was beginning to take shape.

Since the Renaissance, travel has represented expansion – of territories, wealth and knowledge. By the end of the 19th centurty journeys to all corners of the globe that had once taken months were made easier by the introduction of the steam train, the motor car and the aeroplane.

Travel became a dominant trope of modernism, a utopian enterprise that not only promised potential riches but also new intellectual and cultural horizons. For explorers such as Livingstone and writers such as Joseph Conrad, to travel often meant a psychological journey into the dark recesses not just of a new continent but also of the self.

In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg makes a bet one evening over a game of whist that he can travel round the world in 80 days. Presented in two venues, the ICA and the South London Gallery, this exhibition showcases the work of 19 artists, all of whom were born abroad but now live and work in London, in an attempt to highlight the themes of technological change, colonialism and globalisation originally touched on in Verne’s novel.

So far, so good. But the idea for the exhibition is very much stronger than many of its parts and it simply does not cohere intellectually. There is a fashion among curators to have an idea and then go shopping for artists to fit their theme, so that the concept is often stronger than the individual or collective work.

I started with high hopes. In the lower gallery Mona Hatoum’s Map, a world map made of thousands of transparent glass marbles arranged on the gallery floor, suggests both aerial travel (the sculpture is seen from above) and the precarious balance of the world’s geo-political systems, while Janine Al-Ani’s photographs of blighted deserts and animal carcasses undercut the Western desire to romanticise far-flung cultures.

The upstairs gallery, however, is visually dull and intellectually weak. Apart from Runa Islam’s film First Days of Spring about rickshaw drivers in Dhaka and Alexandre da Cunha’s witty Velours Series, a row os standards in which national flags have been substituted by beach towels from various resorts, the rest add nothing to the debate, while Rosalind Nashashibi’s execrable Circus of the Future, a series of punning photos on the outline of an elephant, should never have found its way out of the confines of an undergraduate show.

Down in South London things are not that much better. The gallery looks rather dreary despite Yinka Shonibare’s colourful Man on a Unicycle, which uses African batik fabric transformed into 19th-century costume to illustrate patterns of colonialism.

The most interesting works are Francis Upritchard’s Borrowed Carpet, which groups old items including skulls, stuffed monkeys and a fly whisk together on a rug, in a display similar to those found on the outer edges of bazaars. Reminiscent of the ethnographic displays in museums such as the Pitt rivers in Oxford, it underlines the Victorian obsession with categorising and collecting. Meanwhile, Erika Tan’s three-screen video, Persistent Visions, which juxtaposes excerpts from amateur footage found in the film archive of the British Empire and Company, is genuinely evocative and thought-provoking.

The appropriation of Verne’s novel as a motif is a clever one. But the curatorial voice is too strong and the work too thin and insufficiently engaged with the theme to create what could have been a radical exhibition that looked at the complex effects of colonialisation and the legacy the British Empire left behind.