by Kim Gurney
While the Venice Biennale preoccupies most UK art critics who ritually scorn its apparent vapidity, a visual feast of photography is currently the focus in the country's culture capital. London is host to an impressive and varied summer display of contemporary and twentieth-century images that vie with end-of-year Fine Art degree shows for the public's attention.
Photography has become an art form in its own right over the past 30 years and some of the names that helped its rise are on show. American Cindy Sherman, for example, has a retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery that comprises over 50 images complemented by ten large-scale commissions along the Gloucester Road Underground station. The self-portraits, boldly framed, map out Sherman's career as a master of disguise. But the obvious contrivance - visible prosthetics and heavy make-up - highlights the deception rather than reinforcing the masquerade.
Her latest work takes this visual play one level deeper. A series of clown self-portraits, shown for the first time, depict superficial psychotic happiness with a sense of underlying sadness.
German Wolfgang Tillmans, recipient of the Turner Prize in 2000 and regarded as one of the most influential artists in the UK today, is showcased at Tate Britain. 'If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters' is a haphazard collage of variously sized images that use all the available space - including doorways - to force the viewer to engage with each image. None are labelled and all are tacked to the walls with pins, bulldog clips or sticky tape. This lack of hierarchy in installation and disregard for formality is integral to Tillman's work, which mixes not only format but also content.
At the V&A, a retrospective of French photographer Guy Bourdin shows a collection of his intense and dramatic fashion photographs while an open-air exhibition outside shows Peter Randall-Page's aerial photographs of the earth.
Amid this cornucopia of photography, it is however hard to miss the new Saatchi Gallery - home of the Young British Artists. Declaring itself host to "the best art in the world", it generally makes up in visual impact for what it lacks in modesty. But its old-fashioned and fusty interior tends to highlight the slipped and greying innards of Damien Hirst's pickled installations and the rather tired look of Tracey Emin's rumpled bed. Other works are better offset by the dated decor. Richard Wilson's 20:50 - a room filled to waist-height with recycled engine oil - works brilliantly to reflect a room's upper half in a perfect mirror image.
Newer contemporary artworks are on view at the respective Tate Galleries and the underlying theme is one of fun. The Modern shows the world's largest inflatable sculpture - Block Head by Paul McCarthy.
Meanwhile, Tate Britain has an excellent installation by Mark Titchener. Be Angry But Don't Stop Breathing exorts viewers to scream into the arms of a hand-carved sculpture to trigger vibrations in an adjacent tray of water. No doubt it would be a hit at the Venice Biennale.