Nick Hackworth

City racing 1988-1998: A partial account, Institute of Contemporary Arts

Essays & Reviews Ecening Standard

In 1988, bored by their inability to secure shows in London galleries uninterested in young British artists, five artists and a friend — John Burgess, Keith Coventry, Matt Hale, Paul Noble and Peter Owen — squatted in an ex-betting shop (hence the name City Racing) near the Oval cricket ground and began a series of cheap and cheerful art shows. It proved a wise move. A year after its first show, the recession hit, the art market contracted and many artists came to rely on alternative spaces to show their work. Initially funded by the founders, City Racing later secured grants from the London Arts Board. But the grants stopped, and so did City Racing.

On display at the ICA is a selection of works from the 51 shows at City Racing. The first thing most will notice is how many of the artists on display have made the transition from unknown artists to fully fledged art stars, and the speed with which fame has come.

Gillian Wearing, who subsequently won the Turner Prize with a piece involving actors dressed as policemen standing still for 60 minutes, is represented with two large photos of masturbating people staring at mirror images of themselves. Sarah Lucas had her first show at City Racing in 1991, charmingly entitled Penis nailed to a Board, and here shows Sod You Gits, one of her now familiar series of enlarged sections of sexist tabloid pieces. Several of her pieces occupy space in the Tate Modern’s show, Century City.

From unknown to a place in art history in less than a decade is quite an achievement and mirrors that of City Racing in becoming crystallised, courtesy of this exhibition, as a crucial part of Britain’s cultural history. If this exhibition illustrates anything, it is that history is a tale told by the victors.

Until 11 March. Tel: 020 7930 3647