Cutting-edge works of art at East International

Ian CollinsEast International 09 – the latest show of cutting-edge creativity from across and beyond our continent - is now open in Norwich.Ian Collins

For centuries Norfolk has been a centre of pioneering art - though, until very recently, it has taken other people rather a long time to notice. Now we're prominent on the map of cutting-edge creativity.

Two hundred years ago Norwich School artists - colleagues and pupils grouped around the masters John Crome and John Sell Cotman - were making giant (though rather gentle) strides. They promoted the former sketching medium of watercolour into a finished art form and painted a paradise on their doorsteps rather than from an Italianate imagination.

Since 1991 East International has drawn attention to Norwich by doing the exact opposite - looking across a continent rather than a county, going global rather than local. The open-submission exhibition has also expanded and excelled across the mass media and cryptic messaging of conceptual art.

Whether you love or loathe - or just laugh at - the BritArt mob, and whatever your view of artists as exhibitionists, there is no doubting the fashion for outlandish contemporary art.

British art, once with a reputation which barely extended across these islands, is now taken seriously across the world (like British films, British architecture and even British food).

At home, Tate Modern now attracts over 5m visitors every year - rivalling Blackpool Pleasure Beach as our most popular leisure destination. And the popular culture of micro-celebrity has now engulfed the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, where every human model enlisted by Antony Gormley can enjoy rather more than the 15 minutes of fame envisaged for us all by the voyeur that was Andy Warhol.

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Norwich has helped in the making of this artful attraction, led by an annual display at what was the Norwich School of Art and Design and is now the Norwich University College of the Arts.

And after a pause for thought last year, and in an echo of the celebrated show in Venice, East is now a biennial feast.

The looming East International, which opens on Saturday evening, July 11, is also in the Can - being promoted as part of a summer festival for visual art in the city, running to the end of August, that is Contemporary Art Norwich 09.

Shows are already under way at the Sainsbury Centre, with more to come at Norwich Castle, The Forum (courtesy of Norfolk Contemporary Art Society), Norwich Arts Centre and Outpost, along with a festive spilling of installations, interventions and happenings in our streets and shop doorways.

Lynda Morris, East organiser from the outset, is justifiably proud that so many emerging artists first featured here are now firmly established, having gone on to critical successes via Turner Prize shortlists and Tate Triennial or Platform for Art showings.

'For a programme sustained by a regional art school, now a University College, it has been a remarkable event,' says a pioneer promoter who is to

co-curate a Picasso exhibition in Tate Liverpool next year.

Reviewing progress so far, she says: 'East International was launched two years after the Berlin wall came down. The name suggests an end to the inward perspective of western Europe; an opening up of the east.

'Eastern Europeans, who had not experienced the full measure of western capitalism, were curious as to what it had to offer. They retained nevertheless a highly developed sense of history.

'Many in the west were equally curious as to the artistic potential that may have lain within the various east European traditions.'

Two of this year's selectors are art historian Lukasz Gorczyca and poet Michal Kaczynski from Warsaw's Raster Gallery.

They work at home and abroad to combine progressive art with a spirit of everyday social existence.

The Polish pair are joined by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden of Art & Language, whose creative practice, originating in 1960s Coventry and linking politics and philosophy, is now regarded as one of the founding partners of conceptual art.

Lynda Morris says: 'East 09 does not have a single focus but inevitably the selectors focus on certain themes. The breadth and contradictions they represent seem to parallel the complex and confusing array of positions and ideologies among younger contemporary artists across Europe.'

Beyond Europe also - for the 25 artists whose work is now being gathered under the East umbrella hail from the UK, Poland, Austria, Germany, Australia and Canada.

The tally of diverse talents includes Agnieszka Kurant, who is presenting a Snow Black display of invisible works by other artists which may or may not be viewable 24 hours a day in the windows of the St George's Street gallery.

Some will be visible only at night under UV light, while others appear only in daylight. Some works yet unmade will join those now ceasing to exist.

Getting others to do the work is also central to Andrea Buttner's Little Works. She gave a video camera to a closed-order Carmelite Nuns in Notting Hill and invited them to record their handicrafts. The result could scarcely have been more surreal if Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were found filming in the chapel.

Norwich University College of the Arts graduate Robin Tarbet dismantles everyday electrical objects before incorporating them into sculptured cityscapes, paralleling the world of architecture with the mysterious universe inside a computer.

Mervyn Arthur contributes a series of photographs of camera interiors from different eras using close-up lenses and evoking strange architectural spaces and charting the history of the photo-mechanical process.

John Russell sculpts surreal groups (a unicorn entangled in a red octopus) afloat in strange oceans and in Purple Haze, James Hopkins - a star of this show - sculpts a Jimi Hendrix guitar but as distorted by the playful perspective of an Old Master painter.

Politics is everywhere apparent but especially now that a fraud investigation has been announced into the collapse of MG Rover. For Stuart Whipps has snapped the redundant Longbridge plant in eerie images documenting the decline of the British car industry - one of the most potent symbols of loss in the former workshop of the world whose remaining manufacturing sector now comprises just 13pc of the economy.

Elizabeth McAlpine's Found Time is an ongoing work in which the artist gathers a postcard for each minute of the 12-hour clock cycle of Big Ben, and demonstrates how our perception of time can be misleading since what seems to show a one-minute space between two pictures may actually span several decades.

Kate Corder spent a year documenting the life of an organic market garden. Besides a gallery show divided into the four seasons she is also working on outdoor displays of vegetables instead of flowers at Norwich City Hall, Hay Hill, the Assembly House and St George's Street.

As always with conceptual art, there is a widespread aim to unsettle - as with Laure Prouvost's subtitled video interview presented as a test and titled Full concentration is now requested - questions will be asked at the end.

More shocking is Olaf Brzeski's film In Memory of Major Jozef Moneta, which considers Poland's tragic world war two history of soldiers hiding in forests and turning feral - literally, in this dark fairy tale, transforming into carnivorous beasts. Marlene Haring turns herself into an animal, with thick fur clothing her nakedness in the photo Because every hair is different.

And Angela Bartram's video in which the artist and a supporting cast of large dogs are shown licking each other's tongues is definitely not for the squeamish. For dogged art lovers only.

An EU grant of 30,000 euros has now allowed East goes East, with highlights of the Norwich show travelling to Krakow and Budapest from the autumn. After that a group of young artists will feature in exchange exhibitions in the three cities next year.

East International opens on Saturday 5-8pm. It then runs from July 13 to August 22, Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm. Admission free.