The wonderful Nottingham Contemporary never fails to disappoint me. Its previous exhibition, works by the Egyptian artist Wawl Shawky, was so good that it actually made my heart beat faster. So when I found out that they would be carrying out an exhibition inspired by the works of one of my favourite writers, Jean Genet, I was incredibly excited.

One thing I have always enthused about with the Contemporary is the often-ingenious use it makes of its space, and this was no different – to reflect Genet’s career as a playwright, the exhibition was divided into different “acts”, spread out across the separate galleries within the Contemporary. The first and most central act was by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who had been born in Genet’s post-war Paris but gained attention as a part of the London art scene in the early 70s. The erotic visuals of furniture as representative as the body fuels his work for every angle, as well as tracing the narrative of Genet’s famous play The Maids.

Chaimowicz works alongside some important figures for his exhibition; most notably Genet’s friend Alberto Giacometti , which bought all the complexities of Genet’s work to life. (Genet had also written an essay on Giacometti, “The Studio of Alberto Giacometti,” after posing for him five times. Picasso considered it the best essay on art he had ever read.) Works by other artists such as the Turner-prize winning Wolfgang Tillmans, who constantly seems to provide highlights of the Contemporarys exhibitions, also summarise the homoerotic nuances of Genet’s work.

Whilst the first Act focused on the transcendent sexuality of Genet’s plays and poetry, the second act focused on his political work, largely through the medium of photography. Genet focused solely on political work in the later years of his life, with an active involvement in the struggles of the Palestinians and the Black Panthers, and it was a true excitement to see some photography of him in action, particularly on the images showing him working alongside other important thinkers, such as “Discipline and Punish,” author Michel Foucault. Meanwhile, photographs loaned by the Ginsberg Company of him campaigning alongside the iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg were so-cool-it-hurts (probably not the intention of campaigns for important political causes, I know…)

Other pieces were simply in relation to Genet’s political work – works by the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, Palestinian Liberation Organisation member Abdul Hay Mossallam, and a West Bank-inspired piece by the art collective The Otolith Group. Home (French) politics are also bought into the equation with works by Gil. J. Wolman, the experimental artist and founder of Lettrist International (a forerunner of Situationist International.)

With any major art exhibition which encompasses a range of artists' works, there is always a “but.” And the “but” which I am going to have to bring up here comes courtesy of Glenn Ligon and his use of neon signs to make a racial point. It's not the message which is the issue here; it is the medium. Neon signs? Hasn’t this already been done to death (and to more emotive effect) by the likes of Jenny Holzer and Tracey Emin?

Pix Andy Keate

But on the whole this exhibition was as highly original and as fantastically edgy as Genet himself. It covered everything you could really want from art, including traditional beauty (Lebanese artists Mona Hatoum’s ceramic sculptures of hand grenades are far more aesthetically beautiful than they sound.)

Until October 22nd, the Contemporary will host many Genet inspired events – screenings of his own film, “Un Chant D’Amour,” screenings of relevant political films, a film featuring the wonderful dancer Micheal Clark, and a discussion workshop. I urge anybody reading this to attend any of these – but not without taking in another the main exhibition, another resounding success for Nottingham, first.

Amy Britton

Details of the exibition are here