History is Now @ Hayward Gallery

This is a huge and rather bewildering exhibition, which could easily take a whole day to fully explore, but is full of little gems and big surprises.

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election (May 7) and the 70th anniversary of VE Day (May 8), Hayward curators asked six contemporary artists to curate mini-exhibitions designed to ‘evoke or explore or question’ the history of Britain since World War Two. The artists were free to choose the topic and the content, with the result that they vary wildly in size, shape and impact, some tackling big political issues of the era, some lingering more on the shiny consumerist surface of things.

Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975) © Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell

Hipgnosis, Winkies (1975) © Hipgnosis. Photo: Aubrey Powell

So it is not an exhibition of work by these artists; it is a set of exhibitions of work by other artists (or artefacts from secular society) chosen by these artists. They are: John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and the twins Jane and Louise Wilson (who work together so count as one: seven artists; six mini-exhibitions).

Almost every possible medium is included from painting to video to installation, over 250 objects from public and private art collections as well as everyday objects including maps, clothes, books, newspapers, films and personal diaries, together with scientific and military displays.

Although there was a big board on the wall of each room explaining what each artist has set out to do, these were sometimes difficult to really understand, and once you had understood it, often difficult to reconcile with the apparently random selections of paintings, prints, sculptures, books, newspapers, and found objects which the visitor is presented with.

Trying to understand the rationales for the artist’s selections was challenging, given there were six of them and such a profusion of stuff to assimilate: the simplest ones worked best.


1. Richard Wentworth (b.1947) Maybe because he was the oldest of the artist-curators, Wentworth’s artefacts stretched back the earliest, to before the War, with works from the late 1930s like sculptures by Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson and Edward Paolozzi. His theme seemed to be the experience of war – with Paul Nash’s painting of the Battle of Britain and Bert Hardy’s b&w photos of the Blitz – carrying on into the post-war recovery period, through to the Festival of Britain (1951).

Festival of Britain Mural

Ben Nicholson, Festival of Britain Mural (1951) © Tate, London 2014

His room was deliberately cluttered, he said, as an antidote to the antiseptic way most exhibitions are hung: thus there were some 100 A4 and A5 pieces of paper showing photocopies of pages from newspapers, magazines, documents etc from the period pinned up along one wall, along with newspaper obituaries of notable figures, and a TV screen showing a b&w film of a King George VI speech about something, as well as shelves and coffee tables covered with agèd hardbacks and paperbacks from the 1940s and 50s and – my favourite – the box for an Airfix Control Tower, redolent of my boyhood in the 60s.

The overall impression was how dated, brown or grey and dusty, the books and papers and works by Nicholson seemed. But this contrasted with the vivid shiny metal sculptures by Henry Moore or Tony Cragg’s huge sculpture made from brightly-coloured consumer rubbish stuck to the wall to make the shapes of a man looking at the outline of Great Britain.

Tony Cragg - Britain Seen from the North (1981) © DACS 2015. Courtesy Tate Images

Tony Cragg – Britain Seen from the North (1981) © DACS 2015. Courtesy Tate Images

And the standout exhibit of the whole show, an actual surface to air missile parked on the Hayward Gallery terrace (last seen hosting the talking car in the brilliant Martin exhibition). The doorway out to the terrace had been boxed in to create a small room or ante-chamber hung with technical specifications of the missiles, along with photos of the RAF control room and operatives who launched them, the buildings where they were housed, and images of missiles being fired, as well as a TV showing footage of the space shuttle Challenger disaster ie it blowing up in mid-air (one of the many links and connections made throughout the exhibition, that one was free to ponder… or not…).

Bristol bloodhound at Richard Wentworth's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Bristol bloodhound at Richard Wentworth’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind


2. John Akomfrah (b.1957) His was one of the easier selections to grasp – he had gone along to the Arts Council collection of over 600 films and videos and selected 17 of them. If you watched each of them carefully once, that would take up your whole day, so I did what everyone else did which was watch whatever caught my eye for a minute or so. The most arresting one was The World of Gilbert and George, which featured them dancing in their stiff suits to some rock music and which made me and the other 3 people watching laugh out loud, and then have a friendly chat afterwards about how great G&G are.

Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981) HD Projection, stereo sound © the artists, 2014

Gilbert and George, World of Gilbert and George (1981) HD Projection, stereo sound © the artists, 2014

The other films included:

  • a b&w one showing Bill Brandt‘s photos of sexy models set in the corner of bleak rooms which the same type of sexy models walked in and out of
  • a film showing a straightforward montage of works by Francis Bacon
  • the same respectful approach to the works by Barbara Hepworth
  • a far more dynamic film of a black dancer throwing amazing shapes in a film ‘about’ Winston Silcott
  • an ‘experimental’ film from the early 1970s with a couple of men and women naked in a constrained space bending and contorting around each other

Confirmed my feeling that film and video are difficult forms to work in becaus:

  • most artists are poor and therefore tend to show the same easily-affordable subject of faces or a handful of mates or art school models stripping off
  • it is very difficult to compete with – and subvert the imagery of – the highly professional adverts, pop and rock videos, TV and film which surround us on all sides.

3. Jane and Louise Wilson (b.1967) Jane and Louise’s theme was, apparently, architectural space and conflict. I am predisposed to like anything they do, after admiring their b&w photos of the sea defences on the French coast which were one of the best things in the Tate’s Ruin Lust exhibition.

The theme was exemplified by some huge (silk?) prints hanging from ceiling to floor showing b&w images of women breaking through the chain-link fences at Greenham Common back in the early 1980s; and a big painting by Richard Hamilton set in Northern Ireland.

Richard Hamilton, The State (1993) Tate, London 2014 © The Estate of Richard Hamilton, DACS 2014

Richard Hamilton, The State (1993) Tate, London 2014
© The Estate of Richard Hamilton, DACS 2014

There were several long metal rulers, stretching from floor to ceiling which were apparently used in nuclear fallout shelters, a photo of a beach ball flying over a tall wall, but the other dominating object was a large long rectangular metal cage full of gloves dangling from strings, 1=66,666 by Stuart Brisley (1983)  where each glove represented 66,666 unemployed in the 1980s.

Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson’s curated section of History Is Now, showing 1=66,666 by Stuart Brisley. Photo Linda Nylind

Behind the cage (in the photo above) you can see six b&w photos hung on the wall: these are a set by Penelope Slinger featuring a naked nubile young woman in collages or treated images, which I found simple and striking and effective.

Penny Slinger,Perspective (1977) Copyright the artist. © the artist Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Penny Slinger,Perspective (1977) Copyright the artist. © the artist
Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Slinger was also involved in a 1969 film, Lilford Hall, shot by Peter Whitehead, the underground film maker of, among others, the 60s classic, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. Reminding me very much of the carefree sexuality of the novels of Adam Diment, the low budget b&w film shows establishing shots of the apparently abandoned manor of Lilford Hall, before settling down to show women taking their clothes off, on a fire escape, on the baronial staircase, etc.


4. Hannah Starkey (b.1971) One of the simplest, and therefore most effective, rationales: the Arts Council sponsored art photographers in the 1970s and 80s and Hannah has selected images 50 or so images from this huge archive.

This was an easily understood segment of the show and offered a large number of striking and immediately appealing images.

Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976) © the artist

Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow (1976) © the artist

Other highlights included

  • Helen Robertson’s big photo showing a Navel in a sea of flesh
  • Sarah Lucas’s upside-down self-portrait smoking (visible on the left of the central column in the photo, below)
  • Martin Parr, whose work was featured in the brilliant Only In England exhibition at the Science Museum

Each column in the room had dense collages of colour adverts cut out from magazines of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Most of them could have been calls to action for outraged feminists, for the relentless use of idealised women in various forms of undress to flog things, though there were also cheesy images of men, along with a fair smattering of comedy ads, particularly political ones ridiculing the other side, for example Gordon Brown’s face on a tellytubby.

Installation View Hannah Starkey's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation View Hannah Starkey’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

  • Melanie Manchope’s large (2 metres tall?) and striking photo of her naked mother, the image then layered with oils to create a very powerful effect, Mrs Manchope
  • Several studies of working class people by Chris Killip, among which I particularly liked the strong characterful gaze of Mrs Hyslop

5. Roger Hiorns (b.1975) Probably the most controversial exhibit, a detailed timeline devoted to vCJD or mad cow disease, starting in 1750 and continuing up to the present day and including oil paintings, photos, TV news clips and documentaries on 10 or more TV screens, numerous shouty newspaper headlines, as well as government reports, records of questions asked in the House, and a library-style table with a dozen or more books about the disease and other food-related scandals.

If you really did read all this material and watched all the video clips you’d go mad.

British Cattle Movement Service (2011) Photo: Roger Wooldridge

British Cattle Movement Service (2011) Photo: Roger Wooldridge

Right at the end it said that, after all the fuss and hysteria, there were 177 deaths from vCJD, and there are currently no suspected cases in the UK.

a) 177 gruesome deaths, certainly, but not the devastating plague the media promised us. Compare it with the annual holocaust of traffic accidents, with the 1,713 deaths and 21,657 serious injuries on Britain’s roads in one year alone (2013). No-one’s suggesting we round up all Britain’s cars and burn them (more’s the pity).

b) If you didn’t realise a lot of Britain’s food is grown by slaves and produced using environmentally disastrous and disgusting practices, then you haven’t been paying attention, as the following pair of books make abundantly clear:

Most of the exhibits were factual, official, newspapers and videos but in among them were some ‘art works’, 18th century paintings of cows, which might appeal to some, and:

  • Tony-Ray Jones, last seen at the Only In England show, represented by his b&w photo of Glyndebourne (because it has cows in it)
  • A straightfaced hilarious 1982 video of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger
Jørgen Leth and Ole John ‘My Name is Andy Warhol’ from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982 © the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen

Jørgen Leth and Ole John
‘My Name is Andy Warhol’ from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982
© the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen’s Contemporary, Copenhagen

  • Rather inevitably, a couple of Damien Hurst cow’s heads in formaldehyde cases

6. Simon Fujiwara (b.1982) The youngest artist here, he chose a selection of more modern works, each placed democratically in equal space on plinths.

Gavin Turk Bag 9 (2001) Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Gareth Winters

Gavin Turk Bag 9 (2001) Courtesy of Gavin Turk / Live Stock Market and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. Photo: Gareth Winters

  • A big block of coal from Britain’s last working mine
  • Sam Taylor-Smith’s 64-minute-long video of David Beckham sleeping, David, looking beautiful and seraphic
  • A model of Orbit, the huge sculpture and observation tower made by Anish Kapoor for the Olympic park
  • A video promoting a government campaign – Imagineering – for everybody to be more imaginative 🙂
  • Serving spoons designed by Nigella Lawson
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen, Serving Hands, Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen, Serving Hands, Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

  • One of David Hockney’s recent prints, a depiction of the Yorkshire countryside, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011
  • One of Damien Hirst’s countless dot works
  • the outfit worn by Meryl Streep in her depiction of Mrs Thatcher
Consolata Boyle, Costume designed for Meryl Streep in 'The Iron Lady' (2011) Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Consolata Boyle, Costume designed for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011) Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Conclusions

The main conclusion for me is that it is time to find a better cut-off point for ‘our era’ than World War II.

It is 70 years since VE day and that is just too long a period to try and completely survey: too much has happened: the Western world has passed through several intellectual paradigms in that period – the Cold War, the swinging 60s, the Oil Crisis, the Thatcher Years, the 90s boom etc – let alone the so-called developing world.

In those 70 years the world population has tripled from 2.5 billion in 1945 to getting on for 7.5 billion. We have vastly more consumer goods, infinitely more media for creative production and channels for distribution. It’s too much, too broad.

Which partly explains why, although the exhibition set out to ‘interrogate’ history, it ended being all about everything and therefore about nothing. I wasn’t really prompted to ‘question’ or ‘interrogate’ any of this history.

It felt like wandering round a high-class junk yard full of unexpected treasures, a random selection of the wreckage thrown up by Time’s unpredictable and plethoric passage.

Installation view of Simon Fujiwara's curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

Installation view of Simon Fujiwara’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind

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