Every room in Tate Modern

Tate Modern, housed in the famous converted power station building on the South Bank near London Bridge, contains six levels. But as levels 0 and 1 are shops and cafes, and 5 and 6 are, respectively, the members’ level and restaurant, that leaves only 2, 3 and 4 to actually display art. Level 3 is given over to temporary exhibitions (currently Alexander Calder and The World Goes Pop) and some small, one-room displays (currently George Baselitz) – which leaves floors 2 and 4 to house the permanent collection.

Each level is divided into two wings, west and east, grouped around a broad theme and housing 10 or 11 rooms: thus level 2 west is Citizens and States, level 2 east is Making Traces; level 4 east is Energy and Process and level 4 west is Material Worlds.

So Tate Modern contains about 42 rooms, plus 3 or 4 one-room displays between each wing, say 46 in all.

Audio guide

The audio guide costs £4.25 (£3.75 for concessions eg students). It has audio commentary on a relatively small number of selected works. The woman selling it said it lasts 45 minutes but that can’t be true. My one had one or two minute-long items on 38 works, and half or more of the entries consisted of more than one track eg 90 seconds on the art work, with an additional quote from the artist, and then maybe some music (the Mark Rothko item has two pieces of music, one of which was five minutes long). Surely more than 45 mins – and very useful…

Personal highlights

As with my recent trips to the British MuseumNational Gallery and Tate Britain, the following are obviously not any kind of official highlights, just a list of things that made me stop and think or admire or want to make a note.

I used to think I knew about modern art, but this visit confirmed my feeling that I have been completely overtaken by the explosion of post-modern art since the 1980s. There has been a vast expansion in the numbers of artists and artworks and types and styles of practice over the last thirty years, as well as a massive expansion in the types of discourses available to make sense of new movements and artists from around the world.

Also there has been a significant movement to reconsider and revalue the past, especially as regards rediscovering or rehabilitating women artists – a process exemplified by the current The World Goes Pop exhibition, which is designed to promote hitherto little-known artists from around the world, and goes out of its way to foreground women artists and gender issues.

So this attempt to visit every room at Tate Modern felt like it shed a bit of new light on some old favourites and familiar faces, but mostly introduced me to new names. A lot of new names.

1. Citizens and States

Who doesn’t love Piet Mondrian? But I didn’t know he was a theosophist nor that the calm grids of black lines dividing rectangles of white or red or yellow or blue are representations of an ideal society. A psychologist was interviewed to say they’ve done experiments turning Mondrian squares onto the diagonal and people really don’t like them: there’s something powerful about horizontal and vertical lines, our brains react to them more deeply than to diagonals. Compare the impact, the pleasing sense of order and clarity in any Mondrian, with that of fellow De Stijl member Theo van Doesburg’s Counter-Composition VI (1925). Not nearly so pleasing.

Composition B (No.II) with Red 1935 The cool structured grids can be interpreted as a way of establishing order on a chaotic world. That aim reminded me of the images I saw recently in the British Museum, the wall paintings of Nebamun hunting and the friezes of king Ashurbanipal of Assyria’s lion hunt. In both, hunting is a way for aristocratic or royal man to establish order out of nature’s chaos and the painting re-enacts that function. Striking that the same impulse links painting from 800 BC and 1940 AD. The movement he belonged to in Holland, de Stijl, is pronounced ‘dare stale’.

When Barbara Hepworth moved to Cornwall, ovals replaced circles in her work, which gave them two centres or focal points, instead of one, making them more complex and interesting. Oval Sculpture (No. 2) 1943, cast 1958

Tate had an exhibition of Hélio Oiticica back in 2007, which I was fool enough not to go to. The three abstracts by her here, from the 1950s, show not quite perfect geometric shapes jostling and balanced on plain backgrounds, creating a lovely impression of jazzy movement. Metaesquema 1958

Tate also had an exhibition of Saloua Raouda Choucair a few years ago, another show by a woman artist which I should have gone to. In room two I liked Composition with Two Ovals 1951. On the audio guide we hear her insisting her work comes from Islamic, not Western, sources of inspiration. A couple of her works were included in 2015’s Adventures of the Black Square show at the Whitechapel art gallery last year, where I liked Poem (1965).

Joseph Beuys was one of the dour Germans who put me off contemporary art in the 1970s and 80s. There are not one but two whole rooms devoted to him at Tate Modern, mainly documenting his tireless activities as an educator, organiser of student events, giver of marathon interviews, supporter of alternative political parties, green enthusiast and so on. How tiresome all that 1970s student politics looks now; how ultimately futile. The main artwork is the massive Lightning with Stag in its Glare (1958 to 1985). The audio commentary usefully explained Beuys’s cryptic personal mythology: the metal sheet is the lightning, the ironing board is the stag, the clay lumps represent lumpish unintelligent creatures.

A lot more up to date, Theaster Gates’s Civil Tapestry 4 (2011) is a tapestry made of vertical strips taken from the fire hoses which were turned on civil rights protesters in the deep south of America in May 1963. Reminded me of Ai Weiwei’s enormous sculpture made of steel poles salvaged from the wreckage of schools destroyed in the Szichuan earthquake. A similar sense of unimpeachable righteousness.

Artur Zmijewski (b.1966) has made various films, including the one featured here, Democracies (2009), splicing together footage shot at a variety of political rallies in his native Poland, from feminist and environmentalist campaigners, to right-wing nationalist rallies. Watching the Catholic nationalist rallies, I recall political commentators interpreting last October’s election of the Law and Justice Party to government in Poland as a ‘lurch to the right’. Zmijewski’s film shows you why. It is an interesting documentary film but, like all film and video, I wonder about its relevance as ‘art’.

A room devoted to Latin American Photobooks, testament to the turmoil in Latin America throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, collected by British photographer Martin Parr.

I saw Richard Hamilton’s The Citizen (1981 to 193) in Tate Britain’s recent Fighting History exhibition. The audio commentary here made the neat point that the patterns the dirty protesters made with their own faeces on their prison walls echoed the patterns of Celtic designs – although what Celtic art is turns out to be hard to define, as the British Museum’s exhibition on Celtic Art and Identity showed. How genuinely subversive it would have been it Tate had bought an actual prison wall covered in IRA prisoner shit, and exhibited it, smell and all.

Sheba Chhachhi b.1958, was represented by Seven lives and a dream, photos inspired by the rape of an Indian woman in the 1970s, and other large b&w photos of Indian women.

Teresa Margolles (b.1963) is represented by Flag I, a big flag coloured with blood, earth and other matter from the murder sites of various people killed in Mexico’s bloody drug wars, a death rate which currently runs at around 20,000 a year.

Reflections on Citizens and States i.e. the failure of radical politics

It is my belief that the forces for radical change have everywhere been comprehensively defeated and, in fact, that even moderately liberal bourgeois democracy is itself under attack from religious extremists at one end and home-grown nationalists at the other. Neo-liberal capitalism defeated and buried not only the communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe but the very idea of any kind of socialist / communist alternative.

The student radicalism of the Joseph Beuys rooms, and in evidence throughout the Pop Art exhibition from the heady 1960s, is irrelevant to the world of Putin, growing right-wing forces in eastern Europe, to the Refugee Crisis, to the permanent collapse of big parts of the Middle East and the state of terrorist threat which we are going to have to live with indefinitely.

The economic engine of the world, China, whose meteoric industrialisation has been underpinning rising standards of living throughout the West for the last generation, is coming stuttering to a halt. If you haven’t done well over the past twenty years, that was a one-off golden age and chances are you’re going to get a lot worse off in the coming era.

And underlying everything is evidence that man-made climate change is kicking in now, unchangeable and unavoidable, with unforeseeable but potentially cataclysmic consequences.

Against this backdrop it’s hard to avoid thinking that much of the art in this section is trivial or, at best, irrelevant. Nothing is going to stop Mexicans (or Colombians) murdering each other over drugs. President Nixon announced his nationwide War on Drugs as long ago as 1971: how’s that war progressing? Nothing is going to stop Indian men raping Indian women. Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs were sparked by rapes in the 1970s but gang rapes by Indian men have been in the news for the past few years. And Theaster Gates’s sentiments about historical injustices in the Alabama of the 1960s might be impeccably correct, but seem irrelevant in light of the ongoing inability of American police to stop their officers beating up and shooting dead a seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men.

Activists have been protesting these issues for decades and not only has nothing changed, lots of things have got worse. Considered as political activism, then, most of this art is a complete failure. Considered as art, it relies so much on the worthiness and impeccable liberalism of its credentials, that the failure of its causes in the real world makes it almost comical. Nice flag. Shame even more Mexicans will be murdered his year. Nice hoses. Shame even more black men will be shot by police.

It was a relief to emerge from the politically charged, fraught, upsetting and ultimately depressing Citizens and States wing and cross over to the less contentious Making Traces.

2. Making Traces

Magda Cordell (Hungary 1921 to 2008). Woman artist, her Figure (Woman) is, according to the wall label, ‘an image of heroic femininity’.

Korean woman artist Lee Bul’s Untitled (Craving White) (2011) is a gargoyle assembly of sacks of fabric, with wood and steel, twisted into weird shapes. She wore it to do performances, the weird bulges and squiggles intended to ‘deconstruct ideals of the female body’.

Avis Newman, woman artist born 1946, is represented by The Wing of the Wind of Madness (1982).

Lee Krasner, woman artist apparently overshadowed in her lifetime by her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now being rediscovered with works like Gothic Landscape (1961).

Woman artist Hilla Becher (1931 to 2007) spent most of her adult career travelling with husband Bernd around Europe and America taking series of black-and-white photos of industrial buildings eg Coal bunkers (1974). I wonder whether they inspired the black-and-white photos of abandoned nuclear bunkers and wartime defences by Jane and Louise Wilson?

Woman artist Hedda Sterne made lovely semi-abstracts, including NY No. X (1948).

Joan Miro is a big name from the modernist mid-century and represented here by the large and colourful Letter from a friend. After the post-modern works in the previous gallery, this type of Modernism looks reassuringly old-fashioned.

At the heart of this display is the big room showing Mark Rothko’s Seagram paintings (1958 to 1960). Rothko was commissioned to decorate the restaurant in the new Seagram building in New York and was half way through making them when he went along to the restaurant himself, and was horrified to find it full of ‘rich bastards’, as he described them, eating dinner. What did he expect? He turned down the commission, returned the money and was contacted by various museums who wanted to buy them, of whom he favoured Tate because of a sentimental fondness for British art. He committed suicide the same day in 1970 that the paintings arrived in London. The audio guide plays Perilous Night by John Cage, favourite composer of so many modern artists. Of the 8 or so works here, my favourite was Red on Maroon, Mural Section 4 (1959).

By complete contrast, woman artist Rebecca Horn (b.1944) specialised in making strange imaginative extensions of the human body, for example Cockfeather Mask (1973). A room is devoted to her strange inspiring creations. A film shows cockfeather being used to do a sort of fan dance-cum-striptease over a man’s penis, a rare appearance of the male member in these galleries.

Simryn Gill (b.1959) has a whole room devoted to a series of large colour photos he took in the Malaysian town of Port Dickson, A Small Town at the Turn of the Century (1999 to 2000) showing its citizens in normal or portrait style poses but with large fruits concealing their faces. I liked number 5, number 34, number 24.

The American artist Mark Bradford (b.1961) is represented by Riding the cut vein, an entrancing large image, owing something to the street layout of Los Angeles where, according to the wall label, freeways cut through the city dividing rich neighbourhoods from poor ones.

The last room in this mind-bending tour of 20th century art is devoted to six massive paintings by Gerhard Richter (b.1932) Cage I-VI, named after the American composer and philosopher John Cage, ever-popular with the avant-garde. Prepared for them to be dirty smears, I was in fact entranced. There’s a film showing Richter at work using a metre-wide squeegee to smear the paint across the surfaces, which sounds unpromising, but the results are actually full of countless details, imperfections, unknown unnameable elements, insights and peculiarities. Close up.

3. Energy and Process

The wall labels explain that this suite of rooms is based around the 1960s Italian art movement, Arte povera, which used industrial by-products, or found materials, to create large, generally abstract sculptures. It was deliberately distinct from the grandiosely ‘heroic’ American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, but also different from the American Minimalism of the 1960s, which is smooth and cerebral. The main works are in the big, well-lit room 3:

  • Lynda Benglis Quartered meteor (1969) This woman artist’s lump of dull lead is a deliberate riposte to the smooth geometric shapes of American minimalism.
  • Kishio Suga’s Ren-Shiki-Tai
  • Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 Metres (1980 to 192)

According to the wall labels, Arte Povera ‘upset traditional ideas’ about how art should be distributed and displayed. Well, here they are being displayed in an international art gallery. Doesn’t seem to have upset or challenged that pretty traditional idea.

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 to 2002) was a groovy French woman artist whose website shows the full range of her colourful imaginative oeuvre and who is represented here by one of her ‘shooting paintings’. She filled bags with colour pigment, attached them to a canvas and covered the lot in white plaster, hung the canvas outside on a wall and then invited friends to shoot it with .22 rifles. The colour bags exploded and spurted colour over the work. Shooting Picture (1961)

Michael Baldwin is represented by a board with a mirror attached, Untitled Painting (1965). The commentary tells us with a straight face that this work is ‘questioning a long-held action of painting transcending reality’. OK.

In a similar radical, subversive, revolutionary etc vein is the anti-art tea tray of Július Koller (1939 to 192007), Question Mark b. (Anti-Painting, Anti-Text) 1969. Here it is in a major art gallery, subverting away like mad. Funny in its way, but also funny in its quaint utopianism.

Lucio Fontana (1899 to 1968) experimented with lots of slits in otherwise untouched canvas. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ (1960).

In room ten is the rather marvellous motor engine covered in crystals of copper sulphate, known as Untitled 2006 by Roger Hiorns, born in 1975.

Nicholas Hlobo is a gay black man, born in 1975 in South Africa. I enjoyed the works where he’s used embroidery or sewing using pink ribbon onto canvas to create shapes and flows, although I was disappointed that the curators instantly say this work ‘challenges gender-based assumptions about the division of labour’. Does it? Really? Ikhonkco (2010)

A small room is devoted to Emilio Prini (b.1943), who took countless experimental b&w photos in the 60s and 70s. According to the label, ‘Throughout his career Emilio Prini was engaged intensively with photography and photographic processes.’ Not ‘experimented with photographic techniques’, but was engaged with… And not just engaged. Engaged intensively. Lots of photos of parts of his body.

In these rooms, as in various other exhibitions of 20th century art, you get a powerful feeling from the wall labels and commentary of the curators’ nostalgia and regret for an era when art really meant something, when it was part of wider social movements genuinely upsetting old traditions and assumptions.

Now, when there is more art and more artists than ever before, more women artists, more artists from around the world, working in every conceivable medium, all trying to establish a marketable brand which can be sold to Saudi oil and Russian mafia and Colombian drug lord investors, it is impossible to recapture the heady idealism of, in particular, the 1960s and early 70s.

These galleries reek not of revolutionary exhilaration, but of the mournful nostalgia for, and the comic over-excitement about, the truly ‘revolutionary’ art of a bygone era, on the part of a generation of curators and critics born too late to experience it.

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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

Britain Seen from the North by Tony Cragg (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


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 8 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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