by Sue Hubbard
The poster for the British Art Show 7 promises a naked young man poised on a metal bench tending a live flame. The day I went to the Hayward Gallery there was only Roger Hiorns’ empty bench – which was a bit of a disappointment. Young men in the nude are still something of a rarity even in the most outré of contemporary galleries. There wasn't even a flame. Still there was the compensation of work by 38 other very diverse artists, three-quarters of which has not been seen before. Since its inception in 1979 the British Art Show has presented a five yearly snapshot of the UK art scene. Not a thematic exhibition, as such, the curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, have linked a disparate array of art forms created between 2005-2010 under the subtitle, In the Days of the Comet. This is taken from the title H.G. Wells’ 1906 novel in which Wells imagined the rarely seen comet releasing a green gas over Britain instigating a ‘Great Change’. As a result Mankind was deflected from war and exploitation towards rationalism and a heightened appreciation of beauty. The implication of this utopian vision is that the comet’s reoccurrence has the power to draw together past, present and future; thereby suggesting that Britain has always lived ‘in the days of the comet’.
Conceived as a ‘a dynamic shape-shifting exhibition that would renew itself as it travelled’ through four cities, 11 venues and more than 12 months of national touring there is no dominant house style. Boundaries are blurred between fine art and found object, between anarchy and formalism, between irony and a striving towards a more authentic aesthetic grammar. There are a lot of videos; some very long, and that makes it a difficult show to get round unless one has several days to spend. Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s new feature-length film The Empty Plan – made in German – juxtaposes Bertolt Brecht’s writings in exile with preparations for different productions of his play The Mother, staged in a variety of contrasting locations. In another arena this may have proved rewarding, but ,here, it is simply hard work. In contrast Duncan Campbell’s archive footage highlighting the 1970s Irish political campaigner Bernadette Devilin’s rocky relationship with the press, for whom she was at first a saint thena sinner, is highly evocative of those unsettled times.
Elizabeth Price has made a wonderful tongue in cheek film, User Group Disco where text borrowed from corporate power-point presentations has been melded with dollops of French critical theory to materialise on screen as porcelain dolls and other kitsch ephemera rotate on an LP turntable to the music of a Norwegian band. It is a clever, iconoclastic dig at inflated institutional rhetorics.
But most captivating on the video front is Christian Marclay’s deftly constructed The Clock, (previously reviewed on this site here) a mesmeric work of thousands of fragments of found film of clocks and watches taken from a variety of movies that forms an actual time piece. Despite the array of arbitrary sources a new philosophical narrative is suggested, so that as viewers we inhabit two worlds: real time and the imagination.
Seasoned artists such as Sarah Lucas, who was one of the British artists to emerge in the early 1990s under the rubric of the YBAs, (Young British Artists) are working at the height of their powers. Though not a fan of her previous rather facile cigarette sculptures, here she is exhibiting an array of lumpy fleshy forms constructed from tan nylon tights stuffed with fluff. Isolated on breeze block plinths like something beached on a butcher’s block or a “patient etherised upon a table”, to coin T.S.Elliot’s phrase, they have a desolate poignancy that barely conceals their coiled emotional violence. Suggestive of bodies and entwined limbs their antecedents are Picasso’s sculpture of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, Head of a Woman (1931), the Surrealist Hans Bellmer’s erotic dolls and Louise Bourgeois’ psychodynamic works. Perverse and uncomfortable they imply not only secret sexual shame but the psychological ‘knots’ that emotional relationships are apt to create. As the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, author of the book Knots, claimed: “We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love.”
Stretching along a section of wall is Wolfgang Tillmans’ Freischwimmer 155 (2010) a dense green abstract photograph that looks like a painting and conjures something of H. G. Wells’ green vapour cloud. Alongside this are nine display tables that present material gathered in Britain throughout 2010. Tillmans juxtapositions question received shibboleths and notions of truth, as articles on the Vatican’s attitude to homosexuality and paedophilia are placed next to shocking newspaper clips on teenage boys about to be hanged under Sharia Law in Iran for their ‘crime’ of homosexuality.
The show is strong on painting. Milena Dragicevic’s uncanny portraits are both revelatory and a form of disguise. Often there is a prevailing sense of absence, as in Supplicant -13, (2000) where the face appears to have shrivelled to an unidentifiable husk or in Supplicant 77, (2008) where the opening of a red pillar box has replaced the mouth. That Dragicevic was born in a Serbian enclave in former Yugoslavia, which ceased to exist with the post-war reconfiguring of borders to become part of Croatia thus rendering her emotionally, if not actually stateless, informs these paintings with their language of doubles and mirrors.
Charles Avery’s graphic skills have been used to different effect to present an idiosyncratic parallel universe: the Lilliput de nos jours. His central character, the Hunter, searches for philosophical truth in strange lands. Avery’s texts, sculptures and drawings have long charted the topology and cosmology of an imaginary island and his intricate drawing of the Port of Onomatopoeia (2009-2010) is populated not only by people but by curious Alephs, Avatars and One-Armed Snakes. These strange fantasy worlds that function as scenarios for examining western philosophical thought, are much more effective than the overblown vitrine that encases a life-sized mannequin of his fictional character Miss Miss.
Maaike Schoorel’s atmospheric paintings give up their secrets slowly. At first glance they appear to be minimalist abstract paintings in the vein of Robert Ryman’s white on white paintings. In fact, they contain ectoplasmic figures that emerge and float out from the picture surface the longer the viewer spends with the painting. Inviting us to slow down, they ask us to consider how we look at animage, how it is informed by memory and what it is we expect to see.
It is perhaps hard to take too seriously someone who has chosen to market themselves under the nomenclature Spartacus Chetwynd. The Folding House (2010), a Heath Robinson contraption made from discarded window frames and other recycled building debris not only provides a venue for her performance-workshop but gives a nod to the Dutch modernist architect Gerriot Rietveld. However a more interesting though, perhaps, unintentional reading is the reference to the slum dwellings built from recycled artefacts gleaned from the more wealthy sections of society, which can be found in so many third world slums.
That contemporary British art is still inventive, stretching from Brian Griffiths, literally, rather empty body of a carnival bear splayed on the gallery floor (the tent-like head having already been exhibited in Nottingham is not present) to Varda Caivano’s abstract explorations of colour, texture and mark-making, is made evident in this show. The diverse works pose questions about the nature of artifice and authenticity and, implicitly, ask what art is for in a period of flux and change. There are things here to annoy, others to enlighten, to ponder and reflect upon. There is work that will be forgotten in an instant and work that will linger in the mind long after leaving the gallery, proof that contemporary art can infinitely expand to reflect the diversities and complexities of modern life.
Roger Hiorns, Untitled (2005-2010) Part of British Art Show photographed by Kieron McCarron
Duncan Campbell, Bernadette (Film Still), 2008 Film Still. Copyright the artist, courtesy Hotel Gallery, London
Sarah Lucas, NUD (3)2009. Copyright the artist, Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles
Milena Dragicevic, Supplicant 77, 2008. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna