by Sue Hubbard
Saatchi Gallery, London. Until 16 October, 2011
What, I wonder, would a visitor from the future make of the sculpture show The Shape of Things to Come at the Saatchi Gallery if they were to visit it, say, in a couple of hundred years time? What would it tell them of the state of the society that had made this artwork? Seen from such a distance those coming back from the future might be forgiven for thinking that this was an era of extreme distress, one that lacked confidence, dreams, vision and hope. Smashed cars wrapped around pillars, sexual orgies of faceless participants, horses in a state of destitution and collapse, and fragments everywhere speak of a community that has lost faith in itself and the future. Compared to the thrusting optimism of Modernism with its utopian faith in the benefits of technology and scientific progress, the world presented here is one of post-technological ruin, distortion and despair.
Previous shows put on by Saatchi have been packed full of irony, a cheeky in-your- face insouciance that when it first arrived in the brazen 80s and 90s was iconoclastic, witty and fun. But over the passing decades it has all too often become the default position of many young artists eager to make their mark. Form has dominated over content, while meaning and metaphor have often been subsumed to novelty for its own sake.
In contrast this show, rather ominously, opens with a gallery full of megalithic boulders. Kris Martin’s found stone slabs look like pre-historic monoliths from some lost pagan religion. Each is topped with a fragile, almost invisible paper cross. In its monumentality the piece is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s The End of the Twentieth Century. Its meaning is fluid. Man’s success in conquering the limits of awesome nature, the ruins of war and the collapse of civilisations are all implied. The tiny crosses equally suggest the shrinkage of faith in a late capitalist age or, depending on your point of view, act as tiny beacons of hope. “Dreams are what keep people going.” Martin says.
In the next gallery we come across Dirk Skreber’s crashed cars wrapped around supporting metal pillars. It is hard not to think of J.G. Ballard’s Crash, his novel in which a group of alienated people, all of them former crash-victims, re-enact the crashes of celebrities, and experience what the narrator calls “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology” that explores the effects of technology on human psychology . Dust, earth, papier mâché, fur, plaster, rock, Styrofoam, copper sulphate, Victorian tiles and neon tubes have all been used in various of these art works, as if the artists had been scavenging through the streets to search among the detritus left by a failing consumerist society. Peter Buggenhout’s large lumps of‘stuff’ look as though have just been dug from the foundations of a building site, while the charred concrete rubble, from which traces of steel beams jut, suggest the chaos and damage left after a nuclear attack, earthquake or tsunami.
Mostly the human subject in this exhibition is rendered as incomplete, as if it were impossible for a contemporary psyche to be presented undamaged and whole. Mathew Mohan shows the human figure in a state of corruption. Influenced by the archaeological remnants of classical statuary, as well as futuristic cyborgs, his dark cast of broken and distorted characters include the mythical Green Man as an evil golem. In David Altmejd’s The Healers, 2008 a group of faceless figures and figurative parts – hands, spines and genitalia – mingle in a symphony of endless sexual debauchery like something from Dante’s Inferno, while Thomas Houseago’s Joanne, 2005, a semi-figurative form made in plaster, hemp, steel and graphite, suggests abjection and defeat despite the art historical allusions to Michelangelo and Picasso’s cubist figures. Similarly, the previous Turner prize nominee, Rebecca Warren, positions herself within the lineage of the western sculptural tradition reworking and intentionally misappropriating existing images by accepted masters. Here she has created bold new female part nudes: a pair of legs teeters on high heels and a single breast explodes from the amorphous clay. Many of her figures were inspired by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,while others allude to Robert Crumb, and 1970s rock culture. Taking as its starting point the composer’s deafness John Baldessari’s Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) Opus # 133, 2007, isolates a single ear to stand in for the whole person and highlight how meaning can be arrived at through all the senses.
Folkert de Jong’s creates more recognisable human forms in Seht der Mensch: The Shooting Lesson, 2007. These desolate, powerless figures have been recreated from Picasso’s Les Saltimbangues. Other characters, made from a single mould, are based on a composite of a 16th-17thcentury trader melded from the likes of Pedro de Alvarado and Hernand Cortes, with a touch of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. All have a sense of disquieting melancholy. In contrast Martin Honert’s meticulously rendered Riesen (Giants) based on childhood memories drawn from photographs and schoolbooks are like Brobdingnagian outsiders who have wandered by chance into the gallery from a post-apocalyptic world. But the most unsettling figures are those by Berlinde De Bruckere, where human and equine forms set on plinths or inside cabinets, speak of emotional, physical and psychological collapse in a way that is both poignant and nightmarish. The profound human need for shamanic totems and ritual objects, in a world where most conventional religion is in decline, is made evident in Joanna Malinowska’s Boli, 2009, a huge primitive sculptural form of an elephant based on a traditional talisman from the Bamana culture in West Mali.
Found objects are an essential feature of much of the work here. There is Oscar Tuazon’s bleak, unwelcoming DIY Bed that has all the allure of a squatter’s sleeping arrangements and David Batchelor’s Brick Lane Remix 1, 2003, a stacked grid of coloured light boxes that makes use of the leftovers of modern life. Light is also the central motif in Björn Dahlem’s The Milky Way, 2007, a room sized sculpture of neon lamps that alludes to cosmic theories and genetic models, and of Anslem Reyele’s collapsed pile of neon tubes that suggests the Piccadilly Circus illuminations after some Armageddon. The use of bricolage in contemporary sculpture is nothing new, but within this exhibition it is extended not only to make connections with classical and modernist sculpture and architecture, but also to open up debates around appropriation.
Feelings of dystopia seep through the work of the ambiguously named Sterling Ruby, who conducts an assault on a wide range of materials that suggest marginalised societies such as prisons and rundown estates. While Matthew Brannon’s Nevertheless, 2009 – art as stage-set – reads like a hotel room where ideas of artificiality and simulacra are suggested by the impotence of the objects: the clock without hands and a bed that cannot be slept in. David Thorp, on the other hand, borrows motifs from the Victorian Art and Crafts movement to make modernist cubes and grids, while process and change are the intrinsic elements of Roger Hiorns Copper Sulphate Chartres and Copper Sulphate Notre Dame, 1996, where model cathedrals slowly transmute into enchanted castles of blue crystal.
I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of this latest Saatchi Gallery, a former military barracks off the King’s Road in Chelsea. There is something bland about it, with its white walls, strong lighting and wooden floors. It is a bit soulless and tends to draw the life out of much of the work on display. Yet this exhibition, which takes its name from a work of science fiction by H.G. Wells published in 1933, which speculates on future events between 1933 and 2106, not only demonstrates the breadth of what might now be considered sculpture, but provides an array of metaphorical interpretations and bleak prophesies as to what the future might hold: The Shape of Things to Come.