‘History is Now’ is part of a wide series of events across the Southbank Centre to mark and prepare for the general election in May. It asks, with this immanent date of decision in mind, how to think about the last 70 years of British history and begins by answering, we need an artist to do it.
The exhibition is divided into six zones, each of which has been curated by an artist or artists. Invoking, the Festival of Britain, the exhibition also takes its hat off to the more self-consciously experimental exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’, which took place at the Whitechapel in 1956. Both were organised by collaboratively arranged but thematically partitioned spaces. At the Festival of Britain visitors wandered from the Dome of Discovery to discrete zones such as Seaside, Health, and Homes and Gardens. At the Whitechapel visitors moved through an environment that had been constructed by twelve different ‘groups’ made up of artists, architects and designers. At the Hayward each zone is labeled but unnecessarily, because the shift in register and intent is instantly noticeable as you move through the galleries. The fact that the organisers of public spaces like these have gone from being called theme-conveners (Festival of Britain) to groups (‘This is Tomorrow’) to artist-curators is probably significant but I would rather talk about what it is that has been artistically curated.
You enter into Simon Fujiyama’s gallery which is constructed along the lines of a morgue or laboratory. On a series of examination tables, lit by bright lights, specimens of significance are laid out for inspection. Under the knife, up for dissection, is ‘now’. The specimens include a sleeping David Beckham, a hunk of seam coal, two black bags, empty packets of herbs from Waitrose, dot paintings, Farrow and Ball paint samples, Madeleine McCann’s right eye and a broom. The broom, labeled as one used in the 2011 post-riot ‘clean-up’ operation, makes another appearance in a video recording of a school production of ‘Mary Poppins’ in which the artist also appears. When small children dressed as chimney sweeps wield brooms they look implausibly large; the one on show here seems colossal. The video is also a portrait of the artist as a young banker. Fuijwara played Mr. Banks, the father who remembers how to love his children only after they cause a run on the Bank of England. They loose him his job but he learns how to fly a kite.
Kites hover at the edge of the next gallery which was created by Jane and Louise Wilson. This space is much more a mood, a time and a place, than a collection of things. On a small television a beautiful black and white film shows kites flying in a coastal landscape. It is agonisingly lovely. Stark scenes of beach and hill, fields of grass in ripping winds. The body of the kite is flat and black. Its strings and ribbons are loose and then taught, pulling against and then pulled by the hands that fly it. These hands make small fluent gestures of adjustment. The film (Lucia Nogueira’s ‘Binocular’) is accompanied in the gallery by two black beach huts. One is filled with rolled umbrellas, the other houses a cloud of black kites with brown ribbons.
In the centre of the gallery stands a large cage made of mesh wire, like an aviary or a chicken coop. It is filled with gloves. On one wall a black and white film draws close on two girls kissing, putting their lips slowly together and then slowly parting again. Behind me, a large screen shows women breaking through the barbed wire at Greenham Common and, from a hidden speaker, comes the sound of seagulls. The caged gloves are like birds – and like the collection of umbrellas and kites, they are oddly intimidating. They were hung from their hooks by Stuart Brisley who writes that each glove represents 66,666 of the people who were out of work in the summer of 1983. 66,666 pairs of hands that were unemployed but able.
The next space is filled with photographs. Hannah Starkey has kept to the walls. These look out at you covered in faces. It’s very sexy in here. Trees appear to twist around one another to kiss, bodies find benches upon which to sleep, there are holes in socks. There is quietly erotic detail. The man licking yoghurt from a lid, the wrinkles in a pair of Y-fronts, the sag of a woman’s navel, and Sarah Lucas smoking. There is a quiet anger emanating from the images which are also elegiac and full of the tenderness of observation. John Benton-Harris has captured strangers on a train sitting next to one another, looking studiously in opposite directions. And a grope, or is it a guiding hand, at Parent’s Day at Eton. On another wall a group of women, looking as ridiculous as men, line up on a football pitch, and veer clumsily away from a penalty. And nearby, a girl with the sun in her eyes; a girl whose features have been bleached away by the light.
Roger Hiorns’ gallery, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, charts the history of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and its human equivalent variant vCJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease). This is a history that began in 1730. It is made with reports, films, articles, clips and clippings. A film of Andy Warhol eating a burger (without much relish it has to be said) plays next to paraphernalia from the McLibel case, the longest running case in English history. The case was brought by McDonalds against the activists Helen Steel and David Morris over a pamphlet which supposedly told the ‘truth’ about the company. This included allegations of exploitation, contaminated meat and animal torture. The effect of BSE on Britain is read across sources as varied as The Archers and the poetry of Robert Burns. It has not been a happy history. On the floor of the gallery are two cow’s heads, pickled by Damien Hirst in formaldehyde. Their eyes are reproachful, their heads suspended in greening liquid, and I want to tell them ‘I’m sorry!’ On another wall footage plays of the MP John Gummer trying to make his four year old daughter Cordelia eat a beef burger in front of the British press. She refuses.
Upstairs John Akomfrah has selected 17 films which chart the move from conservatism to avant-garde in the commissions made by the Arts Council. I watched Gilbert & George’s ‘The World of Gilbert & George’ and John Chesworth and Clive Myers’ ‘Imprint’ which experimented with dance on film with the Ballet Rambert. I am going back to watch films about Barbara Hepworth and Francis Bacon, moorlands and social housing.
The final piece of the puzzle is Richard Wentworth’s gallery which takes the form of a bric-a-brac sprawl of photocopied pictures and articles, paintings, books and sculpture. The strewn debris of bomb impact can be read in Tony Cragg’s lopsided ‘Britain Seen from the North’ as well as in many of the press cuttings which are tacked to the wall with giant pins. In one, Bert Hardy, an ARP officer, has set up his office on the pavement after ‘the biggest raid London has ever seen’. In another, a family eat a picnic on stone steps that go nowhere, apparently in the flattened shell of their former home. This supposedly militarily themed room is more insistently about what gets scattered, what gets washed up, and what is built to fill the gaps left by war rather than war itself. A machine that has made some of those gaps is posted outside on one of the Hayward’s balconies, a surface to air missile and launcher known as a Bloodhound. The monumental post-war art of Hepworth, Moore, Paolozzi and Nash on display here, seem assertive and thus at odds with the more hesitant approach and emphasis on the collection. In this last gallery the curatorial approach seems to stray away from assertions of any kind. Ben Nicholson’s ‘Festival of Britain Mural’ is shown for the first time since its commission in 1951 feels wasted and temporary in here, as though part of a very well stocked junk sale. It should be put up permanently outside, for people to eat picnics in front of.