History is now: 7 artists take on Britain

Hayward Gallery, London, until 20 April 2015


Art and politics are often perceived to occupy separate spheres, art dealing with timeless truths while politics addresses ephemeral and practical issues. Indeed, imagery used in the political sphere has usually tended towards propaganda, rather than fine art.

This exhibition, however, brings an interesting new approach, asking artists to curate exhibitions that will provoke the viewer to reflect on political issues in the weeks up to the General Election. It is part of a wider programme at the Southbank Centre, the ‘Changing Britain’ Festival, looking at change and continuity since the original Festival of Britain, which established the South Bank as a cultural centre in 1951. The festival wants to investigate whether the idealism and optimism of that event resulted in a better future for the country.

Whether and what we learn from history, and how we apply it, is of course a tricky subject in itself, as some of the exhibits in this show underline. But the exhibition itself certainly succeeds in provoking questions and reflection.

Seven British artists have been given a free hand to gather objects – artistic or otherwise – to reflect on the current state of the country, especially in the context of our history since the Second World War. The result is, predictably, six (two of the artists work together) very different perspectives.

The first room, curated by Simon Fujiwara, is perhaps the most ‘artistic’ in its poetic juxtapositions. The first object in the room is a gigantic lump of coal, recently extracted from one of our last working mines. Next to it is the costume worn by Meryl Streep when playing Margaret Thatcher and exploring the personal cost of her political drive. The multiple contrasts of permanence and passing, success and failure, substance and image, are fascinating.

Fujiwara picks up on Britain’s move from heavy manufacturing to service industries and various forms of electronic creativity; and he puts this alongside a growing cultural emphasis on image rather than substance, such as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film of David Beckham asleep. However, there is genuine human warmth and optimism in this selection, which certainly cannot be said for much of the rest of the show. We see it, for instance, in his decision to highlight the Clink Restaurant Company, which seeks to help the rehabilitation of prisoners through fine cooking and elegant service.

The surprise star of the show is Roger Hiorns, who focuses exclusively on the history of mad cow disease. There is little in the way of artwork in this exhibition, but the cumulative effect of his painstaking research, charting the history of inhumane farming methods, and then the impact of BSE, is very powerful. It provokes reflection on ‘How did we come to this?’, ‘What kind of people are we?’ and ‘Who really governs this country?’

Jane and Louise Wilson explore conflict, ranging from atomic weaponry to Northern Ireland, although their choices offer little more than accusation. They also highlight the contested development of Peterlee, one of the heroic ‘new towns’ of the 1940s that rapidly lost its sheen. Two artists, Victor Pasmore and Stuart Brisley, separately worked to enhance the town, but with little effect, and some outright opposition. The issues of humanity, community, and the role of art, are too complex for this limited choice of objects: it would have been better to have explored it in detail, as Roger Hiorns does, as a microcosm of larger issuers.

John Akomfrah’s offering is a selection from the Arts Council Film Collection, highlighting the way film has impacted various art forms. There are 17 films, many of them lasting nearly an hour, so you will probably want to take some sandwiches if you are intent on getting your full money’s worth.

Richard Wentworth has selected a range of images charting post-war Britain. He includes some striking works, such as Henry Moore’s Maquette for Atom Piece and Reg Butler’s model for The Unknown Political Prisoner. However, overall the selection lacks punch. There is an attempt to focus on ‘the beach as a discursive site’: but contrasting images of D-Day landings with children building sand-castles seems too superficial for the context of this show.

Overall, there is plenty here to enjoy and meditate on. I doubt it will help us make up our minds who to vote for on polling day. But it would be nice to think that this depth of reflection and meditation could inform some of our political debates over the next few weeks.

[This review was first published in Third Way magazine, April 2015]


© 2015