History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain at the Southbank Centre

The Southbank Centre‘s Changing Britain festival is just about to end. It focused on the ways in which social, political and cultural events have changed Britain as a nation since 1945. On paper this may sound like quite a textbook essay question, and lead to quite a dull diorama of an exhibition oscillating between Tories and Labour. In practice this was a mix of dialogue, talks, screenings and exhibitions whose primary aim was to shake things up and end with the General Election. In an excellent article only a few days ago Jude Kelly, head of the Southbank Centre reflected upon the meaning of this festival and the immense privilege that is bestowed upon the Southbank to question and challenge these cultural and political changes, while others are still censored and murdered for doing so, referring to the tragic murder of Sabeen Mahmud. In the context of the General Election, the question of culture and its freedom, critical or satitical role will not neccessarily be at the forefront of voters’ minds, but it is a right that should never be taken for granted. In Kelly’s words, it should be used as boldly as possible.

This made me want to reflect on the exhibition that took place at the Southbank Centre during the festival. History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain. The aim was for these seven artists to reinterpret and reassess their own views of Britain, through the lens of art, history, and social change. These all created six distinct exhibitions in a single exhibition (two of the artists, Louise and Jane Wilson, work as one artistic duo). The very thought of six huge displays taking on Britain isenough to take in, but each of them is completely independant from the other…or only dependant a far as our own experiences as visitors go. Does this create a messy but well-intentioned confusion, or a complex and acute visual mind-map of a complex, fragmented and ambiguous Britain? And did it live up to the expectations of a festival meant to confront and explore these different British identities?

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Installation view of Simon Fujiwara’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen Serving Hands Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge
Nigella Lawson Living Kitchen
Serving Hands
Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

Simon Fujiwara and Richard Wentworth’s rooms are at extreme opposites of the exhibition, as respectively an introduction and a conclusion. The first is concerned with a definition of Britain rooted in contemporary art and everyday occurences since the 90s with objects shaped by our needs, desires, and the pervasiveness of commodity culture. It welcomes us with a child’s rendition of M.Bank’s song in a primary school play of Mary Poppins given to us from an old television set. It turns out that the child himself is Simon Fujiwara and behind the cheery reminder of traditional, ridiculous Britain that is associated to the tune, the realities of the market seep through. A display of the costume Meryl Streep used to portray Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady is displayed not far from a set of minimalistically arranged Waitrose plastic food packages. A set of designer Nigella Lawson ‘Serving Hands’ are next to a menu for ‘The Clink Restaurant’, a restaurant in Surrey managed entirely by prisoners as an initiative for futur reinsertion in everyday work.

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Irony cuts through the cheeriness as cheap commodities mingle almost seamlessly with high-end design. The emergence of the service sector and polished marketing are juxtaposed with works from the Young British Artists such as Sam Taylor-Johnson’s David Backham (‘David’) portrait or Damien Hirst’s dots. Why? Because arguably, they also needed a “story” to sell: their own lives and personnalities of artists become as important and marketable as what they were portraying.

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The display lacks emotional warmth, like a laboratory of sociological occurences. It is intentionally smooth and sanitized in its exploration of the “Happy Economics” studies that calculates a nation’s comfort and overall mood into a precise statistic, inspired by his brother’s studies in this field.

Fast-fowarding to the display by Richard Wentworth shows us a much more nostalgia-tinged panorama. The exhibition ends on a more conventionally historical note that is not neccessarily any more static, yet feels a lot more patriotic in a quiet, unassuming tone undermining a beautifully curated selection of artists both modern and contemporary.

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L.S. Lowry, July, the Seaside, 1943 © the estate of L. S. Lowry. All rights reserved, DACS 2014

Wentworth focuses on a postwar vision of Britain anchored in art history, including artists such as Paul Nash, Tony Cragg or Lowry that don’t only situate Britain in relation to itself but in a larger historical context. The artwork contrasts with the physical designs or scars of war, such as the menacing Bloodhound Mark 2 surface-to-air missile on the gallery terrace.

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Installation view of Jane and Louise Wilson’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
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Penny Slinger, Perspective. 1977 Copyright the artist © the artist Courtesy Penny Slinger/Riflemaker, London

Jane and Louise Wilson are a sibling duo of artists and as such shared their exhibition space, presenting several small subjects and ideas with the idea of focal moments of tension and social unrest in Britain’s 20th century history. From the personal archives and diaries of the activists of Greenham Common Peace Camp to the conflict in Northern Island to the architecture of Pasmore in the town of Peterlee, they manage to work to and fro within different ideas with depth and sensitivity. The photographs, archives and artwork that mingle with one another are deeply linked to intimate childhood or neighborhood experiences and a complex view of women’s bodies, in activist or aesthetic spaces. As Penelope Slinger reimagines herself and her view of women’s bodies within an architectural collage, Mona Hatoum recites the correspondence between her mother and herself, superposed upon candid images of her mother exiting a shower, in Measures of Distance. For me it is the most personal display, dealing with the ways in which emotions and memories seen as a childhood memory become at odds with the vision inscribed in an “official” history. The part about Northern Irland hit a nerve, an uncomfortable truth that played against Wentworth’s ideal vision. However my favourite part was the idea of asscoiating women reclaiming their bodies visually to a stronger political voice and agency.

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Installation View Hannah Starkey’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
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Victor Burgin. Possession, 1976. Gift of the artist 1980 © the artist

After an array of media and materials following Fukiwara and the Wilsons, Hannah Starkey concerns herself with the purely flat and photographic, aside a few painterly exceptions, delving inside the Art Council’s collection to reveal a mixture of satirical imagery and photographs of the anonymous British eveywoman or everyman. These pictures usually have something to say of the social and economical difficulties of the 1970s and 1980s; yet beyond that the selection creates a powerful language around new urban spaces and their anonymous nature, and the construction of a new identity around a “low” form of visual culture and collection, photography, which is now accessible to all. At the same time, she plays and confronts the ways in which corporations have attempted to capitalize on this visual appeal and create their own visual culture of mass consumption.

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David Chadwick A Woman on a Hulme Walkway, Manchester, 1976 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © the artist

Roger Hiorns’ decision to devote his entire exhibition to BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (or “mad cow disease”) is startling in its cold and documentary eye to scientific evidence and press cuttings, mingling with anthropology and artworks. The choice could appear puzzling or even sensationalist: out of all the events that could have been defined as British, why did this one occur? Ultimately what I took from the display was not a new heightened knowledge of BSE but a consciousness of the way in which a single event could send shockwaves into an entire community and trickle down into every outlet and document. It could also be a way for the artist to explore how obsessive curating on a single, precise subject and remodelling it around Britain could become.

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Damien Hirst, Out of Sight. Out of Mind, 1991. Roger Hiorns’ curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
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Prionics Ag Switzerland Prionics®­Check WESTERN Kit, Article 12000: Test for in­vitro detection of TSE­related PrPSc in cattle Courtesy Celtic Diagnostics Limited Photo credit: Roger Wooldridge

The glut of information was nauseating, overwhelming, and definitely intended to be that way, while challenging to what extend we could be encouraged to look more. The entire display provoked a mix of disgust and morbid fascination that could almost tempt the visitor to browse through neat typewritten archives on a table piled with resources…but not quite. Hiorns plays with the rural image of Britain and its cattle and ultimately turns the tables on us.

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Tony Ray-Jones Picnic, Glyndenbourne 1967 1967

Ambling from Hiorns’ stark and painfully precise display of mad cow disease in all its historical, cultural and political ramifications leads us onto John Akomfrah’s series of confrontational experimental films without much notice or warning. It takes a while to adjust completely to this change of pace, from documentation area on BSE and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease to dark screening room. John Akomfrah’s room, very much like Hannah Starkey, chose to go with a single genre that also drew on the extensive archives of the Arts Council: an immense array of experimental films where the medium, movementand expression are played with.

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Gilbert and George World of Gilbert and George, 1981 HD Projection, stereo sound 1 min, 8 secs © the artists, 2014

Gilbert and George perform their own lives in The World of Gilbert and George, facing on the oppsote wall the intensity of Ballet Rambert in Imprint, where the cuts and edits made to the film become as much a choreography as the movements themselves. This is a room that demands time and contemplation; unfortunately its presence just after five large rooms does not neccessarily allow for this and it is probably impossible to view all of the works at a time, unless you have an entire afternoon to spare. Sadly I had a train to catch in a few hours and could only view some out of a great selection. However, there is also something strangely statisfying about the idea of a shifting exhibition where each visitor would view and experience some slightly different set of films than their neighbour. In my case, aside from Imprint, another short was particularly arresting -The Beard of justice, directed in 1994 by Rodreguez King-Dorset, about three men arrested during the riots of 1987 in London, only proven innocent and release in 1991. The power and intensity of their voices and the injustice made to them rings all the more clearly and painfully today.

The immense advantage of this exhibition is ultimately its versatility: the seven stories of the seven artist-curators are all connected one to the other yet do not have to be visited in a particular order. Then again, this can mean that there is a sense of discontinuity between one and the other. What weakens the exhibition could also create its strength in the right mood and context for the visitor, with the possibility to take breaks, take time to amble through different rooms without speeding through a set itinerary.  I have seen this exhibition marked down as a a hotch-potch of confused ideas and as exhausting. However, the fact that it mingled a set “response” to the idea of defining Britain mingled with personal sparks and ideas, like an elaborate visual brainstorming session, is what made it most interesting.

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