Exhibition review London

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?

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.


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.


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.

LOWRY, L S ACC1_1943 MED Photo John Webb
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.

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.

Installation View Hannah Starkey’s curated section at Hayward Gallery, History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain. Photo Linda Nylind
BURGIN, Victor ACC13-1980 MED
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.

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.

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.

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.

Gilbert and George 12
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.

Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Martin Creed at the Hayward Gallery

The walls are painted in bright fearless stripes, a huge neon sign swings overhead, a piano is patiently played key by key and a few bemused yet exhilarated visitors fumble out of a room filled to the brim with white balloons. Welcome to Martin Creed’s exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, whose title seems to think ahead of the distressed reactions of contemporary art skeptics: “What’s the point of it?”

The same question was probably asked when the British artist and musician, who has already exhibited extensively abroad and acheived international recognition, won the Turner Prize in 2001 for Work No. 227: The lights going on and off . Too minimalistic, too conceptual…or not conceptual enough to be seen as artistic? In his work as a whole and in this exhibition Creed enjoys toying with this idea and testing our own reactions and limitations, while keeping a stance that is inventively serious yet self-deprecating.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.
Installation view, Work No. 916, 2008, Martin Creed What’s the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

The Hayward Gallery has allowed Martin Creed to appropriate the entire space, from the interior itself to its outside terraces, lifs, and even toilets. Most of the trip to the toilet is made in anticipation of this single artwork that ends up being a stack of tiles superposed one on top of the other “in a useful space.” The concept of utility in Martin Creed’s work must of course be taken with a grain of salt; most if not all of his works comme across as ingeniously produced absurdities…pointless in their utility.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.
Installation view Martin Creed What’s the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

A lot goes on at the same time, and it is best to go through the exhibition slowly in order to feel constantly surprised without becoming too overwhelmed. A side door within the gallery slams open and shut, a screen flickers as though attempting to constantly screen a video in small fragments; the very space seems turned upside down as the wall is sculpted into phallic-like protuberances and tiles stack themselves up in unexpected places. On one of the terraces, a huge brick wall rises up in the centre, stark and monumental. A single loudspeaker reproduces the sound of blowing raspberries (as, hilariously, visitors passing by all look at each other, shooting suspicious glances). While all of this happens, Work No. 1092 MOTHERS, a huge rotating neon sign forming the word…‘MOTHERS’ menacingly whirrs around the entrance space. A mocking reference to Freud? An answer to that famous question that runs throughout the entire display, in its haphazard juxtapositions that we are meant to make sense of?

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.
Installation view,Work no. 1092,2011,Martin Creed What’s the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Something that seems to reoccur as an underlying theme is the idea that these objects, sounds and videos are artfully incidental, as though they were the result of a deliberate mishap, displacement, an awkward accident or malfunction that was made to work as a piece of art. Everything falls into place despite being somewhat broken, accidental, at least in appearance. And the gallery’s large, spacious and airy structure is both a blank canvas and a catalyst to these extraordinary yet commonplace incidents.

This is definitely an exhibition that concerns itself with the multi-sensorial and a strange mix of organic and mechanic. Indeed, the human body does not escape this cycle of repetitions and reactions. Bodily functions and excretions are explored in a way that is decidedly voyeuristic yet also strangely emptied of taboos, devoid of violence…although retaining its uncomfortable and awkward nature. Thus, in a video we see a performer patiently, slowly excreting during a long span of time, before two other performers arrive, in a second screen where the backdrop-canvas is minimalistically white once again, and violently vomit in a matter of seconds. It seemed at odds with the more whimsical nature of the rest of the exhibition yet does complement one of the works on the terrace that consists of a giant sceen with a black and white filmed closeup of a penis becoming erect and then limp again in a continual, and solemnly comical loop. It is worth noting that all of these parts of the exhibition were indicated well in advance and that there was decidedly no attempt at potential shock-horror for the sake of it. This does not seem to be Creed’s style after all…unless that surprise includes a piano whose lid lifts and slams down every fifteen minutes or so.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.
Installation view Martin Creed What’s the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

I was also hardly expecting to find myself in Work No. 200 Half the air in a given space, a room filled with balloons containing, indeed, 50% of the room’s air…although, similarly, the gallery assistant take care to warn anyone with claustrophobic tendencies or latex and talcum powder allergies to venture inside. After being warned of this, a nervous-looking visitor and her friend decides to go in anyway…and end up having a wonderful time, at least from what I could hear and see surrounded by the giant ethereal white bubbles. It is strange to imagine that such a simple venture could entirely change our sense of space, surroundings and even movement.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.
Installation view, Work no. 200, 1998, Martin Creed What’s the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

Work No. 79 Some Blu-Tack kneaded, rolled into a ball, and depressed against a wall and Work No. 264 Two protrusions from a wall play with definitions and descriptions in a playful but perceptive way. I personally enjoyed the fact that some of the works’ power resided not in their appearance to us but through the way in which they were described in an exacting sense of detail that could make you think of a precise sense of cinematography, in the vein of Wes Anderson and his latest film Grand Budapest Hotel, where everything is whimsical and light, yet where this quirky nature is acheived through a methodic, formulaic execution.

The exhibition would not be complete without Creed’s paintings complementing his sculptures and installations. Either portrayed as huge murals covering each surface or as small A4-sized portrait or abtract pattern of colour. Expressive and vivid, child-like, they seem to downplay the solemnity of some of Creed’s more minimalistic and conceptual works where what we see plays as much an important part as what we read. They also play an interesting part in pitting one notion of ‘art’ against the other for the naysayers who would ask for the “point”…portrait versus installation, physical paint versus the conceptual.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.
Installation view,Work No. 1806, 2014, Martin Creed What’s the point of it, Hayward Gallery. © the artist. Photo Linda Nylind

I did appreciate this exhibition immensely…and perhaps more than I thought I would. It was more than the sheer entertainment of the objects and spaces and the intricate absurdity they provided. It was overall a strange sense of honesty felt on behalf of the artist, and of a world turned upside down but still strangely messy and relateable…as messy and disordered as ourselves and our bodies, and yet still fitting within a certain scheme. Pinpointing an answer is not what the exhibition is about…it is about looking for it, giving it up and retaining a great deal of lightheartedness in the process.

The idea of a colourful pop-up book comes to mind, with its to and fro repetitive movement and surprises, apparent childlessness and superficiality merging into a sensitive, three-dimensional reflection that never takes itself too seriously nevertheless. Watch out for the balloons and mind your head, but visit this exhibition and see for yourself while you can at the Hayward Gallery in the Southbank Centre until the 5th of May.