The Human Factor – Hayward Gallery

The Hayward Gallery is fast becoming one of my favourite exhibition spaces in London. Of the three things that I’ve now seen there, all of them have been enjoyable, thought-provoking and good value for money. Even more important, I’ve been able to pitch up at any time and get a ticket for immediate entry. It’s sadly increasingly difficult to do this in London and more than once in recent weeks I’ve had to make multiple attempts to see exhibitions which are either sold out for the day or not availability for several hours. It’s August and the school holidays I suppose, but London used to be more care-free for those who don’t like the confinement of booking ahead.

So that makes the Hayward on the busy Southbank a temporary haven, even at the weekend. It’s a great exhibition space and I want it to do well, but it’s almost surreal to be alone (with a security guard) in a gallery room these days as I was a few times on my visit to The Human Factor, and I’m secretly hoping no one else cottons on to this place – so shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!

In their current display 25 artists who have created sculptures of the human form in the past 25 years are showcased, giving a diverse and sometimes challenging view of the body. For lots of people the word sculpture immediately makes them think of classical white marble figures with scary blank eyes and missing limbs, but there’s none of that here… ok there’s one use of marble but it’s of a young child wearing a sheet to look like a ghost which is about as far from the ancient statues as you can get. The rest is a balanced combination of frighteningly real and entirely abstract representations of the human body.

You’re greeted by 2 giant wooden warriors with bottle-top heads, suggesting their original size, considerably scaled-up and realised in wood by German artist Katharina Fritsch, next to a two faced Falling Woman by Paloma Varga Weisz wrapped in cloth and suspended from the ceiling – from one angle the face is the right way up and it looks like a calm gymnast but walk around and you see an upside-down person which looks dead, the only change being the face – an interesting way to play with perspective.

My favourite things though are either abstract or completely bizarre, which the Hayward always delivers. First the giant sculpture by Georg Herold made of wood and covered in a bright pink wax, it’s a human form bent backwards at the waist with its arms stretched up along the wall and one leg tucked behind the other. Despite its geometric structure and material it looks almost balletic. Just across are 4 mannequins standing in bright blue gunge to depict the increasing violence of the world and its effect on the body. Each corresponds to different horrific images of a single dead man whose death has been more brutal and more destructive of his body than the one before. Thomas Hirschhorn’s dummies are increasingly buried in the gunge and gain more tattoos as the corresponding deaths become more horrific. This not a family show as you can tell.

If that wasn’t shocking enough, round the corner are 2 sculptures of Pawel Althamer and his then wife, made from straw and covered in decaying animal intestine – yep it’s pretty gross and fascinating at the same time. He describes them as ‘failed mummies’ because they are rotting as you look at them, not obviously but you know they are. Affecting in a different way are four people by Ugo Rondinone which are displayed in a room with no other work. Each one is in a different seated position against the mid-position of the four walls, so they form the points of a cross, and each is completely still in silent contemplation and deliberately with no evidence of action. Being alone (with security guard!) in this room with them was quite affecting – they were more than just still, they were melancholy as well – walking around each individually and stepping back to see them as a set, they seemed to imply a loneliness of the human form. A little more fun in the upper gallery is a playful skeleton on a dusty park bench which artist Urs Fischer explained is a more humorous idea of decay.

Of course with art a lot is about personal taste and there are a few pieces that I didn’t like or, dare I say it, were on the pretentious side. But other will no doubt think differently. That said, these were few and the vast majority of this collection was genuinely enjoyable to view.  The success of this exhibition is its ability to get you thinking about not just how the human form is constructed in a real and abstract sense, but also the ways in which it is used to perpetrate and receive violent attacks, to inflict and feel pain, to intimidate, to observe, to convey grace and beauty, shame and admiration, to revile, to exist, or as a political and historical tool to write and rewrite history at will, while its preservation and decay can become almost obsessive. If the Hayward Gallery made me think about all of that, then this exhibition has done its job. From October it will be showing London artists on the theme of What is Real? Given its random ticket availability and amazingly quiet galleries I’ll certainly be making my way to that – bit don’t tell anyone!

The Human Factor is at the Hayward Gallery until 7 September. Full price is £12 (with gallery donation) and a range of concessions are available.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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