History is Now – Hayward Gallery

This year a few London Galleries are mostly interested in the stories behind works of art and particularly what drives or influences the artists to create the pieces they do. The Barbican’s ‘Magnificent Obsessions’ exhibition exploring the personal collections of individual artists will be reviewed here soon, but first the Hayward has, with varying success, asked 7 artists to curate a section on Britain in the last 70 years, bringing together other pieces or collections that have inspired them.

Somehow the intention is to show us both more about work that influences the curator-artist and about our long-standing debate over the meaning of Britishness since the Second World War. And just looking at the array of works on display here in the six sections it is no wonder that it is such a difficult concept to pin down when themes include consumerism, science, poverty and conflict. Given the range of topics, each section seems like its own mini-exhibition and there as many ideas or definitions of Britain as you could imagine. Although it’s not clear what the overall message of the exhibition is, nor is the idea of impasse in our concept of nationality a particularly new or surprising conclusion, but that doesn’t mean that the individual voices aren’t worth hearing.

It begins with some of the more successfully curated areas – first Simon Fujiwara brings together a seemingly random collection of pieces that fit with his own work on modernity, technology and celebrity culture all arranged in methodical rows of white box-like plinths – although look closely and you’ll see that one of these is actually a pop-art style chest freezer. Two of the biggest draws will be a costume worn by Meryl Streep when she played Margaret Thatcher which interestingly is folded-up rather than displayed on a dummy, and Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of David Beckham asleep which is as unremarkable as it sounds – I understand it’s a comment on our celebrity-obsessed culture and increasing invasion of privacy but meh! The artist has also included a scale model of the ArcelorMittal Orbit technically a sculpture in the former Olympic Park (also worth a visit) and a home video of himself as a child performing in a school production of Mary Poppins which is slightly creepy as the child voices fill this part of gallery infecting your perspective on other works.

Next up Jane and Louise Wilson presents some very different pieces on architecture and conflict including photographs and diaries from Greenham Common Peace Camp showing protestors cutting down fences. There’s also interesting photographs of inscriptions on walls in Northern Ireland – although if we’re being really pedantic, this is technically part of the United Kingdom and not Britain, emphasising a wider problem with the use of “British” as a catch-all term often synonymised with ‘English’ to incorrectly refer to other parts of the UK. It’s no wonder we don’t know who we are if we can’t even use the right labels. The most interesting piece here is a large cage containing a number of filled gloves suspended from its bars, commenting on the number of unemployed people in the 1980s prevented from using those hands to work. I really liked this, seemingly random at first glance but actually making a bold social statement. I also liked the next section curated by Hannah Starkey mixing commercial advertising with Arts Council pictures with similar themes.

Upstairs Richard Wentworth has the most tightly curated section focusing on militarism and the consequences of warfare since 1945, including things as diverse as The Art of War and missile launch plans – including a large decommissioned surface-to-air missile on the outside terrace seemingly trained on the City.  Wentworth is also fascinated by the seaside and the lives of ordinary people in the aftermath of conflict and there are lots of beach scenes including two stunning Paul Nash paintings, the first a triumphant Battle of Britain with curls of smoke above the sea, and the second even better picture of scrapped German planes where the outlines of the grey/blue wings together look like waves against sand. There are also a number of interesting Henry Moore pieces, a very nice Lowry as well as a “mood-wall” of images, art works, book covers and diagrams printed on pieces of paper showing the various influences on the post-war world. It’s a fascinating comment on the evolution of a militaristic society and the politics of fear that governed decision-making in the cold-war era and arguably even now.

The least successful part of this collection focuses on BSE and brings together pictures of livestock with scientific reports and newspaper articles. This is the pet project of artist Roger Hiorns whose detailed research is rather too evident in this overwhelming space, crowded with signs, documents and information. He’s clearly trying to make a strong point but there’s so much going on, a mix-between a laboratory and ‘science museum’ feel that rather than read and engage with everything, you just want to walk through it to the real art. I felt the same about John Akomfrah’s video collection upstairs. I’ve never been one for video art I’m afraid (as you may tell from my meh shrug at David Beckham sleeping) and while I’m sure this is all very important from the descriptions I wasn’t sure what the collection was saying.  I’m sure others will feel differently, but these sections were just not for me.

The Hayward is a gallery I always like, which combines a lot of interesting work with innovative approaches to displaying it, and thankfully a relatively quiet place to see them. There’s a lot of interesting pieces here which are worth a visit, but I have to admit on the whole I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of their earlier displays. Part of it is perhaps a coherence problem and while it’s interesting to have multiple curators, I didn’t leave feeling I learnt anything overarching about artistic response to Britishness in the past 70 years (other than its diversity) or having discovered that much about the artist-curators or even why those 7 people were chosen. As reasonably priced exhibitions go, this is ok, lots of interesting things to see but given the considerable literature on British identity post-Empire, perhaps not as coordinated as I had hoped.

History is Now is at the Hayward Gallery until 26 April 2015. Tickets cost £10.90 without donation and concessions are available.

About Maryam Philpott

This site takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over a thousand shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established 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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