History Is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain

February 16, 2015 § 3 Comments


Penelope Slinger, Lilford Hall, 1969

The Hayward’s History Is Now overflows with so much to see. A sense of too little time hurried me on from Hannah Starkey’s section and a lot of photographs, many of which were familiar from the 70s and 80s, until I finally had to slow down in the effort to make perceptual sense of Richard Hamilton’s diptych, The State.

It shows a British soldier on patrol with a telescopic rifle on a street in Northern Ireland. What’s odd is that the legs of his camouflage fatigues and the weapon in his hands stand out in sharp focus, while the hands themselves are as blurred as his camouflage-smeared face under a raised visor that appears likewise perversely sharp. You can’t do this with a camera, at least not in 1993, but what I, in my unseemly haste, had thought was a photograph turned out to be something technically more complicated, involving oils on canvas and photographic paper. The effect contributes to the unease in the figure’s stance: tense, on guard, seeming to move simultaneously forward and back, altogether in the wrong place. He’s also wearing trainers, not the footwear you’d expect.

Richard Hamilton is a presiding spirit in this show, which spans the 70 years since the end of World War II and the Labour victory of 1945. It has seven curators, all born in different decades (with the exception of the twins Jane and Louise Wilson, who share an artistic identity), and six sections that are to some degree chronological, without any rigid adherence to period. Hamilton’s screen print, Bathers (1967), appears in Richard Wentworth’s coastally-themed post-war selection, which includes work by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Paul Nash and a real decommissioned surface-to-air missile on the outside of the building. By the time I reached these the gallery was closing and I only caught a glimpse from a distance. It’s an interesting itinerary that takes you from the flat white plinths of the minimalist present on the ground floor to an upstairs space where floor and walls entice you with jostling monochrome and colour, and what those might convey about post-war optimism.

Wentworth’s wasn’t the only section I missed out on. From what little I saw of Roger Hiorns’ contribution, it looked fascinating, a kind of Foucauldian exploration of the BSE outbreak, variant CJD, the resulting national crisis and what it said about the state of the nation. I’ll be back to see it.

I’d been detained for a while in the dark, by John Akomfrah’s unmissable selection of films from the Arts Council Collection, 1968-1995. These add up to around ten hours of viewing, so I watched mainly shorts. Katrina McPherson’s Pace uses dance in experimental, high-energy mode, creating a visual-kinetic experience rather than just a film of performance; dance functions likewise as the carrier of narrative in Rodreguez King-dorset’s 1994 the beard of justice, about Winston Silcott’s wrongful imprisonment for the murder of a policeman. You can see Judith Williamson’s analysis of how advertising constructs narratives of women in daily life, A Sign is a Fine Investment, from 1983, and James Scott’s 1969 Richard Hamilton, a glorious montage of Pop Art icons and advertising hyperboles.

The state

Though seduced by the visual potency of advertising, the Pop Artists were fully alive to its manipulations and turned them to account. Hamilton features again, with The State and Greenham Common Print Portfolio (a collaboration with Jim Dine and German Fluxus artist Dieter Roth), in what for me was the highlight of the show, the Wilson sisters’ selection.

Jane and Louise Wilson set out to look at sites of ‘conflict and contention’ through the prism of artists’ responses. One of these was Greenham Common, and they bring together grainy, much enlarged photographs of women breaking through the perimeter fence, with protester Lyn Barlow’s journal from prison and their own piece Gamma, filmed in one of the Cruise missile silos – tough, disruptive images counterpointed with the delicate Print Portfolio made by those three male artists.

Rita Donagh’s aerial views of the H-blocks in the Maze prison, and Conrad Atkinson’s strip of 126 photo-based images on Northern Ireland during what was known as ‘The Troubles’, both confront politics head-on with a conceptual approach that nonetheless saw Atkinson’s series banned in the 70s for being over-sympathetic to the IRA. The mining community of Peterlee, in County Durham, connects artists’ interventions across different periods: Victor Pasmore’s 60s design for the Apollo Pavilion, the Artist Placement Group Project in the 70s and Stuart Brisley’s Beneath Dignity (1977) a work that enacts the struggle of a miner underground drilling tight seams of coal. The photographs show a performance on the shore of Lake Constance as people watch or pass by: he lies confined by a wooden frame, his writhing and twisting leaving traces on the paint splattered beneath him. This is the antithesis of the free movement in Jackson Pollock’s action painting, and a far cry from Yves Klein’s rolling blue bodies.

Cages, fences, bars and prisons – the restriction of space and freedom, ideas that are reiterated across the Wilson sisters’ choice of work. Their alignment of diverse practices and different generations achieves an urgent historical coherence in art that is confrontational while also being sophisticated.

Documentary photography had a resurgence in the 70s, helped for the first time by Arts Council funding. In the decade’s climate of deindustrialisation there were parallels with 1930s’ economic decline and an earlier documentary movement. These inform the work of photographers such as Chris Killip and Paul Trevor, shown in Hannah Starkey’s section. Here they deploy a powerful visual rhetoric in indictment of poverty as it affects whole communities, and particularly the young. Killip’s Youth, Jarrow (1976, and 40 years on from the Jarrow March) is a picture of contained desperation; Trevor’s shot of a contorted male figure, head disappearing round the high L-shape of a pillar and a parapet, offers us the Liverpool skyline in the distance and a foreground of feet clad in tattered socks with gaping holes. Both images speak with economy, their eloquence that of the body.


Starkey’s is the section where the Hackney Flashers’ Who’s Holding the Baby? is on view, now as a slideshow. Three of us stood in front of it, marvelling at how a piece of work we made as agitprop well over 30 years ago could be having its second turn at the Hayward Gallery (the first was in 1979). Some of the best work in History Is Now could be described in terms of art as activism, while ours persists in being activism as accidental art.

Some of the slides must have been badly packed in the carousel, and these projected images were cut off at the top (we’re assured that the problem has now been remedied). When we remarked on this defect, a woman next to us said, ‘Maybe it’s deliberate’.

Art has its reasons, and its excuses…. Which brings me to the present, or rather what represents it at the entrance to the show.

These days poverty is rarely made manifest in ragged clothes or socks like the ones in Paul Trevor’s Liverpool image. The neoliberalism of the 1980s is notorious for making us first and foremost consumers rather than producers, customers rather than passengers or patients. Clothes are now cheap for us, because of globalisation, with others a continent away paying the price of their labour.

It’s easy to say that everything in our culture is commodified. Is that entirely true? It applies to many aspects of everyday life, and to a lot of art, for sure, but it isn’t over-optimistic to see that there are still artists who refuse and work against these smothering tendencies. All the stranger that Simon Fujiwara’s contribution as curator for the 21st-century section looks like a surrender to sterility. A Damien Hirst spot painting, a Hockney iPad drawing, a Sam Taylor-Johnson video of David Beckham asleep, and a few other artworks are mixed in with ‘found objects’ from the realm of the commodity: cellophane packaging from Waitrose, a Farrow & Ball colour card, a pair of Nigella Lawson salad servers, merely creating the flimsiest of ironies. What a good thing that the show only begins here, rather than have it end with this terrible dwindling.

In 1956 the Independent Group (founded at the ICA by Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and others – those Pop Artists again) put on a show at the Whitechapel Gallery whose fame lives on: This Is Tomorrow – there’s a film of it which is probably easy to track down on YouTube. The title History Is Now is uncanny in its inverse echo of that earlier show, a (not uncritical) celebration of a future opening up optimistically. It seems that in today’s difficult times we need the past, not as nostalgia, but as inspiration, and that is how most of the Hayward show’s curators seem to view it, and how artists have always worked, learning from art’s history and renewing it. For this is art that still has the power to engage our thinking, to provoke strong feelings and to energise. The triumph of History Is Now is its active reminder that ‘The Storm We Call Progress’, the title of the catalogue’s opening essay (and a quote from Walter Benjamin), is still raging.


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