Thursday, 9 June 2011

British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet, Hayward Gallery, London (16 February-17 April 2011)

The curators of British Art Show 7 (“BAS7”) have announced that their show is recognised as being the most ambitious and influential exhibition of contemporary British art.  With Newspeak: British Art Now Parts I and II  (in which 6 BAS7 artists area also featured) appearing at the Saatchi Gallery 2010-11, Charles Saatchi may disagree with this statement, as might the ICA with its recent Bloomberg New Contemporaries or indeed the organizers of the annual Turner Prize exhibition. 

Also, I am not sure how influential BAS7 is, but held very 5 years it does succeed in holding up a magnifying glass to the wide range of contemporary art practices (as chosen by the curators) and certainly appeared popular, if the number of visitors crowding into the gallery during my visit was anything to go by.

Bringing together work produced since 2005 by 39 selected artists, BOS7 presents the whole range of creative mediums, although installation and video work appeared to dominate.  The curators describe the underlying theme of the exhibition being the ways in which artists “make use of histories, be they distant or proximate, longingly imaged or all too real, to illuminate our present moment”[1].

They also promised that the range of works on display will challenge, amuse and delight.  To truly delight me a work of art has to have the double-punch of committed conceptual exploration and what Grayson Perry has described in his defence of aesthetics in art, as visceral visual pleasure[2].

Charles Avery’s wonderfully named installation “Untitled (Miss Miss finally gives in by the place where Aean sought to bamboozle the one-armed snake by attaching himself to the tree to make himself a larger thing)” dominates the first room within the gallery.  Its size and theatricality completely epitomises a longingly imaged place and associated history. 

Unfortunately, I found many works challenging in a non-positive way and therefore very difficult to engage with.  Cullinan Richards’s “Vertical Plastic” and “Two Rolls of Selotape” installations by the gallery stairwell seemed curiously dated and seemed more suitable for inclusion in Sensation exhibition of 1997 than in the British Art Show 2011.  Indeed, a number of works on display had more than a whiff of Sensation about them, which I found a little tiresome.  Sarah Lucas’s “Nuds” - stuffed nylon tights knotted into biomorphic forms - seemed a complete throwback to her YBA glory years and I have seen versions of Wolfgang Tillmans’s tabletop installation of newspapers, magazine cuttings, pamphlets and advertisements covering subjects which included global consumerism, female genital mutilation, homophobia “Truth Study Center” at numerous graduate shows before.

Steven Claydon’s “Untitled (Trom Bell)” was unwittingly rung twice by visitors (the discreetly displayed “please do not touch sign” was a little too discreetly displayed).  Perhaps the most disappointing (and frustrating) priece was Nathanial Mellors’s animatronic sculpture “The Object (Our House)”, rendered motionless as it is currently awaiting technical maintenance. 

Of course there were many other works which did fascinate and enthral.  Christian Marclay’s film “The Clock” and Elizabeth Price’s film “User Group Disco” both showed the possibilities of elevating the medium from its habitual unfathomable nature. 

Juliette Blightman’s vase, lamp and net curtain intervention raised a wry smile.

Of all the work on display, it was Roger Hiorns’s “Untitled” installation comprising of a black municipal bench with intermittent flame and naked man appearing at unspecified intervals which completely met my own “double punch” criteria. It was stark, simple and beautifully fascinating. 

The exhibition’s subtitle “In the Days of the Comet” referencing the H G Wells novel and Hailey’s Comet, allowed the curators to include artists such as Hiorns, whose work would probably not fit as neatly into their original exhibition theme.  Ossian Ward points out in his review for Time Out magazine that it is almost impossible to fix something as variable and subjective as a moment in British Art[3].   BOS7 has at least captured some of its manifestations in its own curatorial net.

[1] Exhibition Statement by curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, 2010
[2] Grayson Perry during an interview in Contemporary Art Today, Open University, BBC2, broadcast February 2011
[3] British Art Burns Bright, Time Out Magazine, 3-9 March 2011

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