Any exhibition which aims to present a history of British culture from 1945 to the present day has to be wide-ranging and risk-taking, and the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition manages to be both.
Seven curators have presented six exhibitions within this space and generic umbrella of ‘History is Now’, and although there are no obvious links between the different shows, together they present an immersive snapshot of the country as it was, and where it is going.
Richard Wentworth’s section, on the top floor of the gallery, goes back the furthest, presenting photographs, sketches and texts around the immediate aftermath of the war, along with books about the period arranged above head height, covers facing downwards, on glass shelves. His vision also includes a surface to air missile which sits outside in the Southbank Centre’s space, aimed towards the financial heart of modern London.
Hannah Starkey’s set of images includes collages of advertising from the 1970s, hugely sexist and geared towards a culture which has all but disappeared, where shoes, household appliances, and politics could be presented in ways that – if you remove the sexual politics and objectivity from the equation – remain startling and innovative. Her section also includes real life photographs of destitution and degradation which are at odds with the glossy images depicted in the advertising.
John Akromfrah presents seventeen films which look at Britain’s artistic past and future – in themselves they represent hours of footage on which we only quickly glanced on our visit – but there is material from Hepworth, Bacon, and others, which could repay repeat visits.
The Wilson twins Jane and Louise focus much of their attention on Northern Ireland and the Troubles, in a thought-provoking set of images, paintings and texts which focus on both sides of the issue. The most powerful piece in their section though might be the cage of gloves, each representing a person unemployed with hands idle at the height of the employment crisis of the 1980s.
Roger Hiorns presents a whole room devoted to BSE and the hysteria around mad cow disease – hard to remember now how this was headline news for so long, but newspaper covers, articles, reports, photographs and other artifacts remind us of the fact – a peripheral side effect of this is seeing what else was news at the time, which caused some nostalgia when viewing this particular exhibit.
Finally, and the first section you will see on entering the Hayward, Simon Fujiwara shows us David Beckham sleeping, Meryl Streep’s costume for ‘The Iron Lady’, some plastic cutlery, a couple of bin bags, and Damien Hirst’s dot painting (his cattle heads in formaldehyde are in Hiorns’ section). This is the most ephemeral and the least engaging part of the exhibition, but the one which is the most flash – even including a section of balcony from a Canary Wharf apartment.
A mixed exhibition, and one which does require some attention to be paid to its messages and juxtapositions – we took nearly two hours to circulate on its preview night and could have stayed longer, had we engaged with every film on show. I particularly liked the photographs from Erin Pizzey’s Chiswick Women’s Refuge, the items from Greenham Common peace camp, and the sense of history once you move away from the throwaway nature of Fujiwara’s vision into something with just that bit more depth.