History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain

10 February – 26 April 2015, Hayward Gallery, London

By Helen Sumpter

Penny Slinger, Corpus, 1977. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Riflemaker, London

Anyone hoping for a pre-general election uplift, or bunting, may be disappointed by History Is Now. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ it isn’t. What it is, is a theme-and-decade hopping journey through objects and artworks from British postwar history, as seen through the personal perspectives of seven artists-as-curators. The first display, by Simon Fujiwara, employs the artist’s faux-archaeological approach to address the rise of celebrity culture and the aspirational ideals epitomised during the 1990s: ideals as shallow and fake as New Labour’s ‘Cool Britannia’ and as devoid of content as the row of ten empty Waitrose Cooks’ Ingredients herb packets that, along with artworks including Sam Taylor-Johnson’s video of a sleeping David Beckham, form part of this selection. There is veiled irony in the juxtapositions, but as a critique it’s a subtle one.

On to Jane and Louise Wilson’s more cohesive theme of the relationship between architecture, location and the body in sites of conflict – scaled-up photos of women breeching the fences at Greenham Common in the 1980s, models of Victor Pasmore’s contested utopian Apollo Pavilion from the mid-1960s. Politically pertinent, although as a grouping somewhat dour. With its occult, Kenneth Anger overtones, Penelope Slinger’s surreal psychosexual film Lilford Hall (1969) has frisson, but by now I’m wanting more of a counterpoint, akin to the rawer aesthetic of punk.

Hannah Starkey’s impassioned plea to reinvigorate the photographic image goes some way to providing this. Starkey highlights the Arts Council’s support of ‘noncommercial’ photography during the 1980s and 90s through gritty images from the Arts Council Collections (ACC) by Paul Graham and the Hackney Flashers, among others, and contrasts these with sexist and stereotyped advertising imagery. Also drawn from the ACC, John Akomfrah’s selection of 17 films performs an almost identical function in relation to the moving image. But Akomfrah foregrounds two welcome but absent-until-now aspects of British culture – multiculturalism and eccentricity, the latter evidenced in works by Gilbert & George and the Lacey Family.

A detailed chronology of variant CJD (Mad Cow Disease), Roger Hiorns’s section is the most focused. Fascinating, horrifying but so overwhelming in its detail of dates and data that the artworks, including Damien Hirst’s pair of pickled cow heads, Out of Sight. Out of Mind. (1991), are rendered incidental.

Which leaves Richard Wentworth, who takes on Britain’s island mentality, translated into a coastal theme. With the majority of art and objects originating from the 1940s and 50s, in terms of age this is the most dated section in the show, yet it also feels the most alive. Containing Paul Nash’s fizzing Second World War paintings, Totes Meer (Dead Sea, 1940–1) and Battle of Britain (1941), helps, but it’s the integration of objects that relate to conflict, postconflict austerity and optimism – Robert Capa’s photographs of the Normandy landings in 1944; a gas- and space-saving double saucepan from the 1960s; a small Pye television, the model on which the nation would have watched the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – that makes this feel both the most historical and the most now. 

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue.