Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery

Mary-Claire Wilson is welcomed into the Hayward Gallery by a ballerina with a pistol flanked by two fearsome warriors. And they say manners are dead.

Hayward gallery is usually ten leaps ahead of the more mainstream Tate Modern. At the Hayward, fresh, thought-provoking and superbly curated shows that use both interior and exterior spaces to dramatic effect are the norm. Don’t be put off by the weak and irrelevant Jeff Koons sculpture, Bear and Policeman (1988) that advertises the Human Factor, incidentally one of the oldest pieces here. This exhibition will deliver thrills and spills to all.

The thought of contemporary sculpture, particularly of the figurative kind, can be tiring. Not because it isn’t good – it is – but because we’re full to the gills with stuffed bunnies from Sarah Lucas, children with genitals on their faces from the Chapman Brothers, headless figures in batik from Yinka Shonibare and various takes on his own body by Antony Gormley, to name a few big guns on the scene. All too often body sculpture is made of wire, dirt and straw, or skinny distressed metal, or abstract pitted rock. Desperate to escape the tyranny of marble, the work becomes purely reactive. Not here. Creativity flourishes.

Thomas Schutte, fresh from last year’s hit show at the Serpentine, creates an entrance with his opening work, Krieger (Warriors) (2012). Political as ever, Schutte gives us two outsized men in aggressive confrontation, testaments to bellicosity. Ironically, they started life as small scale models, and the tribal hats they wear, on close inspection, are enlarged screw-top bottle caps, as absurd as their grand designs.  Also frighteningly to the point is Paloma Varga Weisz’s Falling Woman, Double-Headed (2004), a bald woman with dislocated limbs hanging from material wrapped to suggest an Oriental robe, hinting at torturous practices such as the predicament bondage of Japanese shibari.

Eating my earlier words about Yinka Shonibare, his Girl Ballerina (2007) presented here is a dark delight. Still headless and wearing batik (referencing, as the material always does with Shonibare, the colonial past) the girl’s pointe pose and tutu recall Degas’ sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1881). But behind her back she clasps a pistol, ready for revolution, or self-defence: in colonial terms, the two actions are interchangeable.

My Sweet Lord (2009) by Georg Herold is searing, and this Lord anything but sweet. A wooden figure kneels on a table with hands clasped in prayer, only for a black, demonic hand to reach up from underneath and grip the figure’s head, without pity. This is the God of the Old Testament, all fire and brimstone, or the Allah of sharia law, invasive and unforgiving. On a lighter note, Ryan Gander’s series of responses to Degas’ Little Dancer ae deliciously transgressive. He recreates the diminutive bronze ballerina, but imagines her escaped from her restrictive plinth; here she peers out of the gallery window on tiptoe, there she flops behind her plinth and pulls on a cigarette.

Maurizio Cattelan, bombastic as ever, shows two works with varying degrees of success. His life sized wax sculpture of JFK in a coffin has little impact, whilst Him (2001) packs a visual punch. Entering a large and empty white room, the viewer sees the back of a child-sized figure kneeling at the other end. Only when the room has been traversed do we see that the figure is a very lifelike Hitler, with a man-sized face. Since his gaze is averted, you can walk around to find the point where he meets your eye, such a chilling experience I could only bear to do it once. As Cattelan points out, ‘you don’t know if he’s praying to have six million more people to kill, or for forgiveness.’

Pierre Huyghe’s Liegender Frauenakt (2012) is situated on the Hayward’s outdoor terrace, and for good reason. The female nude appears to be a classic marble sculpture, except for her head, which is a beehive. Literally. Bees swarm and buzz around her, creating huge honeycombs. The juxtaposition of these two elements, the beehive and the marble, is a disconcerting one. One is entirely cultured, and the other entirely wild. 

Paul McCarthy also plays with juxtapositions. That Girl (TG Awake) (2012-13) are three life-sized silicone sculptures of a naked woman sitting with spread legs. The nudity is so accurate that the viewer is embarrassed to look, but too intrigued to look away. Next door three films show the long and painstaking process by which a real girl is transformed into the sculpture. Fascinatingly, the sculptures seem completely lifelike until you see the live girl. As McCarthy puts it, the silicone girl is ‘not entirely right.’ In the space where these almost imperceptible distortions exist lies humanity.

There is more here than there is space to cover. For example, Katharina Fritsch presents three unique pieces that have to be seen to be believed. Engaging with what it feels like to be human, the artistic responses here are as diverse and intense as lived experience. Prepare to be wowed. 

Mary-Claire Wilson

The Human Factor
Hayward Gallery, London (SE1)
June 17 - September 7

No comments:

Post a Comment