A review by James Buxton w for EXTRA! EXTRA!




In the Days of the Comet



Hayward Gallery
16 Feb to 17 Apr  2011

Can you hear the slot and shuffle of slides, the ominous growing hum of a radio frequency, the clicking stutter of a strobe? Suddenly the clang of a bell shocks you out of whatever you thought you were viewing, to run like a frightened child to the source of the sound, only to discover a gallery attendant standing beneath a bell. But then, you aren't in the Hayward Gallery and this isn't the British Art Show 7, this is just a review of it.

Occurring every five years at art galleries throughout the country, the British Art Show is now in its seventh incarnation, returning to the Hayward Gallery after a 21 year hiatus. This year’s show features the work of 39 artists and art groups that have been created since 2005.  Beginning in Nottingham, where it enjoyed enormous success, it will be seen in Glasgow and Plymouth in the coming months. Curators, Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton have subtitled this year’s exhibition In the Days of the Comet, an allusion to H.G. Wells’ 1906 science fiction novel of the same name. In Wells' novel, a mysterious comet hovers over Britain as it is on the brink of war, emitting a green gas that knocks everyone out. On waking, the people of earth discover they each have developed a much more harmonious attitude to life and enjoy a greater appreciation of the arts. Le Feuvre and Morton state:  “Comets are also commonly understood as harbingers of change, and fittingly the exhibition is designed to evolve, revealing new works at different venues and creating a unique exhibition in each of the four host cities.”

Artists have responded to the theme of an “evolving” exhibition in their own ways however, most works will remain consistent throughout the duration of the exhibition’s tour. Sprawled on the floor of the gallery and tethered to the ground, is Brian Griffiths work The Body and Ground (Or Your Clumsy Hands). Looking like the giant romper suit of a clown who has just vaporized, it turns out the suit belongs to the head of a huge teddy bear exhibited in Nottingham. Griffiths work is humorously cryptic, appearing initially as a collapsed fairground tent, on closer inspection one can make out its chunky paws and legs. The sculpture stimulates the viewer to envisage their own disproportionate giant, hulking about in the garish costume; in doing so, Griffiths manipulates the viewer’s imagination through suggestion.

This focus on engaging the viewer through outlandish sculpture is taken to its extreme in Roger Hiorns, Untitled, where one may be confronted at random intervals by the uncomfortable presence of a nude young man sat on top of a metal park bench, at the other end of which burns a fire. John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing elucidates the concept of the nude in art: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude.” The most interesting thing about this installation is perhaps the reaction of spectators to the artwork. Once the fire has burnt out and the young man has left, the room gives an almost palpable sigh of relief, as if his presence is the cause of an invisible tension. Naturally we are embarrassed - Hiorns exposes us to a moment which pits our social conventions against our appreciation of art and in doing so makes us self-conscious of our own bodies. He allows us to individually confront what we find uncomfortable about the presence of a nude man staring at a fire. For surely this is the most primordial of scenes, and yet Hiorns objectification of the young man and the incongruous contemporary setting of a metal park bench subverts the ancient image and places it in the modern city. 

In the introduction, Le Feuvre and Tom Morton propose the exhibition explores   “concerns such as a tendency towards narrative, embrace of fiction, interest in research and the pursuit of intricate associations.” This increasing emphasis of giving a narrative to the image can be seen in a number of artists’ works and there is a sense that a corresponding plot or dialogue gives a greater depth to the images or sculptures on display.  Charles Avery presents his parallel world of The Island, through three different mediums. There is a short narrative about the island stuck to the gallery walls entitled, The Epilogue, an incredibly detailed pen and ink large-scale drawing of the View of the Port at Onomatopoeia and a large vitrine containing a scene from The Island. Seen here for the first time, View of the Port at Onomatopoeia is a fabulously engrossing drawing that rewards close attention. Avery employs a visual onomatopoeia, where the titles of many buildings and objects correspond to the thing they describe, such as Marcel's Casserole, where a chef leans out of his restaurant, which is a casserole pot of steamed mussels. Each one of these mediums feeds back into the other and a reading of The Epilogue illuminates seemingly random objects in the vitrine. This interdependence between the various mediums enhances each one of the works on display and adds a sense of discovery for the viewer.

The Hayward Gallery resonates daily with unusual sounds emanating from the various works on display - this creates an unintentional sonic collage of works overlapping one another, which can be intriguing and disorientating. The most vocal of these sounds is Steven Claydon's bell, Trom, which resounds twelve times a day, abruptly interrupting us from contemplating the other artworks to explore where its’ sound is coming from. According to Claydon, Trom is named after a fictional part of London described in the novel Guignol's Band, by French author Louis-Ferdinand Celine. It seems appropriate therefore to have the bell chime to attract people's attention to a place where nothing is happening. Claydon subverts our in built assumptions that the sound of a bell must signify something, and leaves us curiously looking up the bell's skirt, where a long rope dangles  to the floor, resembling a striped tail. 

The strange thing about modern art galleries is that the more time you spend there, the more you become suspicious of everyday objects. You might find yourself staring at a radiator, wondering if that could be a work of art. You start to question what's real and what's art, and then in those works you start to doubt their credulity. Take Olivia Plender's work The Lost Works of Johan Riding, where you seem to be viewing fragments from Riding's life as a film maker. But, as you progress it seems quite possible that the material in the cabinet is a hoax. The longer you spend inspecting the letters and photographs compiled by the spurious Dr Roger Quallen, the more absurd the character of Riding becomes. Plender is playing with the spectator and the notion of what we accept as truth. She creates an imaginary artist to produce a life seen only through dubious fragments and in doing so, shifts the focus from the real artist onto the fictional one.

Blink and you'd miss Juliet Blightman's net curtains, draped across a window overlooking London's overcast environs. Yet Blightman's attempt at making the Brutalist architecture of the Hayward gallery more homely reminds us of the importance of the barren quality of the gallery space in imposing the minimum amount of visual interference. Yet by drawing our attention to this sparseness, Blightman touches on how the very walls themselves affect our response to the art. Matthew Derbyshire's An Exhibiton for Modern Living touches on this area too, by exhibiting a display of kitsch furniture, which would not look out of place in a Habitat shop window. Yet these objects do not seek to decorate the place, they have been taken out of the context of high street retailers which seek to furnish our homes with mass produced “design objects” and been placed in  an art gallery.  In these generic designs, lacking in any individualism, one is left with a depressing sensation of the futility of consumerism.

Yet the real piece de resistance of the whole show has to be Christian Marclay's stunning film The Clock. Here the viewer becomes trapped in a real time fiction of film clips, where you literally watch the minutes of your life slip past. Thousands of film clips have been edited together to create a 24 hour long video which acts as a real timepiece you could synchronise your watch to. Each clip is like a piece of a chronological jigsaw puzzle that must have taken years to assemble. As we become voyeur to these fragments, Marclay suggests the arbitrary nature of time through the collation of thousands of clips; each one of these clips’ position in the film is determined solely by chance, because each one is right only for that exact moment. Paradoxically, time is shown to us through the past. Each film remains stuck in its particular moment, not only in terms of quality, suggesting when it was made, but also in content. There can be no narrative arc, there can be no character development, no personal investment, instead, we become victim to the engrossing brilliance of watching real time pass in fictional worlds.

British Art Show 7 may not have the alien impact of HG Wells’ comet, but it certainly provokes a great deal of mind bending contemplation. The increasing demand on the interaction with the individual in a number of artworks, not physically but cerebrally, forces us into realms of conceptualism, not possible without the instigation of these artists. These works encourage internal and external investigation, causing us to go beyond our own comfort boundaries and explore how the works on display may affect us. Like Claydon's bell, we might all find ourselves rushing to a place where nothing appears to be happening, only to leave with the resonance of some ineffable sensation still lingering in our minds.


Hayward Gallery

Southbank Centre
Belvedere Road
London SE1 8XX


Open 10am -6pm (daily)
Open Thursday and Fridays until 8 pm


£8.00 (including £1 voluntary gift aid donation**)
Booking Fee:
£1.75 (Members £0.00)
Seniors £7; Students £6; Young People 12-18 £5.50 (including £1 voluntary gift aid donation**)




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