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September 07, 2006

The Arts Council tries to abolish history: How To Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art at the Hayward Gallery at the Hayward Gallery

Posted by Jane Kelly

How To Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art at the Hayward Gallery
Hayward Gallery, London
7th September - 19th November 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Tuesdays & Wednesdays until 8pm, Fridays until 9pm)

It's dismal, it's grumpy, it's grey, and it's desperately trendy. Ugly artefacts such as car engines are strewn around the uncongenial concrete space as if we are somewhere between a garage and a workshop at Goldsmiths College. But no, this is the 60th birthday celebration of the Arts Council art collection, collected by them, on our behalf.

The Hayward Gallery, on the newly refurbished, slogan bearing south bank, where every cultural event is spelled out to the public in giant letters, is presenting 150 works from the national store, first begun in 1946 at the beginning of the brave new world that is modern Britain.

The thought of the late 40's, early 50's might bring to a sentimental mind war-time resonances of Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, the glass engravings of John Piper, rural landscapes from Ivon Hitchens and John Wonnacott, the long lost art of illustration from John Minton, perhaps some early sculpture by Elizabeth Frink.

Well look elsewhere.

This exhibition gives a nod to figurative artists; there is a Bomberg, an early Hockney, a bit of Bacon, a small Freud from 1954.

We couldn't afford a recent one,
said one curator mournfully.

Rather than a retrospective this is really only about the present, as if history starts not even after the war, in the age of elitist grammar schools and traditional art colleges, but about the time of the last miners' strike and later. There is some lip service to our artistic past. Jude Kelly, OBE, Artistic Director of the South Bank, a pneumatic blonde dressed in combat green, told me that
the early post-war years were the best time ever for British Art,
pointing to a Labour government committed to providing art for an eager public,
making the best art available to the very many.
She calls Bridget Riley's work of the early '60's "an onslaught". But the key piece in this exhibition is not the Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961, an exploration of special dynamics in black and white squares, carefully composed and painted, but a wrecked old armchair by Bill Woodrow, first hung from the ceiling in 1981, and the direct antecedent of Tracey Emin's seamy bed.

There is nothing here about nostalgia. At the press show there was some grumbling about artists who had been left out.

I was afraid this would happen,
said curator, Michael Archer. To get up his elegant nose a bit I suggested he might have included something by popular painter Beryl Cook, not of course collected by the Arts Council. Laughable that she with her frivolous and vulgar views of English life would be - and yet, right outside, not far from the Hayward's own Starbucks outlet, there is a fun fountain attracting small boys. It spurts water intermittently allowing members of the public to stand inside its watery tines and be surrounded by squirts. This turns out to be a genuine "sculpture" and part of the show.
It has attracted hundreds of people,
says Ralph Rugoff, the American director of the Hayward, a former research fellow from Goldsmiths, delighted that the Hayward can fetch in the "the many". He even claims that his new audience are there for the art. He says:
People know so much more about art now than they did in the 1940's and 50's.
Well it depends of course on what you call art. Looking at two plaster breast like shapes on the floor, a Muslim teenager whispered earnestly to her friend:
Is that art?
Well yes it is, if the Arts Council collected it, particularly if they did so within the last twenty years.

The old fashioned idea of a gallery as a quiet place where you might look around in tranquillity has been junked for the fair ground, or rather the current all inclusive approach. Michael Archer, one of the curators of the show, had to speak over the racket coming from the Sci-fi sounding sound track to Susan Hiller's Wild Talents DVD, recorded in 1997, of recomposed fragments from popular films featuring children with paranormal abilities. Archer says:

This is the way we are now. We accept a lot of noise. Sixty years ago you expected a gallery to be a contemplative, toned down space but nowadays that is not how we live. Noise is a reflection of the present.
So much for industrial mills, factories and heavy industry, not to mention the Blitz. I wonder where he wrote his last book, in a railway station perhaps?
I do like a quiet library,
he admitted, looking slightly ashamed about such ideological weakness.

The exhibition also rejects quaint notions like chronology and even themes. Each exhibit is

valued for its own special quality.
This reminded me of modern nursing techniques, where no nurse is allowed to provide care by a structured timetable, but only according to each patient's individual needs, which results in many patients (or rather customers) being neglected in the chaos and starving to death.

Perhaps this explained the wan look of some paintings such as Leon Kossoff's rather dreary, Children's Swimming Pool, 1972, which bears no relation to anything else around it. You have to really rack your brain to see connections. They are there apparently for instance between a small reclining figure by Henry Moore and a nearby leaning pole with Perspex plates by Norwegian artist Camilla Low, made in 2004.

Jude Kelly sees the exhibits from the early years, such as Contrapuntal by Ben Nicholson from 1953 and Patrick Caulfield's Sculpture in a Landscape from 1966, displaying:

confidence about new ideas, abstract form, tongue in cheek, mature and demanding.
Rugoff says the collection:
has an astonishing breadth and quality.
But what we see here is mostly the later descent into nihilism, the morbid modern sulk enlivened by the absurd and the nasty, sculptures made of elastoplast, sex toys and Gilbert and George.

This is all to do with politics of course. Kelly won't say anything about the current Labour government's thinking on the Arts, although the collection budget is now down to a meagre 170,000 a year, and as the exhibition shows, from the 1960's onwards, trendy, collectible artists despised their own free society.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this self-indulgence is the work of Gustav Metzger, 80, who came to England as a child refugee from Hitler. He appeared at the press preview, a small incendiary gnome, standing beside his work, Historic Photographs to Crawl Into Anschluss, Vienna March 1938, refusing to have his photo taken.

In 1961 he performed his "auto-destructive" acid/nylon painting on the South Bank, destroying nylon canvasses with acid as a protest against capitalism. He went on to smash glass for the same cause, although strangely he has never lived in a non-capitalist country. (There will be a reconstruction of Gustav Metzger's South Bank Demonstration of 1961, against war and capitalism, on Saturday 14th October, 3pm, Jubilee Gardens, South Bank Centre.)

When he tried to recreate his early work at Tate Britain in June 2004, a bag containing rubbish, due to be set on fire, was erroneously disposed by a proletarian cleaner. Metzger declared the piece ruined and created a new bag as a replacement.

Perhaps his most lasting impact has been his influence on Pete Townsend of The Who, who says Metzger's work inspired him to smash up his guitar on stage.

This yearning for a command economy utopia, tempered by childish anarchy, is even reflected in the title of the show, How to Improve the World, taken from a chandelier, flat screen, computer, and morse code unit installation by Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, created in 2003.

As the chandelier flashes, text bearing words from composer John Cage appear on the screen, in clear and morse code. The chandelier is a comment on the bad old days when only the bourgeoisie could afford proper lighting, morse is now obsolete, and we are in the age of the computer - pessimistic about everything really.

Peter Doig offers us Red Deer, or Who Killed Bambi? A comment on Chernobyl and so the belly-aching goes on, alleviated by meaningless yet intriguing abstractions, such as ex-Goldsmiths student Roger Hiorns work, Nunhead, from 2004. He has recovered old BMW engines and sprayed them in copper sulphate to make them look blue and sparkly.

Tucked away on the top floor we are allowed a few echoes of the sixty years we are supposed to be honouring. We know that the government no longer provides enough funding for the Arts Council to collect really major artists, so Freud's mature work is shown in photographs, killing two difficult birds at once, avoiding the problem of not being able to show any at all, whilst spitefully signalling that photography is now on a par with painting.

So we see photographs taken by Bruce Bernard in 1995, of Freud's work in progress and his models. Sue Tilley, "Big Sue" the obese job-centre clerk, looks very beautiful in her photo, Ingres style, with smooth, luminous flesh - something I must say the artist avoided in his painting, which made her look overwhelmingly lumpy and truncated.

We get black and white glimpses of Freud and Bacon together in bleak London streets, in the dim and distant past.

This rejection of history is very P.C., very new Labour, and very useful. Like the people who say that England was always multi-racial and there has been no real change, here we get an exhibition that claims the world of Emin, Hurst and Doig is the only reality we've ever had, and in case we are confused by memory, this present, which the Arts Council has helped to create, is the only place for a right-thinking person to be.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

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