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British Art Show 7: In The Days of the Comet

March 10, 2011

Kitty Hudson offers her thoughts on the Hayward’s showcase of British contemporary art.

It is impossible to view a survey show such as this as a single entity; the concepts, styles, methods and materials are too various to generalise. However, to promote the emergence of a discrete movement in British art is clearly not the aim here (despite the imposition of a supposedly inclusive and entirely meaningless subtitle). Instead, in displaying the vitality and variety of British contemporary art the Hayward’s British Art Show 7 is a successful, if haphazard, exhibition. From a personal point of view, several works stood out as memorable, and all for remarkably different reasons.

There is an appealing absurdity and a rich vein of fantasy in Charles Avery’s work which seems quintessentially British. Avery invents a parallel world in an epic pencil drawing that hints at the sordid and subversive with a salacious wink, not unlike the satirised Berlin of Georg Grosz. A fragment of this counterpart reality is shown trapped in a large vitrine, where Avery renders the idea of a voyeuristic one-armed snake somehow plausible.

Maaike Schoorel’s canvases at first appear minimal abstractions, off-white or flecked black. But figures gradually coalesce from this void into spectral entities, the optical trickery obliging one to linger before the works, straining to focus. More prolonged contemplation is required, thus ‘intensifying the process of perception’ as the exhibition guide proclaims. No other works captured me effectively enough to halt my progress through the gallery.

The Clock, a video work by Christian Marclay, has been acclaimed as a ‘stand-out hit’, coming straight from its debut at White Cube. And rightly so – a collage of popular film clips following minutes and hours of the day, it is so perfectly paced as to hypnotise. But aside from this, I felt that there was frankly too much video art in the exhibition. Does anyone actually watch the films from beginning to end? And if not how exactly are we to judge them – in terms of narrative or of aesthetic effect – if we never experience the work as a whole?

Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (pictured right) has been the major talking point of the show – even those uninterested in art willprobably have been confronted with the bizarre picture of a naked man staring at a naked flame on a park bench, which was leapt on by the press as a suitably controversial image. Yet this is art as publicity stunt, with no transformational or prophetic power. It does not cause me to think or question, or even merely stand in awe, and therefore seems to have very little claim to the status of ‘art’.

These are only a few subjective fragments; my residual feeling as regards the exhibition is one of mild interest mixed with scepticism – an inevitable reaction to a disparate show with little clear thematic thread.

British Art Show 7: In The Days of the Comet is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 17th April 2011

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