There is an element of predictability hanging over Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition, The Human Factor, which is difficult to shake. Purporting to be the first comprehensive survey in the UK exploring the ‘human figure’ in contemporary sculpture, the gallery has amassed a collection of work from 25 international artists that spans the past 25 years, featuring an impressive cast of big names to fill both floors of the space during the summer season. As one might reasonably expect, notions of human fragility, death and impermanence as well as explorations of gender and politics are all central to many of the works, as well as a wide variety of materials and forms of representation.
What is striking is not so much an overarching narrative but rather the power of many of the individual works to stand out on their own within the show. If anything, it’s the sheer number of works which takes away from the overall effect of the exhibition. Less works in the same sized (or possibly a slightly smaller) space may well have served the pieces better. As a result, the highlights I have pulled out are really only a small window into what feels like a massive body of work.
Thomas Hirschhon’s Resistance-Subjecter, 2011, is a useful starting point. Featuring eight hollowed out shop mannequins, the artist has used crystals, tape and foil to fashion small colonies of a mineral like substance which appears to have taken root within the bodies themselves. The affect is unnerving, and it was almost physically uncomfortable to look at the semi-obliterated figures. The work raises all sorts of issues that other works in the exhibition touch on, from notions of human essence and purity to the external forces which work against or upon the human body. I particularly like the way Hirschhorn’s work here emphasises the idea of nature as a powerful and permanent force in contrast to the ultimately mortal and impermanent human form (think ‘Ozymandias by Shelley), but by using only female mannequins the artist also hints at the forces levelled at women in a vain and beauty obsessed society.
Next to Hirschhorn’s work sits Yinka Shonibare MBE’s sculpture Girl Ballerina, 2007, which beautifully turns the tables on the tradition of over admiring young men trying to prey on young ballerinas outside Paris’ opera house. Featuring a short, headless female mannequin, clothed in the artist’s trademark “African” fabric, the figure’s demure pose and objectified, faceless anonymity are offset by the old-fashioned pistol it holds behind its back, ready to fight off any advancing threat.
Completing this strong triumvirate of works, is Georg Herold’s large scale Blühendes Leben (‘Life in full bloom’), 2009, where the artist combined wooden beams, available at any hardware store, with a wet canvas that shrinks when it dries. The resulting contortion leaves behind an exaggeratedly wanton and provocative sculpture which the artist describes as a cynical criticism of the ‘reclining nude’ in its many forms. Herold’s over the top critique of the exploitation of the female form is made all the more pointed by the figure’s bright pink colouring.
All three of these works sit in a sort of triangle within one of the ground floor spaces, and create a startlingly visceral corner of the exhibition as a whole, even amongst other strong works nearby. It’s moments like these within the gallery which cut through any misgivings one might have about the space or the artists on show and speak directly to the viewer, though it’s by no means the only strong moment.
Other highlights from the exhibition include several works from Huma Bhabha. Her sculptures here provide a strong critique of Western notions of ‘The East,’ while simultaneously incorporating found materials which have complex, multifaceted histories of their own that further subvert these simplistic hierarchies. The Orientalist, 2007, began with a chair which resembled those used to portray seated Egyptian gods, and is described by the artist as ‘monstrous’ in response to what she sees as the destructive ideology of ‘Orientalism’ (itself a clumsy Western catch-all for a vast and complex collection of regions and ideas). Borne Darkly, 2008, is equally powerful; another piece which simultaneously plays off of the destructive ideology of Western imperialism while raging against it.
Paloma Varga Weisz’s work, Lying Man, 2014 is a further standout, not least because it addresses more universal questions of the human body and form. The work is a male nude effectively cut into sections as a result of the casting process. The artist elected not to connect the different sections upon completion, instead leaving them lying on the ground like the gruesome scene of a violent murder or execution. Weisz describes the work in the accompanying gallery text as being “more about a destructed soul than a dissected body,” and it’s this broader questioning of the human form which makes the work more than just an expression of physical and temporal fragility and impermanence.
Ultimately the above serves only as a small glimpse into what is actually a massive collection of works. By creating such a broad foundation upon which to base the show, the curator has managed to put forward a comprehensive but sometimes unwieldy exhibition of impressive works that will no doubt serve as a major draw card to the gallery during the busy summer period. Fortunately, viewers will be pleasantly surprised by the consistent quality, if not necessarily the concerns, of the works on show.
By Will Gresson
‘The Human Factor’ runs until September 7, 2014.