The Human Factor exhibition review: Investigating the body politic at the Hayward Gallery

A new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery exploring the development of figurative sculpture over the past 25 years shocks, repels and amuses in equal measure

A young ballerina stands primly with her hands behind her back, pointing her toes. She is a headless mannequin, a sculpture by the artist Yinka Shonibare. She seems docile, but she is not. When you walk around her, you find that she is hiding a huge gun behind her back.

The work is alarming, darkly funny, mysterious – we do not know what has inspired her murderous rage. A clue lies in the bright, African-print of her tutu – one of Shonibare’s themes is colonialism and his ballerina is possibly cast as a revolutionary. Her combination of girlishness and calculated violence is compelling, and sets the tone for The Human Factor, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, which explores figurative sculpture over the past 25 years.

This ancient medium, which once celebrated the heroic ideal of Greek gods and athletes, is reimagined by 25 international artists. They explore both the roots of the medium and its place in the contemporary world, which inevitably means themes of alienation, consumerism and despair. Overall, the exhibition is a joy with trompe-l’oeil shocks that make you think, rather than roll your eyes. I enjoyed it a lot.

 

 

 

Shonibare’s work is modelled on Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1880-1), a wax sculpture of a ballerina, which the artist adorned with human hair. This was shocking at the time – it combined the viscerally real with the blatantly fake. Many of these works similarly play on our sense of the uncanny.

The curators have included another work based on Degas’ ballerina – Ryan Gander’s I don’t blame you, or When we made love you used to cry and I love you like the stars above and I’ll love you ‘till I die (2008). This is a ridiculously long-winded title; the work itself is succinct. At first glance, there appears to be nothing but an empty white plinth. Walking around it, however, you discover a small, doll-size cast bronze sculpture of a ballerina, her tutu removed, her pumps still on, leaning against the plinth and smoking a cigarette.

This made me laugh – the suggestion is that Degas’ original has spent nearly 150 years standing primly on display and deserves a well-earned fag break. She is taking some time out from being an object and enjoying a moment of private contemplation. She is hiding from the viewer – the work is absurdist though makes a point.

The solidity and grandeur of sculpture has historically been used to immortalise the values of a culture – what can sculpture immortalise now? Where once statues of Aphrodite, goddess of love, celebrated the maternal, nurturing, sumptuous qualities of female flesh, today the most common “sculpture” of the female figure that we are likely to see is the mannequin in the high-street shop window.

The female form is bound up with consumerism and desire in the contemporary world; it is most often used to sell us something that we are supposed to want. The spectre of the synthetic female nude is explored most strikingly by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, whose two installations are some of the most powerful works in the exhibition.

4 Women (2008) consists of four naked mannequins in a glass showcase, their long fake black hair hanging down, their faces scornful and vacant. The numbers one to four are taped to their heads, which gives the impression of a beauty pageant, albeit nightmarish.

The work is made extraordinary by two things: the first is a viscous, bubbling royal-blue substance in which the mannequins are submerged up to their knees. It appears to be made of the kind of foam found in cheap sofas. The blue stuff crawls up their bodies and seems to emanate out of each of their right nipples. This is a horrible twist on the classical ideal of the nurturing mother. It provokes disgust.

The second detail is the series of four photographs taped to the front of the showcase; each is similarly numbered one to four, which suggests a correlation to the mannequins. Each shows a bloodied corpse, seemingly the result of warfare, sourced by Hirschhorn from the internet.

Feeling blue: video still from Paul McCarthy’s ‘T.G. Elyse’ (2011) Feeling blue: video still from Paul McCarthy’s ‘T.G. Elyse’ (2011)

While the blue substance seems to be a visual manifestation of psychosis, a kind of horror of the mind, the photographs show real violence. The link between the two is oblique, but there is a logic. The work evokes the disparate though connected parts of modern capitalism: shopping, war, pornography. It is poetic  and challenging.

My main criticism of this exhibition is that it relies too heavily on the kind of critique of modernity (or post-post-modernity) that Hirschhorn does very well. Elsewhere, the theme shades into kitsch irony that just seems empty. The paralysed, alienated, hyper-real figure – often a mannequin – recurs too often.

There is John Miller’s coltish boy mannequin in a diamond-patterned playsuit, his foot – inexplicably – stuck in a pile of manure; Frank Benson’s silver spray-painted life-like nude male, as well as his female couture model in 1980s sunglasses. All of these figures look as though they belong in Studio 54; there is an ambience of nostalgic disco.

Like the ripped and coiffed poseurs of the ancient world, these sculptures often appear homoerotic. The classical ideal of beauty sought harmony in the perfect proportions of the human form, and these express our modern equivalent – the aspirational glamour of hipsterdom, wan thinness and youth. I’m not sure if they are critiquing modern consumerism, or simply celebrating it – which is no doubt the point.

The king of such wilfully lurid 1980s kitsch is Jeff Koons. His large sculpture, Bear and Policeman (1988), is displayed here: it is intended to look like a cheap trinket, but in fact was made out of polychromed wood, using a process which originated with sculptors of religious works in medieval Europe. Koons has always delighted in sacrilege.

‘Now’ (2004) by Maurizio Cattelan ‘Now’ (2004) by Maurizio Cattelan

The sculpture consists of a policeman staring up – adoringly? – into the eyes of a giant cartoon bear, who has seized the policeman’s whistle and seems about to blow it. Koons has described the work – one of his Banality series – as depicting “a man being sexually toyed with”. The work is extravagantly weird, uncomfortable, clammy. I usually hate Koons’ work, but it is strangely affecting.

Far more interesting, though, is the dialogue that the curators have staged between the works of Rebecca Warren and Paul McCarthy. A small room is filled with four of Warren’s sculptures: each is a mammoth and monstrous rendition of the female body, headless and bulging with nipples that protrude like weapons. The aggressive sexuality of these near-abstract figures is reinforced by their rough, clay-like appearance. In fact, many are cast in bronze. They seem only partly formed, bearing the rough marks of the sculptor’s hands.

If the sculptor had been a man, these works would seem misogynistic. The fact they were made by a woman determines much of their meaning and resonance for me. They become questions, rather than reiterations of the age-old dynamic between male artist and female nude subject.

By contrast, McCarthy’s three platinum silicone sculptures of the actress Elyse Popper are eerily realistic – scientific in their rigor. She is shown in slightly different poses, sitting naked on top of what may be a gynaecologist’s table; her legs are open and her flesh is delineated through special effects. The blue veins beneath her skin are visible; so too are the traces of her recently removed nail-polish, and, most strikingly, the anatomical detail of her vagina.

She appears serene, perhaps waiting. She is beautiful and somehow does not seem objectified, despite the merciless precision with which she has been made. There is grace in her stillness, which either points to the total submission of the muse under the gaze of the artist, or a frankness which is progressive. Here the human body is shown honestly – which of course is an illusion. 

‘The Human Factor’, Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (020 7960 4200; southbankcentre.co.uk) 17 June to 7 September

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most