Art for change
(Monday 30 October 2006)
EXHIBITION: How to Improve the World: 60 years of British Art
Hayward Gallery, London SE1
CHRISTINE LINDEY explores an exhibition of anti-war and anti-capitalist art with a social and political conscience.
On October 14, about 350 people witnessed a unique event.
Gustav Metzger‘s Auto-Destructive Art demonstration, first performed in 1961, was re-enacted on the South Bank. Just once.
Now a key work in art history, some of you may know it through documentation.
Nothing prepared us for the sheer visual and evocative power of this fiercely anti-war, anti-capitalist work.
Across three parallel tubular metal frames, each seven feet by 12.5 feet, were stretched three lengths of nylon fabric – white, red and black.
Looking sinister in protective clothing, including a gas mask, eyeshades and rubber gloves, a fellow artist carefully sprayed hydraulic acid in lace-like droplets across the fabrics.
First on the white, then the black and finally the red.
As they gradually disintegrated, the fabrics ripped and made coloured shapes evocative of modernist painting.
Miro, Arp and Pollock came to mind as red shapes appeared through white, then black ones through both colours.
But what we also saw was the savagery of destruction as the acid tore ever changing shapes into the fabric, suggesting the ripping of clothes, flesh or shreds of curtains flapping in bombed-out buildings.
Finally, all the fabric was destroyed. We stared at a ruin.
A protest against war but also defiance of the art market.
How could this work be bought? Its terrible beauty was born of its destruction.
If it had been responsible solely for commissioning this re-enactment, this exhibition would have been worth it.
But it also contains a multitude of well-chosen works from the Arts Council collection.
Formed in 1946 as part of the Labour government’s commitment to the promotion and encouragement of public appreciation of contemporary art, the collection has no permanent home, but circulates throughout the country.
This selection focuses on Metzger’s intention in relation to his 1961 performance We Wanted to Change the World.
Here, you can find the optimism and humanist warmth of the post-war years.
Inspired by the Soviet Constructivists, Barbara Hepworth explored the qualities of her materials and the shapes found in nature, but did not shy away from the allusions to the human body which arose from her abstractions.
Near to her Icon (1957) is Leon Kossoff’s Children’s Swimming Pool (1972).
With bold economy, he makes a painterly equivalent for the bustle and noise of communal pleasure.
Perhaps because the Arts Council collection is often reproduced or loaned to public exhibitions, many works seem to be old friends.
Here is Hockney’s We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) and Victor Burgin‘s Possession (1976).
Many works engage with political or social issues issues.
The Hockney speaks of homosexual love when it was still illegal.
Burgin’s poster attacked the fake values perpetuated by capitalism.
Subverting the visual language of advertising, he shows a glamorous couple embracing above the slogan “7 per cent of our population own 84 per cent of our wealth.”