Review of History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain, Hayward Gallery, London

The Hayward Gallery has put on a brave set of displays curated by seven artists, who each look at elements of British history from 1945 to the present day. Running until 26 April, the central part of the exhibition is deeply political. This section of the show openly and proudly displays a fusion of art with contemporary politics. “Ulster is Protestant” and “We stand by the IRA” are just two statements Conrad Atkinson included in his piece Northern Ireland 1968 – May Day 1975 (1975-76). In 126 photographs and statements typewritten onto orange, white and green card, Atkinson takes the visitor on a journey through the “troubles” where Catholic and Protestant both uphold their political campaigns through graffiti on the streets of Northern Ireland. One anonymous statement that stands out is: “Northern Ireland has a problem for every solution”. This display highlights the idea that art should create questions, and ask the viewer to explore.

Returning to the first room of the exhibition, it then makes sense to have Simon Fujiwara at the entrance inviting the audience to examine the curatorial premise of British history and its relevance to the present day. The value of each object is considered in a museological sense thanks to the overarching presentation. As the pieces are shown on plinths – the display simultaneously inspires historical value in the objects, as well as giving the viewer the opportunity to contrast one work with another on its neighbouring stand. While displaying a large piece of coal from a mine in the Midlands, next to the dress made for actress Meryl Streep who played Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady – it doesn’t take much imagination to understand the contrast on offer for contemplation. Fujiwara invites the viewer to think of Britain’s departure from a material industry 40 years ago, to a present-day largely immaterial economy centred at London’s Canary Wharf.

Fusing technology with art isn’t seen uniquely in David Hockney’s iPad drawing The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire – 23 February (2011). Upstairs John Akomfrah’s curated space uses film to investigate intellectual, cultural and political transformations that have shaped Britain. His inclusion of Photomontage Today: Peter Kennard (1982), directed by Chris Rodriguez and Rod Stoneman references the Vietnamese war by the recording of Kennard slicing and sticking together an image of a soldier with a painter. While the viewer recognises an overt marriage between the poetic and the political, the film does invite further contemplation of the line between art films as political propaganda, rather than “pure art”.

What’s so refreshing about this show is the relevance of it. With the UK General Election less than 100 days away, how better than to use an exhibition space to show how art and politics are intrinsically linked.

History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain, until 26 April, Hayward Gallery, Southbank, London.

Asana Greenstreet

1. Chris Killip, Youth, Jarrow, 1979, courtesy the artist. Part of Hannah Starkey’s display.