Friday 5th April, 2019
I’m not all about the music. Well, I am mainly about the music. But I also love photography and art and architecture. When I can combine them with say a photography and art exhibition in a Brutalist concrete art gallery I am a very happy bunny indeed.
I’ve not been to the Hayward in many a year, but it has long been a place of treasured memories and special experiences. The first time I visited I was a child of 9 and was taken to see the Rodin exhibition by my Dad. I have vivid and goosebump filled memories of falling in love with “the lady with the pretty hair” sculpture that day. I was firmly told off for stroking the marble and to this day have to hold my hands behind my back when viewing Rodin’s work as the urge to touch it, to feel the smooth, delicious marble under my fingers, to trace the curves, is too overwhelming to resist. Many years later, as an adult, I went to Musee Rodin in Paris to find my lady with the flowing hair and despite it being displayed in a glass box (it was uncovered and on the floor, no plinth at the Hayward), it retained the same emotional power for me all those years later. The 1986 Rodin exhibition also included the Gates of Hell, which I remember being awed by. It was displayed, I think, against the wall of the stairwell, so that you could climb up to view the top section up close. The scale of it overwhelmed me then, and still did 20 years later when I saw it again. As a child I knew it was frightening without knowing why, I was mesmerised by the darkness and hugeness of it.
Ever since that formative experience I have loved sculpture, give me a Barbara Hepworth, a Henry Moore, a Rodin and I am in heaven. A Donatello and I’ll be in raptures. The power of stone, wood and marble to move me astonishes and astounds me even now. There is a wooden Mary Magdalene by Donatello in Florence that is the ugliest yet most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, more than 500 years old, carved in wood. I wept viewing it. Some of his marbles are so piercing that I can’t look at them, the power of emotion they hold is too great.
1996 was the next time I visited the Hayward, for Spellbound, an exhibition exploring the relationship between art and film. Multi media, experimental and including a 24 hour super slow mo version of Pyscho it wasn’t for the faint of heart. I was 19, living away from home for the first time and studying film (I wanted to be a writer/director back then). It was the era of the YBA’s and Britpop and London had a charged atmosphere. There was a sense of hope and of change. It was an exciting time to be young, or perhaps to be young is an exciting time. It would have been my first encounter with Damien Hirst and Steve McQueen. There was a room full of filing cabinets, floor to ceiling, created by Terry Gilliam as part of his artistic response to his own film 12 Monkey’s. There was an animated short about the life of a popcorn kernel. It was playful and fun and blurred the edges between art and film. I felt exhilarated and alive visiting it.
The Hayward is part of the South Bank Centre, built for the Festival of Britain in post war London. Designed to be cutting edge, modern, futuristic and for the people. It is a Brutalist monument and love song to concrete. It was to be a place of high culture for the people, a National Theatre, an art gallery, a concert hall, it must have been quite an exciting place to be in the 50’s and 60’s. It didn’t stay that way, though. The maze like passageways and underground thoroughfares became a cardboard city for the homeless. Places and spaces for the disaffected and the forgotten. It was a grimy and scuzzy place, edgy, unsafe and not somewhere I felt happy. To get to the NFT or the Hayward you had to run a gauntlet it seemed of drunken men and rivers of urine. Then came gentrification. Now the South Bank is teeming with life, cafes and tourists and I still find the change jarring. I may not have to worry about getting piss on my shoes anymore, but where have all those people gone? They don’t vanish, they simply move. To where? And why should we end up with another chain restaurant or overpriced wine bar? Wasn’t the South Bank supposed to be for all the people? Not just the white, chattering middle classes who can afford the theatre, darling? Where are the ordinary people? The ones like me. London has always been a melting pot, the Thames, sitting right beside all this, bringing in people from all over the world. That’s my London, the one into which I was born and still partly belong. The London of the educated working class who read Pinter as well as the Daily Mirror. It must still exist and there must be more people like me. Where have we all gone?
I’ve wondered. The Hayward is a place of precious memories was my point. And for reasons I can’t really explain I really love Modernist, Brutalist concrete buildings like this one. They soothe me. There is something in the abject coldness of them, the harsh lines and angles, that I just love. To run my hands along smooth and cold concrete, feeling its seeming uniformity and strength, makes my blood run cold and yet I like it. Look closely at the pillars, you will see that they aren’t all the same, each one taking on the form of the wood used to press and pour it. There are grains and knots and threads, each is unique. The crushed stones poured in to create that strength aren’t uniform either, nor are they smooth where they are exposed. There is a hidden underbelly of life teeming away inside that concrete; you just have to look more closely to find it. I can feel the hope and youth that went into designing and building these structures. They were new, brand new, and exciting, and you have to admire the bravado of that if nothing else. They were experimental and I love that about them. Yes, poorly lit, difficult to navigate if you have a pram/wheelchair/small child in tow but those aren’t problems unique to Modernism, they existed before and after this movement of architecture. To blame the architects and town planners for the social ills that befell some of these buildings is unfair. Poverty, unemployment, economic crashes and the decimation of industry and community weren’t caused by Brutalism alone. I am glad that some of these buildings have been accepted as historically important and that there has been a reappraisal of sorts of this style. Once Victorian buildings were called slums and torn down, now they are highly prized buildings. Things change and we must adapt around them, not simply destroy and rebuild.
All of which led me to walking through the doors of Hayward on Friday morning. I went predominately to see the Diane Arbus exhibition, a photographer mostly overlooked in her lifetime, who has fascinated me for years. Street photography is a style that requires great patience, concentration and confidence as well as an unusual eye. It is not a style I can pull off. It is one Arbus was exceptional at. These were her early works, and include a diverse cross-section of life. People watching and people recording is what she did and she did it brilliantly. Among the ones I loved most were the ones of children crossing, or waiting to cross the street. The innocence and confusion captured in each case perfectly. Each subject knew they were being photographed, Arbus had to be close enough to each subject to take the shot, but mostly they aren’t posed. They are real, raw, human reactions to seeing a camera (a ubiquitous sight now, but not then) and the expressions challenge both the photographer and the viewer. There is something powerful going on in the relationship between being seen and seeing. A tension inherent in photography as an art form (if you consider it one, which I do).
I have to praise the team who curated this exhibition. It was sensitively and interestingly hung. The pillars and columns gave a feeling of discovery, it felt like being in a concrete forest with the tress each containing an image. Each small enough to make viewing them an intimate experience, you had to get close, but also at a height I could see them at. So often I am left frustrated by galleries that hang too high, this was perfect. The lighting angles were also spot on, no annoying reflections on the glass, so that each photograph could really be savoured and enjoyed. With no definitive direction or flow either there was the freedom to wander, explore, double back and weave in and out. This really added to my enjoyment and cleverly mirrored the way Arbus would have weaved in and out of the New York streets with her camera to capture these images.
I knew there was another exhibition running in the Hayward but that was all. I had gone for the Diane Arbus part and as it was to be a busy day I didn’t know if there would be time to enjoy Kader Attia’s work as well. As it turns out there was and of that I am very glad. Attia isn’t an artist I had heard of before and this is his first major solo exhibition in the UK. It is well worth a look, either in addition or as a stand apart from the Arbus. I can see why putting them together made sense, they both deal in identity, ways of looking and of being seen, in who gets to make those decisions and why. Working across a mixture of mediums in both grand and intimate styles Attia poses questions and provokes emotional responses to questions about who we are while exposing the power dynamics at play within society. That might sound very grand and academic, and I suppose it is, but I found the work to be highly accessible and interesting. It spoke to me about the tensions I carry internally about identity and visibility (the women who say becoming invisible in middle age is a super power are privileged to have ever been visible in the first place) as well as making me question the deep rooted colonial racism still prevalent in our society. All of the Museum of Emotion is interesting and challenging but there were parts that really stood out for me. The shock of entering room 3, almost pitch black, from the brightly lit previous room, took some adjustment, and there are only 2 works to see. Both involving mirrors. Both asking questions about self identity, about being ‘broken’, about who we are, how we present, are there realities and facades? or are we all all of things all of the time? I found this pair of works quite powerful and spent a long time with the second one, a globe of sewn mirrored patches reminiscent of a planet orbiting through space. The reflected shadows as important as the reflected lights. The knot work tying it all together tightly. The tension held just so. It made me ask myself a lot of questions and it made me feel things at the same time. That is the job of art.
Room 5 is a huge installation piece and it really did make me think. About disability, about visibility, about scarring (physical and metaphorical), about history and heritage, about who makes art, for whom and why. About colonialism, about racism, about how it is impossible to divorce the personal from the political and yet how we are bound by shared experience at all times. The sculpted busts were commissioned from Carerra and Senegal. Deliberate choices. Italy, birthplace of the Renaissance and what we consider High Art and West Africa, where slavery ripped apart the cultural heritage of a Continent as well as the lives of millions. A metaphorical tear, a stain on humanity’s hands centuries later, as well as the physical tearing of every man, woman and child forcibly removed from their homes, beaten, raped and murdered. Juxtaposed with images of First World War soldiers who were scarred by mortar shells, gases and bombs. That war, born partly of colonial wars, of German, British and Belgian actions in Africa. Those soldiers fighting for King and Country in foreign fields, often ordinary working men who had little choice and no real idea what they were fighting for. And although I felt all of that, I also felt, as a disabled white woman, that these conversations concerned me. My scars aren’t visible, I am not visible (getting older dims you in the eyes of society). The questions raised were about grand themes, historical and complex, yet they were also personal, about who I am now. It was quite an intense experience!
Kader Attia may not have been an artist I had heard of before entering this exhibition but he is an artist I will look for again.