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Material Culture: The Object in British Art of the '80s and '90s; Hayward Gallery, London, England
Katerina Gregos

Richard Wentworth, tract (from boost to wham), 1993 book with sweet wrappers, 8.5 x 24.5 x 10 cm

"Material Culture: The Object in British Art of the '80s and '90s" examines a recurring theme, the status of the object and its re-appropriation in art, an issue obviously confined neither to British art, nor to art of the last two decades. The object--whether found or purposely made--has been at the core of a diversity of art forms, from pure sculpture and mixed media installation to, less likely, some types of performance. This justifies the inclusion in this show of radically different types of work which, in turn, reflect the constantly changing nature of object-based art. Some works included in the exhibition result from the manipulation of objets trouvés and raw materials, and have been specially collected, arranged, transformed, or modified, while others are specially manufactured. All works act primarily as metaphors and signifiers of the culture, values and history of our society. The legacy of Duchamp is still strong, although most artists now do not leave the initial object unaltered, but subvert its inherent identity, or use it instead as a point of departure, a mode of inquiry in which the boundaries between the real and the artificial or imaginative are blurred but never entirely erased.

Over 70 artworks by 45 British artists working from the late '70s to the present day are displayed, not according to chronology or pre-existing stylistic categories, but on the basis of questioning the status of the object itself. As a result, "Material Culture" is more of a dialogue between artists of different age groups around a single subject which has continuously been investigated from different angles.

Included are the group of British sculptors that came into prominence in the '80s (Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Bill Woodrow, Anish Kapoor) as well as many of the usual suspects of the younger generation. In this sense, the exhibition attempted and succeeded in showing the continuities and differences between these two distinct generations. In the late '70s, artists like Cragg and Woodrow began searching for materials in trash cans. Included in the show are seminal works such as Cragg's spectrum, a collection of plastic rubbish laid out in rectangular format on the floor according to the colors of the rainbow, a poetic reordering of banal references from the urban environment. Similarly, Bill Woodrow's twin tub with guitar is also the result of searching for discarded domestic utensils and transforming them into hybrid sculptural objects. It is especially refreshing to see such informal, D.I.Y. works co-existing with sharper, cooler, neo-Minimalist work of younger artists such as Damien Hirst. His installation the lovers is a cabinet containing jars of cow parts, a work at once chilling and clinical but also oddly beautiful. On the other hand, Rachel Whiteread's resin cast of the space underneath a table is more akin to "traditional" sculpture.

Overall, denial of function is a recurring theme. Marcus Taylor's seductive perspex sculptures mimic the design of refrigerators but are inaccessible and dysfunctional. Ceal Floyer's light switch appears more real than real, but is in fact a slide projection of the object rather than the object itself, an exercise which immediately raises questions about materiality and immateriality, truth and illusion.

Other artists demonstrate how ordinary utilitarian or household objects can be transformed into potent metaphors. Gavin Turk's pimp, a gleaming black metal container which looks like a trash can, although empty, is an appropriate emblem of a society bent on quick consumption. Similarly, in no way iii, Mona Hatoum has filled the holes of a colander with nuts and bolts, turning a mundane kitchen utensil into a threatening, offensive weapon with overt political connotations.

Other interweaving issues that are raised are those of the human body and mortality. Perhaps the most evocative work in the show is Christine Borland's from life, a series of 21 glass panels inserted high on the gallery walls. On each panel, Borland placed a group of human bones, sprinkled them with dust, and then removed them, leaving the negative imprint and thus conveying the fragility and vulnerability of mankind through absence rather than presence.

As is common in such large group shows, not all the work is of equal quality or interest. Overall, however, "Material Culture" was stimulating, refreshing, and highly enjoyable. Despite having no thematic coherence, despite stylistic diversities, despite generational gaps, this show magically hangs together, encouraging viewers to make fresh connections between familiar and newer works. In addition, the loose, yet clear display of the work permitted one to wander around freely without being tied down by chronological or linear constraints. The curators (Greg Hilty and Michael Archer) have intelligently selected a group of artists who consistently manage to reinvent the object, transforming the mundane and the ordinary into the unlikely, the eccentric, and the mysterious.

Katerina Gregos

Athens, Greece

1997

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