Having seen copious pictures of Anthea Hamilton’s “butt” sculpture and other increasingly iconic images from this year’s Turner Prize across various arts press, social media and mainstream news, this week I cycled down Embankment to Tate Britain were the annual prize is exhibited. This years’ four finalists reflect the diversity, humour and talent within the British contemporary art world. Opening with Helen Marten’s installations where everyday objects are gathered together in a collage-like fashion, putting familiar objects in unfamiliar contexts and creating a manufactured archaeological site where visitors are encouraged to try and make sense of what is in front of them. Around the next corner you are greeted by Anthea Hamilton’s large-scale bum crack, formally titled ‘Project for a Door (After Gaetano Pesce)’ and I only wish it came to fruition as an entrance for a New York apartment block, alongside her ‘Brick Suit’ set against a backdrop of faux brick wallpaper. The next gallery space hosts Josephine Pryde’s photographic series coupled with a model of a Class 66 diesel locomotive and train-track complete with tags by various graffiti artists from the cities her exhibition has been display at in the past. Her ‘Hands Fur Mich’ photographs are akin to advertising images, focussing on females’ hands holding mobile phones, tablets, ipads and other technology that society is becoming increasingly reliant on. The final gallery is dedicated to Michael Dean’s sculptural works and his compelling ‘United Kingdom poverty line for two adults and two children’ installation comprising £20,436 in pennies across the gallery floor (the amount the UK government state as the minimum a family need to survive for a year). During installation Dean removed one penny enabling visitors to tangibly visualise what is below the poverty line, creating a powerful close to this years’ exhibition. I left feeling torn between two artists and eager to hear who is announced as 2016’s winner on 5th December.
The palpable scent of oranges and a reconstruction of Roelof Louw’s 1967 ‘Soul City’ (A Pyramid of Oranges) sculpture opens Tate Britain’s Conceptual Art in Britain exhibition. This sculpture not only immediately engages visitors’ senses, but also acts a microcosm for the ideas behind conceptual art as a whole; whilst some visitors looked quizzically at the pyramid and others played an active role in changing the molecular form of the sculpture by taking an orange. All of the artworks on display were created between 1964, the year Harold Wilson’s first Labour government was elected, and 1979 when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives gained power – yet despite nods to contemporary politics in certain works the exhibition failed to offer much explanation or context of the era these pieces were created. Noteworthy exceptions to this do appear in the final gallery with Victor Burgin’s ‘Lei-Feng’ which repeats a Vogue advert nine times with juxtaposed added captions relating to the ideological training of a Chinese soldier under Mao, and Conrad Atkinson’s photographs on the troubles in Northern Ireland. Outside that, the exhibitions’ strength for me lied in its ability to amuse, as I laughed out loud on more than one occasion! Keith Arnatt’s series of eleven black and white photographs entitled ‘Art as an Act of Retraction’ shows the artist with pieces of printed card crumpled in his mouth – symbolically almost eating his own words. Likewise Michael Craig Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ simply displays as a glass of water on a glass shelf alongside a series of questions and answers written by the artist in which he maintains that this particular glass of water has transformed into an oak tree with wonderfully hilarious conviction.
Three things struck me at Tate Britain’s current Barbara Hepworth exhibition ‘Sculpture for a Modern World’ – 1. Her relationship with the landscape and natures’ influence on her work, 2. Her consistent control over her self-image, and 3. Her commissions filling urban landscapes today. In each of the seven exhibition rooms (carving, studio, international modernism, equilibrium, staging sculpture, guarea tropical hardwood and pavilion) Hepworth’s relationship with nature and particularly the seascape of St Ives in Cornwall is palpable, never more so than in room five where a film entitled ‘Figures in Landscape’ describes the sea hollowing out rocks, beautifully echoing Hepworth’s hollowing out of wood and stone in her sculptures. Likewise the exhibition highlights Hepworth’s constant manipulation of how she and her pieces were portrayed to the public, from early on in her career when she carefully organised photo albums of herself and her pieces in her studio with partner and fellow artist Ben Nicholson, to her close interest in how she was represented in the media as her recognition grew, and by the 1950’s her staging of sculptures and creating collages of false backdrops for her pieces. Finally I was surprised to learn how much her art fills the urban landscape, for example her ‘Winged Figure’ erected on the side of the John Lewis building on London’s Oxford Street in 1963 which I walk pass most days oblivious. I appreciated how the exhibition’s loosely chronological approach allows visitors to follow the evolution of Hepworth’s style and her various spiritual, political and personal influences. I also liked that it celebrates the raw materials themselves; tactile marble, lapis lazuli, alabaster, onyx, anhydrite, ironstone, hoptonwood stone, fossil stone, teak, elm, plane, Burmese wood, African blackwood, and finally bronze (a material little used until the end of Hepworth’s career) are all displayed to great effect.