There’s a real buzz around the Hayward Gallery’s Human Factor show – quite literally. A sculpture of a woman with a hive of bees sitting on her head is buzzing with activity on the outdoor terrace.
Standing a little close for comfort, I backed off this remarkable work which is one of many challenging pieces in the Hayward’s highly entertaining summer sculpture show.
There’s an unsettling feeling throughout the exhibition with figures such as Jeff Koon’s grizzly bear hugging a policeman, Yinka Shonibare’s headless ballerina brandishing a gun and Thomas Hirschhorn’s disturbing shop window dummies.
Spanning 25 years the Human Factor looks at contemporary artists who have used the human body as a means of exploring concerns about everything from consumerism to politics.
Step inside the first gallery and you’re confronted by two large wooden totems by Thomas Schutter. Look closer and you’ll see that they’re intent on taking large chunks out of each other’s bodies.
It’s one of the many works in the show with an underlying message. Here we have the brutality of man against his fellow man.
These battle-ravaged warriors also have a certain mythic or folkorish quality as if they’re from The Lord of the Rings.
Hanging from the ceiling above is Falling Woman, a female figure hanging upside down wearing what looks like a strait-jacket or draped robes.
This powerful work by German artist Paloma Varga Weisz could represent a torture victim.
But its two-sided face with different expressions provides a degree of ambiguity which makes this a fascinating piece.
Confronting the work at close quarters is slightly unnerving.
I couldn’t make out if the figure had been dismembered or was engaged in a strange ritual.
Over in a nearby corner, the ambiguity continues with a group of slumped figures lying in a heap.
This bundle of figures is equally disconcerting and puzzling.
Pawel Althamer’s work is called Untitled and we’re left to make our own minds up about what happened to them and why their faces are masked. Have they been kidnapped, murdered or imprisoned?
It’s unclear what to read into the work but it’s provocative and powerful.
So far so good. I was enjoying myself…
As I moved on to the upper gallery space, there were a few less dramatic works which I skipped past because one exceptional work had caught my eye nearby.
British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s Girl Ballerina is a fascinating study in femininity which takes its cue from Degas’ famous ballerina statue.
But this ballerina has a sting in her tail.
The headless figure wields a revolver behind her back as she poses in a typical ballet posture, all grace and perfection on the outside.
I love the way that the artist has subverted this archetypal feminine image.
In the same gallery, there were more explorations of femininity with a series of shop window dummies by Thomas Hirschhorn.
These were some of my favorite works in the show.
They pulled a mean punch. I loved the idea of the plastic mannequins being corroded and eaten away by society’s greed and rampant consumerism.
In the impressive work, Resistance-Subjecter, the mannequins have been taken over by jagged crystalline shapes.
Frank Benson’s thoroughly modern mannequin of the Human Statue – Jessie also speaks volumes about the representation of women in modern society with its faceless figure striking a perfect pose.
The model wears outsized sunglasses and there’s a sense of creating a modern-day version of a classical sculpture.
There are strong hints of Greco-Roman sculptures overlaid with present day technologies of wire frame modelling and robotic carving.
This bronze and polyurethane sculpture is a strange hybrid of classicism and hyperrealism.
Mannequins are a big theme across the two floors of the exhibition.
Downstairs you’ll find Isa Genzken’s android clubber decked out in outlandish clothing.
I wasn’t so struck by this work which was pretty average compared to the rest.
But it amused me when I read that the model is wearing clothes borrowed from Genzken’s own wardrobe.
What the hell must she look like when she goes out for a night on the town! To be fair, some of the items were fashioned from salvaged materials which the artist had assembled.
Apparently the choice of cheap or discarded materials reflects the artist’s concern with environmental issues and a horror and fascination with the excesses of contemporary urban life.
It didn’t really work for me but Ryan Gander’s series of bronze sculptures featuring the escaped figure of Degas’ ballerina (yes, her again) did engage me.
These pieces were rather good.
Legend has it that the artist first took his subject off her plinth for a cigarette break!
He then created further episodes in her rebellious ‘after life’ set in an art gallery.
As the sequence progresses, the ballerina shows her increasing independence and a lack of respect for art institutions.
My favourite work is a statue the ballerina staring at new horizons from a gallery window at the great wild world beyond the institution’s doors.
This is a kind of modern feminist version of the ballerina who has thrown off her shackles and escaped from being an object on a plinth.
The reflection of the gallery behind her adds to the sense of her claustrophobic life before her run for freedom.
This exhibition boasts many images of women from hyper-realistic nudes courtesy of Paul McCarthy to Ugo Rondinone’s classical-style statues.
The three life-sized nude casts of Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (T.G. Awake) are super-real replicas of an actress sitting in a variety of postures on top of glass-topped trestle tables.
Some of the works are almost gynecological in their attention to detail, provoking a slightly embarrassed reaction from some British tourists at the show.
These lovely looking works are made using life-casts in what the artist calls a desire to connect with “a fear of the virtual, the fear of being unable to discern a real human from a mannequin”.
Equally impressive are Ugo Rondinone’s classic-style series of nudes. These life-size figures are cast in wax from the bodies of young dancers.
Placed directly on the floor, the seated nudes are depicted with eyes closed, in a state of peaceful retreat and introversion.
Their placement around the edges of the gallery creates a sense of being inside the dancers’ studio. It’s as if we’ve eavesdropped on them during their break.
They are frozen, timeless figures. It’s almost like we’ve burst in on a frozen performance and the floor as a stage.
Figure it out
Just in case you think that the male body has been missed out, you’ll be pleased to hear that the show has plenty of studies of masculinity.
Frank Benson’s Human Statue of a hyper-realistic toned male figure leaps out as you enter the upper galleries.
I like its perfect Adonis-like classical style with a modern twist.
In a similar vein is one of the best pieces in the show – an old favorite by British artist Mark Wallinger.
You’ll remember Ecce Homo from its appearance on the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Now there’s a chance to see it at close quarters with its golden crown of thorns.
There’s something deceptively simple yet beautiful about this white marbelized statue.
When Wallinger made this work, acts of genocide in Bosnia were very much in his mind.
According to the artist, Christ’s head is shorn because “that’s the kind of humiliation they doled out during ethnic cleansing – it’s what the Nazis did to the Jews”.
There’s no denying that this is a powerful work when confronted close-up.
The statue is just as resonant today, if not more so, with the current civil conflicts going on in Syria and Iraq.
Also with a political theme are two powerful and compelling works by Maurizio Cattelan.
Cattelan’s work is concerned with deception and deceptive appearances. Nothing is quite what it seems in his work.
His image of Hitler certainly deceived me as I approached it from behind, thinking it was a man praying.
As I moved around, I was shocked to see it was Adolph Hitler.
I wasn’t sure if Hitler was supposed to be praying for redemption or if he was in a deep state of contemplation.
Another of his works – a life-size effigy of President John F. Kennedy lying in state – also plays with your mind.
Apparently Cattelan once dealt with real corpses when he worked in a morgue and he seems to have a fascination with mortality.
Perhaps these works have something to do with the ongoing fame and notoriety of these political figureheads in the media?
There’s plenty of figuring out to be done at this exhibition which is one of the things that makes it so intriguing.
A strange work called Skinny Sunrise by Urs Fisher featuring a skeleton on a park bench also puzzled the punters. This work also uses the theme of mortality but twists it in a playful way.
Now this all brings me back to those buzzing bees I mentioned earlier.
Pierre Huyghe’s Liegender Frauenakt features a reclining female nude. The basis of the work is an existing sculpture that has undergone a transformation and evolution.
The original bronze sculpture, a classical work by the 20th Century Swiss sculptor Max Weber, has had a swarming beehive installed on its head.
Pierre Huyghe has created a surreal hybrid between a man-made creature and a living organism. This strange metamorphosis is Kafkaesque.
It’s one of the most diverting works in the exhibition – especially when the bees break loose from their subject!
Elsewhere, there are a few ordinary works in the Human Factor show. But overall this is a dramatic and entertaining exhibition with a lot of compelling and provocative sculptures.
It certainly had me buzzing!
Tammy’s top tips – The Human Factor
The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture is on at Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London until 7 September 2014. Tickets are £10.90 for adults (concessions are available).
The nearest Tube station is Waterloo. Buses along Waterloo Bridge also stop next to the Hayward Gallery.
Also located nearby are Somerset House, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery – if you’re looking to combine this show with another exhibition.
Credits – Photos are courtesy of Hayward Gallery, the artists and galleries as credited above.