The day I visited the Human Factor at the Hayward Gallery the exhibition seemed remarkably empty, probably something to do with the lovely weather outside, but the Photo Police were out in force. There was at least one attendant in every room and they had nothing better to do than to keep tabs on me, so I didn’t manage to sneak a single shot. (The ones you see here are gleaned from around the internet. ) I always prefer to take my own if I can manage it and the shot I wanted to get was of one of them standing uniformed and motionless, looking for all he world like an exhibit.
According to the Hayward blurb, the Human Factor shows how artists over the past 25 years have reinvented figurative sculpture. If the exhibition had been held fifty years ago contemporary would have largely meant semi-abstract, so the attendants would not have passed muster, but, today, they would have been well in keeping. At least half, probably more, of the sculptors participating were heading towards the realistic end of the reality/non-reality axis.
The effect of this was inexplicably strange because of course realism takes many forms and the jump from one artist to another, somewhat disconcertingly, made me feel as if I were going round a human zoo. Perhaps this was because the works were in such close proximity to each other; perhaps it was because the majority were roughly around human size; or because there was neither the relief of space, nor different kinds of work, to provide mental or physical distance.
A head and shoulders above the others, so as to speak, on the realism front were the sculptures by the American artist, Paul McCathy. Normally I don’ t much care for McCarthy’s work. It was he who made the automated sculptures of George Bush humping a pig and the enormous inflatable dog turd. My dislike is not because they are shocking but because making them actually seems rather a waste of time – a cartoon, I’ve always felt, would serve as well.
In That Girl at least he has moved away from the grotesque. The work comprises three separate likeness of a young and beautiful woman, in real life actress Elyse Poppers, sitting naked and of course because it is McCathy open legged. The works are so lifelike that one’s first impulse is to adopt the strategy of the unsuspecting visitor finding themselves on a nudist beach or in a communal changing room and to concentrate on her face for fear of inappropriately looking at the body. This effect is important because you are immediately placed in collusion with the artist as a voyeur. Yet at the same time, not for one second do you think that they are real. So this is a work about the nature of reality. You could see everything but know nothing about her.
Though McCarthy formed the concept, it was clear from the accompanying video that showed exactly how the three sculptures were made, that it was very much a team effort. The fabricators, all men, and there appeared to be about six of them, are normally employed making props for the film industry. What made the work exceptional and actually quite moving, when it could have appeared tawdry and exploitative, was the dignity of Poppers herself. We saw her lying naked whilst automatic cameras scanned her form, completely motionless being covered in blue rubber mix which, judging from the results, would have gone into every crevice of her genitals and finally being cut out of the mould. Throughout she totally kept her composure.
Not quite as real, is Frank Benson’s male nude; here there is the twist of a statue imitating a man pretending to be a statue. Completely lifelike in form, it has the skin tone and texture of those living statues who cover themselves in grease paint in tourist destinations.
It was also good to see Wallinger’s Eco Hommo which was made for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Some commentators have taken the view that the sculpture needed its plinth and should not have been brought down to ground level. I enjoyed being able to see it close up. In Trafalgar Square, where the scale was dictated by Nelson’s Column and the lions, he looked small and vulnerable. In the Hayward, he seemed larger than I had imagined and indeed somewhat plumper but there was a feeling of privilege in seeing him as Wallinger would have seen him as he finished making him, rather than from below and at a distance.
Another work on the realist side was the small sculpture Maurizio Cattelan’s Him. As you approach it from behind, it appears to be a small boy praying but when you see the face you realise with a shock, or not if you happen to have read about it in advance, that the boy is Adolph Hitler. You are bound to reflect upon what he might be praying about: for forgiveness or for supremacy?
The casts of young naked ballet dancers have attracted lots of press attention. Beautifully made though they were, there was something about their averted glances which seemed a little coy, enigmatic possibly, but also just slightly irritating.
Much as I admired some of the realistic works, my preference, I found, tends towards those that are not. My personal favourites were the two figures by Pawel Althamer, Monika and Pawel,which shows him and his wife as a modern day Adam and Eve. They are made out of straw, animal intestine, and hair and unlike sculptures in marble or bronze are destined to decay, just as we are destined to do ourselves.
I also liked Rebecca Warren’s large, irrepressible and contorted headless female forms, which challenge the stereotype of the female body as portrayed by male sculptors. It was good to see how the artist had pumelled and worked the clay from which they were originally formed and which they still resembled, though apparently some are cast in bronze.
There were works which fell in between: half real, half not, most literally with the woman with a beehive instead of a head; widely admired, for me this just produced the simple question of why? Why have a woman with a beehive instead of a head? For me, it didn’t say anything interesting about women, bee hives or indeed the space. While we are about it, why was her whole head a beehive rather than just her hair-do?
I also didn’t like the Jeff Koons’ Bear and Policeman, but then I don’t know if there has been a single piece of Koons’ work that I have liked, nor did I like any of the mannequins of which there seemed an awful lot. Surely mannequins if they were once interesting are not so any longer. In one of the works by Thomas Hirschhorn they were half covered with blue gunge and coupled with photographs of atrocities, which I felt trivialised the latter rather than provided effective commentary.
But whatever your personal tastes, this is certainly an exhibition which will make you think about the way the human form is represented and how profoundly that representation has changed in the last twenty five years. With over 25 sculptors included in the exhibition, nobody is going to like everything. That being said, surely you must like Georg Herold’s pink figure. It is made from pieces of wood over which the artist has stretched wet canvas which shrinks when dry, containing and contorting the figure. The work is as much about the process of making as it is about the human condition; Herold has spoken about the figures resisting him during their construction. I suppose too you could see the work as a metaphor for the way that we are all contorted and constrained. But there is a playfulness about it that I find joyful and what is more it is big and pink and shiny – what is there not to to like?