The Hayward Gallery presents 'The Human Factor'

I can’t remember the last time I was confronted with so much figurative sculpture! 

Artists have always represented the body. Our physical selves provide endless sources of fascination - we’re a pretty vain lot, us humans. However, by the outset of the 20th century some kind of figurative boredom kicked in and artists began veering towards abstraction. Malevich took a plunge with his famed Black Square almost exactly 100 years ago, in 1915 (pop to the Tate Modern’s current exhibition to know more!).

 Artists then departed from the question of what subject to represent, to where to look for this subject. Minimalists like Robert Morris with his untitled white cubes forced the viewer to question his or her own body in relation to the work for lack of anything else to do.. Conceptualists like Joseph Kosuth questioned the definition, and the definition of the definition of art. Yes, it really was as complicated as it sounds.

Sick of this intellectual over-complication, many artists returned to the figure in the 1980s, and it resumes importance today at the trendy Hayward gallery.

But there is nothing simplistic about this figurative return. The collection of work gathered here is hugely varied in both content and form, presenting pieces by 25 different artists. I really enjoyed contemplating the diversity of work but I have to say I was slightly overwhelmed by the end, having wandered through each room filled with a disparate collection of figures calling to mind such a breadth of themes from the deeply personal to the political and universal; from sexuality to ephemerality for example.

 However I would not like to discourage visitors, you really are in for something special. With my interest in all things surreal I was particularly drawn to the work of Thomas Hirschhorn and his vitrines filled with uncanny mannequins. In his 4 Women 2008 the artist staged an unsettling version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but Picasso’s fragmented blue background has now transformed into grotesque electric blue styrofoam, spouting out of each mannequin’s left nipple. These figures labelled 1-4 are increasingly tattooed and they are matched with four images of increasingly severely injured, decaying male bodies. This shocking conflation of male, butchered forms with the smooth, plastic females holds ground as a comment on carnal desire: these commercialised, standardised women are exposed for consumption like meat.

This idea of the body as meat came to mind as I encountered Paul McCarthy’s work upstairs, That Girl (T.G. Awake) 2012-13. Not sure which direction to take I noticed arrows leading the visitor along a narrow corridor. Intrigued, I obediently followed the signs. Upon entering the room I was confronted with three hyperreal sculptures of the same naked women, each sitting on a glass table. Now I use the word ‘naked’ as opposed to the proper art historical term ‘nude’ because she just looked so shockingly real! Not idealised or embellished, offered up on the cold glass like a steak in a butchery. Every detail has been faithfully reproduced, from her wide, glazed eyes to the traces of persistent nail polish. I experimented a little, trying to catch her gaze in order to stir a reaction. I kept hoping she would snap to life and say, ‘what are you looking at?!’ Indeed contemplating these sculptures put me in the position of a voyeur, compulsively looking while feeling unsettled by the overly intimate display offered here. In the next room films have been set up demonstrating the process of the sculptures’ construction which involves the same techniques used in the film or pornographic industry, such is their lifelike quality.

 

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Paul McCarthy, That Girl (T.G. Awake) 2012-13

 

After this hyperreal experience my eye was hungry for more detail of this intensity. This hunger was satisfied, but quickly dissipated, after experiencing the work of Maurizio Cattelan. I noticed another secluded room. This could be good, I thought. At the far end of the room a little boy was kneeling in prayer, facing the wall. Oh isn’t that nice, something pious and touching. Walking to take a look at him I was confronted by Hitler’s face! Again I did my experiment, trying to catch his gaze. I felt provocative, daring - trying to challenge a dictator in a gallery on a Tuesday morning! I then reminded myself I wasn’t in Madame Tussauds and perhaps should stop all this tomfoolery.. Possibly the most striking feature of this sculpture was the juxtaposition of this brutal dictator’s head on a vulnerable little boy’s body - even Hitler had a stage of innocence.

In contrast to these confrontational works, I was quite taken with the room dedicated to Ugo Rondinone’s seated nudes, cast in wax from the bodies of four young dancers. Each sits elegantly, their long, lean limbs in graceful resting positions. The bodies are made up of separate parts, in varying earth hues. I was almost tempted to take a seat beside one of them and absorb their aura of calm.

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Ugo Rondinone, nude (xxxxxxxxx) 2011

Whether its shock or repose you are looking for, you will not be disappointed with this daringly varied and rich exhibition.