Review: Last chance to see: British Art Show 7 at the Hayward Gallery

“I miss being 10 years old,” someone remarked to me this weekend. “Being in a place where there’s a set purpose to life, and it’s so easy to be happy.”

If you want to experience something that affirms the opposite: that being an adult in 2011 is terrifying but wonderful, visit British Art Show 7: in the Last Days of the Comet (closing on April 17th).

It’s certainly difficult being confronted by the first pieces in this exhibition. Phoebe Unwin’s paintings are boxed in and desaturated, like piecemeal Rothkos. Charles Avery’s spectacular installation of a woman looking into the sky from a desert land (see below) is also fearsome: her possessions are trampled on, and even the snake that follows her has an extra claw. It’s some kind fucked up shop window where ideology is shattered – even the symbol of temptation, the serpent, is mangled.

The symbol for light and sky above her is also split into many triangular mirrors, all reflecting her in myriad ways. But its structure – encasing the mirrors above the box, is visible. From the outside, the viewer cannot escape seeing how this fragile scene is constructed.

It is very difficult to look at these works and not be faced with an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness, especially when recent events in Japan remain raw in people’s minds.

Yet in fact within this exhibition there lies a sort of joy, and tens of pieces that remind us what is making this century’s artists so gob-smackingly, wonderfully different to the last.

When I compared this exhibition to one I saw in 2007 on futurism: A Slap in the Face: Futurists in Russia (at Islington’s Estorick Collection), or even an exhibition I wish I’d seen – 1988’s Freeze: whose pomp and sizzling insolence sparked countless artists’ careers, you immediately notice what this show’s artists lack: a brash confidence. None of the futurists’ determination to celebrate the new, or the YBA’s gall.

What replaces this is a continuous set of contemplations on what makes living in 2011 being very similar to being a tired, diabetic hamster on a wheel – but is actually OK. Wolfgang Tillman’s collections of found objects: of over-saccharine McDonalds ads and brash commercialism, newspaper articles on religion and homophobia, and anti-aging commericals are depressing. They are laid bare on boring plywood tables, with only very loose themes tying them together. But they are there to be discussed – laid out for people to look over and chat about. Spartacus Chetwynd’s The Folding House is petrifying, a huge, decaying structure with a semblance of a covering – with an oversized article on renewable energy barely wrapping it. But again, the huge paragraphs on wind farms are there to be looked at and pondered.

Sarah Lucas’ intestinal-like pieces on concrete blocks echo the impact of Damien Hirst’s early work (see below). But they aren’t witty, or darkly beautiful. They’re just revolting lumps, put on cheap plinths.

Completely the opposite to a depressing new Adidas ad I watch later on, parades the adidas stripes on celebrities’ bodies, and suggests that if you wear Adidas you too will become part of some homogenised hope and joy in life:

British Art Show 7: in the Last Days of the Comet instead unites viewers in a need for contemplation: everything is laid bare. I was left feeling annoyed that I grew up in the positive nineties – a time when anything felt possible. But then I suddenly realised that what this art show so brilliantly surmises is that to rely on hope, dreams and ultra-positivity is ludicrous when across the world Japan and New Zealand have been torn at the seams. This century marks a time when we recognise our planet has a shelf life. These artists realise it too- they don’t give a shit about mythologizing themselves in preparation for future glory, or creating dreamlands to escape to. They just want to show that Eve was tempted by the snake, and now it’s grown an extra arm. Sin and power is wonderful: but quietly understanding what’s going on right now is even better.

British Art Show 7: in the Last Days of the Comet runs until April 17th, from 10am-6pm daily, and until 8pm on Thursday and Friday. Click here for more information

This article was originally published on TheMostCake

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