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The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture

17 June 2014 | Jessica Johnston

"When we see a figure we are immediately connected with it"

The human form has fascinated artists and critics alike for centuries. If we look back through art’s history, the subject matter most frequently explored, valued and reinterpreted is the body. Synonymous with presenting bold, thought provoking work, this summer the Hayward Gallery invites 25 of the world’s most innovative artists to engage in a retrospective of figurative sculpture over the past 25 years.

The Human Factor considers how artists have reinvented traditional conceptions of figurative sculpture from the late 1980’s to the present day as the likes of Jeff Koons, Rachel Harrison, Paul McCarthy and John Miller engage in a dialogue with the past and present.

By focusing on a subject that characterizes each and every one us, this exploration of the human figure becomes an immediate catalyst for conversation. The exhibition confronts questions of how we perceive the ‘human’ in today’s society; by incorporating archaic art references with contemporary imagery these artists address the social, political, cultural and historic concerns embedded within the world we inhabit.

For pure visual content the exhibition does not disappoint. Director of the Hayward Gallery and curator of the exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, describes the collection of works as being intertwined with ‘theatricality’, which becomes immediately apparent from the moment you enter the gallery spaces. This sense of the theatrical is all consuming and prompts a plethora of emotions from fun and fanciful to curious and uncomfortable. The gallery is transformed into a series of imaginary stages and we the visitor become both the audience as well as participants in this thought-provoking production.

This collection of work is not only visually captivating, it also brings into play a variety of ideas, themes and questions.  Commenting on the transient nature of our existence, artists Pawel Althamer and Urs Fischer create sculptures that will physically change in appearance over time. Fischer’s cast wax candle sculpture of a naked woman symbolises the brevity of life and the inevitability of death as the artwork is lit and will burn throughout the duration of the exhibition. Drips of overflowing wax will eventually begin to reshape the sculpture, creating an entirely new image for the viewer to consider.

Similarly, Althamer’s work entitled Monika and Pawel uses impermanent materials to create sculptures of himself and his wife depicting the 21st century Adam and Eve. The two bodies are constructed mostly from animal intestines, straw and hair that will eventually decay. Whilst traditional sculpture intends to give mortal beings immortality, Althamer’s does the exact opposite by using materials that will decompose, altering the appearance of the sculpture overtime and in turn emphasising the ever-changing and temporary nature of life.

Both Althamer’s and Fischer’s wonderfully inventive representations of the human figure as an ever-changing form are definite highlights of the exhibition. 

Further into the exhibition, curious and whimsical sculptural delights await. Viewers are taken into the fanciful world of Jeff Koons and met by a giant brown bear in a colourful striped t-shirt hugging a policeman. This image at once arouses a smile...that is of course until you look a bit closer.

Ryan Gander’s charming bronze figure of a young ballet dancer staring out of a window onto the roof of the gallery and beyond becomes even more intriguing when you notice the empty plinth nearby which the sculpture has seemingly stepped down from as if unnoticed by the gallery’s security.

Viewers can even enjoy a view of the city from the gallery’s rooftop with the company of John Miller’s sculpture of a swimsuit clad mannequin standing in a plastic pool, bravely soaking up the British weather come rain or shine.

Throughout the exhibition a darker, more ominous atmosphere also looms around many corners as viewers are confronted with political violence and death. In an eerily empty side room a solitary sculpture of Hitler kneels on the floor praying... for forgiveness? Or perhaps it’s a prayer for more unthinkable acts of brutality. The artist Maurizio Cattelan leaves viewers to come to their own conclusions.

Another piece, entitled Now,  by the same artist provides even less light relief in another side room and you’re faced with a life-sized effigy of former U.S President John. F. Kennedy lying in a coffin. This work is so true to life in its representation, there are brief moments where you could easily forget it’s not real.

Paloma Varga Weisz’s dismembered male figure representing a ‘destructed soul’ and Thomas Hirschhorn’s extremely graphic photos of mutilated bodies set in front of a four naked female mannequins covered in blue foam are also some of the most powerful works exhibited.

The sheer volume of works presented and the powerful visual imagery these sculptures impart is what makes this exhibition a must see. You can’t fail to be drawn in by these sculptures and the inventively curated tableaus of life they depict. Rugoff explains that “when we see a figure we are immediately connected with it” and there is no doubt that this exhibition will offer plenty for people to discover.

The Human Factor will be exhibiting at the Hayward Gallery until 7th September. For more information and to book tickets please click here.

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