Uncannily familiar and disconcertingly strange, this show is like a distorting fairground mirror held up to our fair isle. A bloody big mirror. One minute you’ll be shaking your fists at the sky (probably the bit of the sky that the business end of the surface-to-air missile on the gallery roof is aimed at), the next you’ll be tittering at a line-up of well-stuffed swimming trunks. With the general election just a few months away and ideas of ‘Britishness’ a major part of the political bunfight, seven artists have been asked to look at aspects of our history from the end of WWII to now. They reveal a land of picnics and bunting, mad cows and Mrs Thatcher. There’s insane beauty and depressing social injustice. And David Beckham, blissfully, beautifully, dozing through it all.
An unruly coalition, ‘History Is Now’ is in fact six exhibitions in one, each curated by an artist, or in the case of twins Jane and Louise Wilson, artists. They range in age from their early thirties (Cornwall-born, Berlin-based Simon Fujiwara) to their late sixties (near-lifelong Londoner Richard Wentworth). Some use a broad brush to paint their Brit visions. Photographer Hannah Starkey has selected images from the 1970s and ’80s from the Arts Council Collection, including images of urban poverty that you’d think (hope) were decades older by Paul Trevor and Chris Killip, and contrasts these with vast collages of magazine ads from the period. That the gulf between aspiration and actual life looks just as wide today is Starkey’s kicker.
Others focus on single issues. Roger Hiorns offers a study of the evolution of ‘mad cow disease’ and its human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) that’s so maddeningly comprehensive you may feel your own legs start to give way.
Jane and Louise Wilson’s brilliantly gloomy installation of art, artefacts and architectural models looks at contested borders, mass observation and civil disobedience, taking in the Northern Ireland Troubles and Greenham Common protests. There’s a terrible energy in all this breaking in and breaking out. Similarly obsessed with geographical boundaries, Richard Wentworth in his gallery traces a journey from the D-Day landings as photographed by Robert Capa, via the post-WWII optimism of the V&A’s 1946 ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition to the beginnings of pop. Wentworth came of age in this era of Cold War paranoia and by parking a Bristol Bloodhound missile on the gallery terrace (the type stationed along the east coast between the late 1950s and early 1990s to shoot down any Soviet nuclear warheads coming our way) he makes manifest the sense of threat hinted at in all that polite British modernism by Paul Nash and co.
Most mischievous is Simon Fujiwara, who fills the first gallery with a series of plinths on which wildly disparate objects including a giant lump of coal, one of Meryl Streep’s Maggie Thatcher costumes from ‘The Iron Lady’, a Gavin Turk bronze bin bag, empty Waitrose herb packets and a Damien Hirst spot painting are displayed like precious artefacts. A portrait of an industrial economy moving to one of service and lifestyle industries, it’s here that Becks slumbers, celebrity being the most precious twenty-first century commodity of all.
Getting artists rather than curators to put this show together is a stroke of genius. They think with their eyes rather than their PHDs and make the kind of connections that could never be made on paper. Presumably they didn’t talk to each other much in the run up to the show since there are plenty of crossovers, or worry about practicalities like run times, because you’ll need way more than a day to see everything on show. There are nearly ten bum-numbing hours of video in John Akomfrah’s section for starters – highlights include Gilbert & George getting pissed in ‘The World of Gilbert & George’ (1981). Take a cushion. And maybe sandwiches. Oh, and you’ll need your coat if you’re going outside to look at that missile. And probably a brolly. This is Britain, after all.