With the world reeling from recent global events that have severely impacted on our collective conscience—the barrage of scenes of manmade destruction, death, and disaster a vivid testimony of the dark side of humanity—visiting The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery was oddly cathartic.
Of course, the curators were not prophets, but in bringing together twenty-five years of sculpture through twenty-five artists they have created a perspicacious and timely exhibition that reflects on something primordial: the beauty, the hilarity, and the awfulness of being human.
Crudely, the show is split into two "moods" over two floors: "dark" and "light." First we get the darkness —the grotesque and incomprehensible side of the human body and the things it can suffer and enact. Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s indelible mannequin sculptures were particularly hard-hitting. He turns texture into meaning, and in the crass way he assembles his sculptural works (dirty-looking plastic vitrines, cheap materials) he conveys the horrific obliteration of life. In 4 Women (2008), female mannequins are referenced by number to roughly printed internet pictures of corpses in increasingly extreme states of decomposure. The final picture is so badly deformed that it no longer resembles a body, but rather the terrible texture of the blue foam that engulfs the mannequins in the vitrine. It’s difficult to look at, especially since Hirschhorn selects images of victims of war and violence.
Urs Fischer, Untitled, 2001, Installation view, The Human Factor, Hayward Gallery 2014; © The Artist / Photo Linda Nylind
Moving upstairs, the tone is suddenly lighter—made so by the appearance of works by Ryan Gander and Urs Fischer, two artists who combine humor and the human form. Fischer has said of his ironic skeleton figures that they are "funny characters" rather than symbols of death. His Skinny Sunrise work is primarily about sending up, as too is his brilliant Untitled (2001), one of the most effective pieces in the show. This wax sculpture of a pinkish, lardy female figure progressively melts during the exhibition; Fischer looks back, towards canons of sculptural practice as protest—quite literally creating a "burning effigy"—and forward with his own humorous questions about the way we portray ourselves and our relationship to our own bodies as we’re affected by time. Maurizio Cattelan’s Him is another piece of black comedy in three dimensions, but it can’t be described without spoiling the effect.
There are some problems with placement here—and this perhaps one of the main criticisms of the show. It’s a difficult task to give each sculpture a correct space, while also adhering to the kind of flow by sentiment the exhibition seems to set out. Instead, it sometimes jumps from one emotion to another; the divisions don’t quite allow enough time to digest the impact of each.
Paul McCarthy, That Girl (T.G. Awake), 2012–2013 (detail), Installation view, The Human Factor, Hayward Gallery 2014; Photo Linday Nylind, © Paul McCarthy
When you walk finally into a further subsection, housing Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (2012–2013), another emotion is introduced: awe (mixed with arousal, and confusion). McCarthy is Frankenstein. His three-part work is just amazing. The sculptures are impossibly life-like; you'll only find clues that they’re fake if you stare inside the ears or scrutinize the fingernails. As an artwork, or simply as a feat of craftsmanship, it’s the highlight of the show. Of course, it’s a naked female body, or rather, three naked female bodies, and that raises all the usual questions—but if we share one thing, it’s a fascination with seeing people in the buff, and here you’ve an excuse to stare at a perfectly molded nipple.
There are many concerns and drives in this all-3D show: too many to grapple with simultaneously. However, the overriding feeling when you leave is that the human form is an astonishing vehicle with huge political, sexual, and economic potential. The Human Factor is a sobering reminder of this, a way to make sense of what’s going on around us, good and bad.
[Image on top: Pierre Huyghe, Liegender Frauenakt (Untilled 2011-2012), 2012, Installation view, The Human Factor, Hayward Gallery; © Photo Linda Nylind]