The 2015 British Art Show Heralds the Next Gen of Socially Conscious Artists

  • Caroline Achaintre, Om Nom Ore (2015), Todo Custo (2015), Mother George (2015), Photo by Jonty Wilde.

The very notion of a national survey exhibition seems curiously antiquated in the context of an increasingly globalized contemporary art scene. Even the “British Art Show,” as a title, has the quaintly ramshackle air of a village fete to which local amateurs have been invited to bring their latest compositions in watercolor and clay. That charming daydream is quickly dispelled by British Art Show 8 at Leeds Art Gallery, the latest edition of this country’s most influential appraisal of emerging trends, whose curators—Anna Colin and Lydia Yee—have taken pains to make it clear that a handful of familiar theoretical precepts, rather than the nationality or age of its participants, provide the show’s parameters. Nationality is no barrier to inclusion, nor does the artist need to be based in this country, so long as they fulfill the rather broad criterion that they are “meaningfully associated with the U.K. art scene and have contributed to its vitality.” They don’t, in fact, even need to be an artist, with the floor now open to “practitioners other than visual artists, namely designers.” 

  • Lawrence Abu Hamdan, A Convention of Tiny Movements, installed at The Armory Show, 2015. Photo by Christophe Tedjasukmana for Artsy.

The upshot is a rather typical group show determined more by the curators’ academic preoccupations than the diversity of new work being made around the country. As a gripe, this is slightly unfair, given that curators are employed precisely to impose a theme and, moreover, that the theme Colin and Yee have selected is impeccably du jour. The show, we are told, will explore the increasingly fraught relationship between the real and virtual worlds in which we now exist, and a corresponding resurgence of interest in materiality and object-making. 

Yuri Pattison’s film the ideal (2015) reminds us of the political exigency of this area of inquiry. The work documents the conditions in a Chinese factory devoted to the manufacture of Bitcoins, while the artist’s toying with the air conditioning system seeks to invoke that industrial environment. We are reminded that the “dematerialization” of our culture is no such thing, merely the deferral of physical production to somewhere out of sight and concomitantly out of mind. This is fertile territory, but I am not convinced that this particular instance of Pattison’s work has the affective power and transformational impact that distinguishes great art from investigative journalism. Lawrence Abu-Hamdan’s A Convention of Tiny Movements (2015), shown at the Armory Show 2015, is another attempt to alert the visitor to the hidden dangers of the digital age, demonstrating how it might be possible to repurpose such mundane objects as crisp packets and boxes of tissues as listening devices. We live in an age of new and frightening threats to our liberties, and art here serves the guardian role once undertaken by the mainstream press. 

  • Simon Fujiwara, “Fabulous Beasts” (2015). Photo by Jonty Wilde.

Simon Fujiwara employs a similar documentary method in his film Hello (2015), which counterpoints two representatives of the material and immaterial worlds. Maria, a remarkably perky trash-picker from Mexicali, Mexico, relates her story of a life collecting and selling recyclables from a local landfill. At the same time, Max, a Berlin-based specialist in digital imagery who was born without arms, tells his. One story runs into the other as fact bleeds into fiction, and we are again reminded that the digital realm is not as removed from the physical as we might like to believe. It’s neat but feels a little contrived. Simpler and considerably more interesting are Fujiwara’s  “Fabulous Beasts” (2015), a series of opulent fur coats that have been stretched over a frame and shaved. The process reveals the extraordinarily intricate patterns by which an animal hide is stitched back together to fit a human being. Hung to resemble abstract paintings, these objects are tightly packed with meaning, serving as possible commentaries on consumption, the art market, the ethics of art for art’s sake, or our exploitative relationship to nature. It’s at the viewer’s discretion how to read them, and these works are all the better for it.

  • Stuart Whipps, The Kipper and the Corpse (2015). Photo by Jonty Wilde.

With the anxiety about the increased encroachment of the digital world into the real comes a yearning for less complicated times, and this exhibition is streaked with nostalgia. For The Kipper & The Corpse (2015), Stuart Whipps restores a Mini with the help of former employees of the Longbridge Car Factory—a symbol not only of Britain’s industrial decline but of the defeat of its labor movement by Margaret Thatcher. As elsewhere in the show, the impulse is to explore the means by which objects—as well as the shared processes, communities, and collective labor by which they are made—are the real repositories of history and meaning. John Akomfrah and Trevor Mathison’s film All That is Solid Melts Into Air (2015) takes a similarly elegiac approach, lamenting the insubstantiality of the historical record even in an era when everything is recorded. The perspective and aesthetic of both works—the former with its mechanical muscularity, the second with its elegant, black-and-white echoes of Chris Marker—are resolutely trained upon the past.

The prevailing spirit of the show is one comparable to the “New Sincerity” identified by literary critic Adam Kelly as the defining characteristic of a generation of writers heralded by David Foster Wallace. The artworks in the “British Art Show” are unimpeachably earnest, engaged, and socially conscious—and all the more admirable for that. We might also read these politics as this generation’s reaction (though there are outliers, the majority of participants are in or around their 30s) against the perceived grandstanding and self-promotion of a previous generation of British artists who came to prominence around the time of the 1995 “British Art Show.”

  • Rachel Maclean, Feed Me (2015). Photo by Jonty Wilde.

All of this was beginning to leave me with something like the virtuous feeling that one gets on coming out of the cinema having resisted the siren temptations of the latest blockbuster in favor of a very long but unquestionably important documentary about climate change. This was until I stepped into the screening room for Rachel Maclean’s Feed Me (2015), which doesn’t so much steal the show as poke it in the eye. A nightmarish, Day-Glo, manga-inflected, neo-noir revenge fantasy set in a dystopian near-future, Maclean’s green-screened film shoehorns riffs on global capitalism, digital surveillance techniques, drug abuse as social control, Big Pharma, cultural infantilization, the corporatization of mental health, cult psychology, and predatory paedophilia into a brutal, machine-gun satire on contemporary British society. It is exhilarating, funny, and frequently frightening, and communicates through instinctive emotional response what so many of the other works in this show attempt by appealing to our sense of social justice.

—Ben Eastham



“British Art Show 8” is on view at Leeds Art Gallery, London, Oct. 9, 2015 – Jan. 10, 2016.

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