The Human Factor exhibition at the Hayward Gallery

18 Aug

Several weeks ago, I went to the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre to visit the Human Factor exhibition.

The website sells it as:

Spanning the past 25 years, The Human Factor focuses on artists who use the figure as a means for exploring far-ranging concerns. Compelling and thought-provoking, their work brings into play ideas about history, voyeurism, sexuality and violence, while reflecting on how we represent the ‘human’ today.

At the same time, the artists in The Human Factor pointedly revisit and update classical traditions of sculpture, while drawing on representations of the human body in contemporary popular culture. Inventively remixing past and present, they transform that most familiar form – the human body – in ways that surprise, unsettle and engage us.

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t read any of the above or know anything about the exhibition.  Instead, I saw the posters around of that oversized bear with his arm around a policeman and I thought that looked like an interesting childhood-themed sculpture . On closer inspection, though, ‘Bear and Policeman’ by Jeff Koons isn’t a cute, quirky sculpture but something far darker (which is clear if you actually take some time to note the bear’s creepy expression) with undertones of perverse sexual humiliation and dominance. That’ll teach me to judge a book by its cover. Or rather it doesn’t. It teaches me that if I am to judge a book by its cover, at least make sure I really spend time looking at the cover so I fully understand the cover before I judge it.

The exhibition was generally full of dark surprises like this – a particular favourite of mine was by the witty Maurizio Cattelan, and involved walking in a room that was made to appear like a church towards a tiny, crouched figure at the front. At the back, the pious figure looks almost childlike and but as you move closer, you realise that this figure is actually Adolf Hitler. It shocks, surprises and encourages one to consider what he would be doing in a church – whether he seeks remorse or divine power to implement his regime of terror.  There was also an incredibly life-like sculpture of JF Kennedy’s corpse laid out in a coffin, in a sharp suit but with bare feet, evoking an air of odd familiarity towards this iconic American president, who almost appears to be sleeping peacefully.


The overall ambience of the exhibition was unsettling – death, decay, despair, consumerism were but some of the themes explored, which is inevitable when grouping art under such an umbrella term as the ‘human factor.’ Perhaps it is me, though, and my weirdly high standards when it comes to art, but I felt some of the art works lacked soul and deeper meaning. They’d been created to shock and incite some emotion in the audience, but for me, while I understood the symbolism and the sculptor or artist’s intention behind the work, I didn’t feel anything. It was almost as though some of the works were too obvious: a sculpture of a modern-day Jesus to represent persecution still occurring today; a sculpture of a futuristic woman in the pose of a Greek god – the oxymoronic nature of the future with the past, modernity with tradition; crude sculptures of women with their buttocks, breasts and lips exaggerated to emphasise the objectivity of females… the list goes on.

An interesting exhibition with a few witty and thought-provoking gems scattered amongst a sea of obvious, disappointing and unoriginal works.


5 Responses to “The Human Factor exhibition at the Hayward Gallery”

  1. Bishop August 27, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    Hi Jade,

    Sounds like an interesting day out. I have to say… I say that, I don’t have to say, I just want to say… I can’t really get my head around modern art. I’d take Michelangelo’s David over some crazy bat’s filthy bed any day. That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting modern works, but I think there is an increasing number of “artists” who are just trying to crank out something for a quick buck and include enough shock factor to make it look like art. The figurine of Jesus on the cross (probably bought on eBay) floating in a tank of the “artist’s” urine would be excellent example of this rise in professional time wasting, in my opinion.

    It may well be though that the modern artist community and indeed society as a whole is not yet ready to face and highlight the deeper problems in modern society. The real isolation that people feel in such an interconnected world and the realisation of how insignificant we are that has forced us to tweet every waking minute of our lives. Instead they choose to skim the surface and point to rather well worn topics such as the objectivisation of women, or make thinly veiled references to relatively mundane facts of life.

    While I’m sure there are others, the only artist that I’ve seen who is willing to point to this disconnect in a serious way (comedians like Sean Lock and Bill Bailey do it all the time, but people don’t take what they say seriously) is Banksy, although I would argue that his desire to remain anonymous has turned into a gimmick that somewhat overshadows his work and prevents people from fully appreciating it for what it is.

    • jadeinlondon September 2, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Thanks so much for your comment, I fully agree with all your points especially regarding the real isolation people feel in such an interconnected world – you’ve hit the nail on the head there. My forays into modern art always stem from some pressure to become more ‘cultured’ – whatever that means – but lately I have been rather underwhelmed and disappointed. There definitely seems to be a sharp distinction between modern art that resonates with me and that which is just purely there for shock value! 🙂

      • Bishop September 4, 2014 at 8:06 am #

        Haha more cultured ey? Is this an internal pressure or is someone trying to make you feel guilty for not admiring a room full of porcelain sunflower seeds, aka a fancy sand pit?
        If its internal I would recommend strolling around the national gallery, or its equivalent in your neck of the woods, where things have been vetted by people that actually know what their doing and stood the test of time. If its peer pressure then tell them to go stuff themselves.

      • jadeinlondon September 16, 2014 at 9:51 am #

        Haha yeah I know, it’s ridiculous – it’s probably a mixture of internal pressure and peer pressure – I think I’m too easily influenced sometimes by what I feel I should be doing but you’re so right, with regards to peer pressure, I hope with time I can get better at telling people to go stuff themselves!:)

  2. Optimus January 26, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

    People stuffing themselves… now that would make for an interesting modern art exhibition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: