Brutal Utopias: a National Trust celebration of Brutalist architecture

12 November 2015 § Leave a comment

Brutalism is not brutal. At the very beginning of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Southbank, I was embarrassed to discover my understanding of the architectural term has always been wrong, a comprehension apparently shared by much of the population. In fact, the great tragedy of Brutalism was the adoption of precisely that name for a set of architectural principles born of Modernism.

National Trust photos of Southbank Centre. Queen Elizabeth Hall. Copyright Sophia Schorr-Kon. Courtesy National Trust -74

The term has been misunderstood since inception as referring to a ‘brutal’ effect on the eye of the beholder or the ‘brutalising’ impact on its residents. Little could be further from the truth. The term is actually derived from the French béton brut meaning literally ‘raw concrete’ as well as the Art Brut or ‘raw art’ of those such as Jean Dubuffet. Pure, natural and honest would probably have been more in the mind of the creators of the term at that time.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

Inspired by Le Corbusier, concrete was considered the solution for new models for housing – especially social housing, but therein lay part of the problem. It became associated not just with cheapness but also with poverty – a link reinforced by Films like A Clockwork Orange which provided a dystopian view of the future set in modern urban landscapes.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

I was also a tad embarrassed at my misunderstanding of the architecture of the complex. Always clubbed together as ‘The South Bank‘ I’d considered it all ‘Brutalist’, but our National Trust guide had immediately pointed out the strongly differing styles.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

The Royal Festival Hall, built in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, is a curving white building built in Scandinavian Modern Style whilst the contrasting Queen Elizabeth Hall, and Hayward Gallery were built much later, in 1967/8, in cast and poured concrete.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

We were here on a preview of one of a series of tours taking place in some of Britain’s most iconic Brutalist Buildings – other tour locations include Sheffield’s Park Hill Estate and the University of East Anglia in Norwich as well as on a Routemaster London bus. The National Trust is aiming to shine a light on the significance of Brutalism and no doubt also help raise the final funds required in a two year restoration of the Hayward, Purcell, and QEH that starts this month.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

We were led on a fascinating tour in to spaces never-before seen by the public, shuffling through long underground tunnels, peering onto stages, ducking into ventilation rooms, all the while being expertly coached in the roles of form and function in the vision, construction and reception of these iconic buildings. There were tubes, control panels and ducts a-plenty whilst glimpses in to changing rooms, backstage areas, and green rooms also afforded a performers perspective.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

Concrete itself was a frequent topic. At the time considered the ultimate for advanced buildings, it was a very high quality material, and with the extreme care taken in construction at the South Bank, these were buildings that represented one of the high points in its use. Cast, poured or mixed with straw, it was even finished like Japanese woodblock prints with a carefully textured wood-grain finish from three different types of wood.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

It is clear that the legacy of Brutalism is currently undergoing a critical reappraisal. Heroic and controversial at its outset, it was initially largely dismissed as an unsightly imposition, whilst today its austere aesthetic is widely appreciated.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

The National Trust’s Brutal Utopias seeks to foster this debate and engage the public with these buildings which, like them or not, now thankfully an essential part of our national architectural heritage.

Brutalism Tour National Trust Southbank

Tours take place at the three locations between Friday 25th September – Sunday 4th October 2015 and can be booked at www.

For further information on events at the Southbank visit


The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture at The Hayward

25 August 2014 § Leave a comment

If there is one reassuring constant of sculpture over the ages it is the  repeated attempts at representations of the human form. The Hayward has brought together major works by twenty or so leading artists from the last quarter of a century and reflects on how we represent the ‘human’ today.

The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 14/6/2014.They suggest that the exhibition  ‘pointedly revisits and update classical traditions of sculpture…  inventively remixing past and present’ but the visitor would be hard pressed to find the classical here, overwhelmed as it is by more Duchampian reworking of more modern movements. Grouping works thematically, and not always successfully, curator Ralph Rugoff addresses themes like consumerism, physical perfection, violence, religion, sex and death.

The Human Factor at The Hayward Gallery
The least successful works involve the cliched use of shop mannequins. John Miller’s eroticised male mannequin poses in a pile of horse-shit, plaster on cheek whilst Isa Genzken’s are dressed with cheap charity shop sundries. Thomas Hirschhorn’s, 4 Women has them in a glass showcase, numbered one to four to represent increasing levels of alienation and violence.
The Human Factor at The Hayward Gallery
Much better are Yinka Shonibare and Ryan Gander who both re-imagine Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer. In Shonibare’s version, the (headless) dancer has a surprise in store – in a fetching ethnic print dress she carefully clutches a pistol behind her back.
The Human Factor at The Hayward Gallery
Ryan Gander versions have a more witty take. In one Degas’s dancer has taken a break from her plinth and sits behind on the floor enjoying a quick fag, whilst in another version stands on tiptoes to peer through a window.
The Human Factor at The Hayward Gallery
I also liked Martin Honert’s sculptures. Based on personal photographs, the best has himself as a child sat at a table and painted with exaggerated light and shadow and faded ektachrome colours it has the eerie quality of memories somehow brought to life.
The Human Factor Cattelan
In an otherwise empty gallery is Maurizio Cattelan’s Him. From behind we approach a young boy on his knees in prayer. In a moment of shocking realisation you see it is actually Hitler. Eyes upwards is he penitent or simply pensive? A less successful work in another room features an unblemished John Kennedy lying in state. 
Mark Wallinger’s statue of christ, Ecce Homo, which once graced the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, is shown here on a low plinth, but still effective and whilst talking of Trafalgar Square Katharina Fritsch, of  blue cockerel fame, has three strong works exhibited. Each tableaux comprises a monochrome figure before a blown up photograph. In one a blown-up religious kitsch black Madonna stands in front of a photographic wall of ivy, another features a yellow chef and nondescript German roadside Inn.
The Human Factor at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 14/6/2014.
For more kitsch what better than Bear and Policeman (1988) by Jeff Koons – actually the oldest work in the show. An oversize toy bear with child-like stripy pullover and popping eyes, grasps a bobby’s whistle. Cute at first glance, but the grasp of the whistle hints at a deeper meaning – it is actually a metaphor for sexual humiliation.

Out on one of the terraces Pierre Huyghe has reworked a traditional reclining nude. In place of its head is a open hive, the bees busily swarming around whilst on another Rebecca Warren’s three lumpy women are tall, unrecognisable and totem-like.

The Human Factor at The Hayward Gallery

Last but not least Paul McCarthy’s That Girl (T.G. Awake) is a diversion from his more familiar lumpy and vivid pink latex grotesques. He has turned to Hollywood experts to create three lifelike casts of the actress Elyse Poppers. Naked, exposed and legs apart they sit on glass-topped trestle tables. They are so disturbingly lifelike it is hard to escape the notion, however impossible, that they will somehow come to life.

There are omissions but to complain about missing artists or the few lesser works would be churlish. This is an excellent overview of the current – pretty healthy – state of figurative sculpture.

The Human Factor: The Figure in Contemporary Sculpture until 7 September 2014

Martin Creed: What’s the Point of It? The Hayward Gallery

11 April 2014 § 1 Comment

The knowing title of Martin Creed’s solo show at the Hayward, What’s the Point of It? offers an immediate hint at the content whilst also suggesting a potential response. This is undoubtedly an exhibition that will split the audience somewhere down the middle in a ‘Marmite’ reaction of love and hate.

A piece of blu-tac pressed against the wall, a screwed up ball of paper, cardboard boxes piled ziggurat-style and a row of nails are examples of some of Creed’s works, each carefully and sequentially numbered and to which the titular What’s the point? will clearly often be directed. One soon realises that Creed too is asking the same question of himself and life in general.

Work No 79 Martin Creed

My last encounter with Creed was at a lecture – the word ‘lecture ‘s this case being a very loose description of what took place. He decided to start with a song with his guitar. For twenty minutes, in true comic style, his hand frequently hovered over the strings of his battered instrument, before frustratingly moving away as he drifted off in to a random point, reminiscence or story. The song when it eventually arrived was short, minimalist and funny.

Martin Creed - Mothers sign

The exhibition is very much like the song and its build up: Creed’s has a hesitant and agonised interaction with a modern life that for him is simply too complex and disordered – he struggles to bring order to this troublesome chaos – and eventually produces something quite simple, thoughtful and often amusing.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.

This quest for order is the source of his numbering system too. Here’s what he – hesitatingly – had to say about that for the Tate Magazine:

Yeah… I started numbering the things I made… because I wasn’t happy with some of the titles that I’d used, and I just wanted a way for them all…and, aye, I didn’t want titled and I didn’t want untitled… I wanted a way to try to treat them all the same whether they were a big thing or a small thing or a piece of music or whatever…and I like numbers… It’s difficult to start, I mean it’s often difficult to begin things… and in that respect numbers can be very useful. I mean one, to me, is a good start, and to continue, two’s good too… but… aye, it was to try to treat things all the same and… eh, not worry about titles, not worry about words… I just, you know, the numbers, you know the numbers, I don’t think they’re a particularly important, eh, thing, because basically all… many… most things are numbered, you know, with catalogue numbers or serial numbers… (read the whole interview here)

Decision-making for Creed is similarly agonisingly difficult and behind each work is an extended process where he attempts to decide by ‘not deciding’, or selecting by ‘not selecting’.

Martin Creed Hayward HAlf the air in a given space

Piled boxes are stacked in decreasing sizes, nails in size order are hammered in the wall, a piano is played note by note up and down the keyboard in never ending arpeggios. Supermarket packets of brushes allow Creed to paint his trademark pyramids without the need for him to select brush sizes. For other artworks he picks every different size of ball, every colour of tape and a sequential array of cacti – each to avoid ‘choosing’.

Martin Creed The Hayward

The process brings its inevitable hits and misses. The best, seen upon entering the exhibition, is a vast and rapidly spinning neon. Spelling MOTHERS it is mounted on a huge iron girder as big as the room which threatens to decapitate anyone much over six foot tall. Mothers were of course dominating, protective and big in Creed’s childhood mind and the work here is equally intimidating. Another success is Half the air in a given space (work 360) – a room half filled with balloons is at the same time claustrophobic and exhilarating. I found a wall of hundreds of broccoli prints rather dull and am not sure that I learn much from watching film of people defecating but on the whole these are minor complaints.

Martin Creed at Hayward Gallery, London.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 26/1/2014.

As one would expect of an artist with a band and a cd release to coincide with the show there is plenty of sonic accompaniment too.  The ticking of dozens of metronomes each set at a different rhythm accompanies Mothers whilst there is the piano, random farting noises from a corner, ascending sounds in the lift and sniggering laughs outside the toilet.

This is effectively an all encompassing tour of Martin Creed’s singular mind – in sound, light, paint and experience – that is in turns thoughtful, amusing and provocative. Love it or hate it, this is a show that deserves to be seen.

Martin Creed: What is the Point of It at The Hayward, London until 27 April 2014


david shrigley at stephen friedman

7 March 2012 § Leave a comment

Humour is not hard to find in postmodern art – a typical definition of postmodernism will probably include humour alongside parody and irony – and we are all familiar with works like Maurizio Cattelan‘s Pope Struck by a Meteorite (below), Jeff KoonsRabbit and Gavin Turk‘s Blue Plaque. But this is not laugh out loud humour – or should I say nowadays lol humour – this is more like the knowing chuckle of the West End audience in a performance of an Alan Bennett play. So when we do get a work of art that we can really laugh at (presuming that we are not laughing at its awfulness) it is instinctive to ask ourselves whether this really is art or not. Surely we should not be lol-ing at proper art?

But lol I did at the wonderful David Shrigley‘s exhibition at Stephen Friedman. Shrigley of course has a big retrospective currently showing at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank (to be reviewed later) and Friedman has taken the opportunity to use both his West End gallery spaces for a parallel exhibition. A lot of his work of course is on paper but he has broadened his output to include sculpture, animation, taxidermy and photography.

The first gallery space at Steven Friedman is taken over by the darkly humorous and rather disconcerting Bombs, an installation of black ceramic sculptures, subverting the destructive nature of a real bomb using a rather delicate material. In the next a sculptured word – writing – sits upon a small wall mounted platform, no explanation required.

A clever animation in the back room is of an artist faithfully depicting his model on canvas: the breasts are first (is that what that the artist is really interested in?), then the rest of the body and head, until finally after careful consideration, adding a smile to replace the glum expression of the model. The cynical suggestion of course is that art is there to please – the artist changing the reality to fit the expectations and commercial realities.

The most humorous works are those on paper over the road at Friedman’s other gallery space. Too many to describe and I do not have any images, but some random images below just for fun or for some more examples of his work have a look at the Steven Friedman Gallery website or better still drop in next time you are in the West End!

David Shrigley is at the Steven Friedman gallery until 10 March 2012.

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