History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain, Hayward Gallery


Richard Wentworth selected this British-designed Bloodhound missile as part of the cold war section of the exhibition. Photograph Andrew Slatter.

The stoic concrete mass of the Hayward Gallery is a fitting plinth on which to exhibit a cold-war Bloodhound missile. Dare to step out onto the roof terrace and be dwarfed by this six-tonne – show-stopping ‘sculpture’. Its scale and potential reflects the idea behind History is Now, so enormous is the task to select from 70 years of post-war history, it’s no surprise that seven artists were each given a slice of curatorial cake. When photographing the missile against the blue sky of this cold March day, I was struck by the sobering realisation that, had this defensive weapon been deployed, it signaled Britain was under nuclear attack. The pessimism surrounding the object’s intent, set against the optimism of the blue sky suggests the mood of the exhibition. Writing in The Guardian Maev Kennedy cites curator Cliff Lauson “there are many questions, some answered, some unanswerable.”

It was Roger Hiorns meticulous research, storytelling and modernist graphic presentation of the development, and subsequent outbreak of BSE and vCJD, that provided the visitor with a unified and historical account of a medical condition that incited ‘a collective sense of dread’ according to Hiorns.


Glyndebourne opera-goers

'Out of Sight. Out of Mind', 1991. Damien Hirst.

‘Out of Sight. Out of Mind’, 1991. Damien Hirst.

Hiorns complements the vast quantities of text-based material with two works – a black and white photograph of consumers of high culture in the countryside, and two tanks filled with formaldehyde, each containing the head of a cow. These works are clever props within the archive, they are immediate and caused me to ponder humankind’s relationship with these delightful ruminants, something that I hadn’t thought much about since the 1990s.

Writing about the exhibition in The Telegraph Alastair Sooke suggests “it offers a multifaceted vision of our recent national identity so complex and kaleidoscopic that it risks leaving visitors bewildered, bamboozled, and exhausted.” I didn’t feel  bewildered or bamboozled, a little exhausted maybe, there’s simply too much to take in on one visit. I sympathise more with Adrian Searle’s benign appraisal in The Guardian “this is exhibition as time machine.” It really is as simple as that.


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