I’m not a dog person, and it seems that the artist Patrick Goddard isn’t either. In his video Animal Antics, the talking dog has an irritatingly arrogant voice and an unfavorable worldview based on its own feeling of superiority over animals without the ability to speak. It is, however, a dog, and a filthy one at that. It asks its owner, “Have you ever tried to eat penguin poo?” “It’s because I’ve done it before.”
Goddard provides the voice for this heinous canine. It’s undoubtedly one of the highlights of British Art Show 9, Hayward Gallery Travelling’s three-yearly sweep of contemporary British art, which begins in Aberdeen before touring throughout the country. But I’m concerned that Goddard is squandering his comedic skill in the art world, when his work clearly needs a larger audience. However, it’s unlikely that anybody could get away with what this wicked doggie says about David Attenborough outside of an art museum.
Goddard makes a sarcastic point about our mistaken feeling of superiority over other creatures, which fits well with one of the exhibition’s themes: our tumultuous connection with nature. Aberdeen is near to beautiful scenery and the open sea, yet it is also the heart of the oil industry. The creative warriors of this show will make sure you don’t forget it. On one of her sticky-paper wall paintings, Kathrin Böhm included a written tirade against Aberdeen’s relationship with oil, as well as another angry statement criticizing Hayward Gallery Touring. Her chamber erupts in a rage-filled scream.
The exhibition conveys the idea that artists are currently working on mostly pleasant but seldom meaningful hobbies. Some claim to be doing groundbreaking research. One of the Turner Prize nominated collectives, Cooking Sections, shows a system for calculating how much dye to feed farmed salmon to make its flesh a beautiful shade of pink. So?
Another “research” endeavor has given me pause. Uriel Orlow uses a variety of media to argue that a natural malaria treatment derived from the African plant artemisia afra is being repressed in the interests of big pharma. There are tables available where you may enjoy a cup of artemisia tea. I was so taken aback by this that I had to look up the facts. It didn’t take long for me to discover a statement from the World Health Organization stating why it “does not support the promotion or use of Artemisia plant material in any form for the prevention or treatment of malaria.” These are scientific rather than economic considerations.
Malaria is no laughing matter. It’s not a dog that speaks. It kills millions of people, and unlike Covid, it targets children. This exhibit taught me just one thing: artists are not equipped to govern for humanity. Commentators of all ideologies portray us as being in the midst of a terrible and earth-shattering catastrophe, yet the overriding sense is that artists are developing their own peculiar hobbies, as they always have. Only a few have a genuine hit on their hands. Another “research” artist, Maeve Brennan, displays pictures of ancient Greek vases from her project The Goods, which investigates the archaeological plunder trade. The vases are lovely, but what is she saying? Is it true that thieves exist?
Nonetheless, a strong and sharply current subject emerges. Humanity’s most practical method of communicating our complicated connection with environment has always been art. Joey Holder has transformed her room into a cave in the twenty-first century, with hideous insectoid monsters adorning the walls. We’ve found ourselves in an underground gothic room. Live eels on video crawl over each other vying for nibbles at a glob of floating fat above the Victorian fireplace. In a stunning installation full of Lovecraftian dread, Holder dramatizes our separation from nature.
A towering painting by Michael Armitage depicting a gigantic pink octopus emerging from a sea that floods a woodland is similarly Lovecraftian. One of its sucker-covered arms emerges from a twisted tree limb. Armitage depicts nature in a dreamy state of transformation. His performance demonstrates that he is one of Britain’s most ambitious and rewarding artists.
A Dream of Wholeness in Parts, directed by Sin Wai Kin (FKA Victoria Sin), depicts another breathtaking meeting between mankind and the Earth. They read a lengthy screenplay on life and identity while wearing a variety of exotic costumes and a face painted like a Chinese opera mask. They pose like Botticelli’s Venus on a rocky beach beside a wild sea in the most captivating picture – a magnificent combination of artifice and nature.
Some of the greatest artists in this town follow their dreams with little regard for the outside world. Tai Shani’s huge replica of Dracula’s hand rising from a coffin has no societal significance in my opinion. She, too, has been doing “research” on ergot, a fungus with psychedelic characteristics, according to the catalogue. She refers to it as “research.”
An introspective painter is the only artist who really portrays the darker emotions of our day. Celia Hempton creates tiny violent paintings of herself and her pals, even individuals she only knows online. As if by a drunken Frank Auerbach, a man takes the role of Courbet’s Origin of the World, his genitals smeared into form. This is a piece of raw existential art that depicts the agony and isolation of online existence. Hempton’s paintings, which were completed prior to the epidemic, relate not just to a particular moment or social media storm, but also to time and place.
The British Art Show is oddly cheerful as a representation of British society, since the overall image is more funny than sad. Psychedelic pranksters and comic canines compete for attention with portentous initiatives to transform the world and peddlers of utopian tea-drinking. There is very nothing that conveys genuine sorrow or pain. The politics are loud but light, and it’s all about the students. The musicians may come off as spoilt brats at times. This is the art of a nation that may be happier in secret than it would want to acknowledge.
Thanks to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.