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Bears, bees and dead bodies in art that dissects the human condition: Show about the rebirth of figurative sculpture suffers insect problem

June 17, 2014

Maev Kennedy

The human condition, as portrayed by the artists in a major new sculpture exhibition opening at the Hayward Gallery in London, is not entirely encouraging.

Many of the figures have been eviscerated, some are slumped unconscious or even headless on the floor, and one figure is a huge candle who will burn away to a puddle of wax during the exhibition.

Elsewhere, John F Kennedy is lying barefoot in his coffin and Jeff Koons's policeman, the poster boy for the exhibition, is being embraced rather too closely for comfort by a towering bear in a stripy sweater, an alarmingly jolly smile on its muzzle.

It's all been enough to drive Ryan Gander's little dancer, a version of the famous sculpture by Edgar Degas, to scramble down off her plinth and lurk behind it for a quick cigarette.

However, visitors will miss the carnage that occurred when one piece was installed - although the suffering took place in the insect world rather than the human one.

The sculpture Liegender Frauenakt by the French artist Pierre Huyghe is a cast in concrete of a beautiful reclining nude woman - with a live beehive for her head. Installed on one of the outdoor terraces of the gallery, even on a chilly grey Monday morning dozens of bees were circling and buzzing, and in sunshine hundreds emerge.

Slightly alarmed by media interest in the piece, the Hayward produced a long list of safety precautions to protect the public from an assault by low-flying art. The piece has been installed with advice from the National Bee Unit and the British Beekeepers Association, and the hive will be monitored twice daily by professional beekeepers. Only 20 members of the public will be allowed on to the terrace at a time, and a barrier will keep them seven metres back from the sculpture.

In addition gallery assistants will be positioned by the door, instructed to contact the trained first aider duty manager if anyone is stung.

Importantly - as was the case when the work was installed at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and at Documenta 13 at Kassel in Germany - the piece is designed to use "a breed of bees suitable for the project as they are of a placid temperament, docile, calm and well-tempered". But unfortunately for the first inhabitants of the hive in London, their sweet nature proved to be their downfall.

"People don't realise how many bees there are in London," said Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward and curator of the exhibition.

"There are hives on top of the Festival Hall and on the National Theatre. When ours went in, the National's bees - queen bees, we call them - all flew over and attacked and killed ours.

"It was really an appalling sight, hundreds of bees lying dead on the ground in the morning. We had to get a new queen, who had slightly tougher offspring."

When the sun is out and the bees are active, Rugoff says, "it's like all the fragments of the mind whizzing around in all directions and then reassembling".

The exhibition also marks a return to London of Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo after more than a decade. In 1999 the white marble figure of Christ was the first contemporary art commission for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, where it stood lonely and isolated, dwarfed by its massive stone platform.

Rugoff said that the human figure was probably the earliest subject in the history of sculpture, but with the rise of abstract, minimalist and conceptual art, figurative sculpture came to be seen as "grandfather art, tainted by its history, not modern".

It was reborn in the 1980s, he said, when the 25 artists represented in this exhibition rediscovered it as "a way to unpick the human condition".

He refused to accept that the artists' work reflects a state of abject despair: "I find it uplifting," he insisted.

The Human Factor: the figure in contemporary sculpture, Hayward Gallery, 17 June to 7 September


Clockwise from left: Maurizio Cattelan's Now; Thomas Schutte's Krieger; Pierre Huyghe's Liegender Frauenakt; Koch und 6 Foto by Katharina Fritsch. Below, Bear and Policeman by Jeff Koons

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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