Hard Times by Lubaina Himid
Walking into the Hard Times exhibition brought to mind the ignorant tirade of forty years ago when the tabloid press had a field day over the Tate Gallery’s £2,297 purchase of Equivalent VIII by the American minimalist Carl Andre. Ridiculed as ‘a pile of bricks’ and a waste of tax payers’ money what the cynical journalists failed to appreciate were two crucial aspects of the work. One was that the Tate had only purchased Equivalent VIII without also buying the other seven equivalents and thus taking the work entirely out of its intended context, and the other was a crass failure to appreciate the theatrical nature of the exhibit. Hard Times is also theatrical, and highly rewarding, if its invitation to physically interact and contextually engage with the exhibits is undertaken.
Equivalent VIII comprised 120 firebricks arranged in a regular block two bricks high by six wide and ten long. Equivalents one to seven consisted of the same number of bricks but arranged in different configurations. The viewer was thus invited to make comparisons whilst moving around the gallery. An artwork becomes theatrical when the audience can in some way affect what is presented whilst responding to it. Even standing alone Equivalent VIII was theatrical. If exhibited properly, it could be viewed from as many angles as was wished – hence the perspective was changed even if the perception did not. Paradoxically, the stronger the derisory response, the more impact the piece had made. Like all good theatre, the one reaction it rarely produced was indifference. Lubaina Himid’s collection exhibited at The Harris Museum in Preston is more immediate in its impact, more accessible and much more varied and complex. It has a coherence that is thematic rather than structural.
The theatricality commences as soon as you enter the gallery space and are confronted by A Fashionable Marriage. The exhibition guide leaflet prompts you to walk carefully through the installation. The component figures are life size, but so thin as to be effectively two-dimensional, and so the feeling is of wandering on a giant model stage among cardboard cut-out mannequins. It is a structural satire, biting, no doubt, at its 1986 inception, but by no means irrelevant today.
It is satire inspired by satire, being based on William Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode: 4 from a series of paintings lampooning the eighteenth century socially smug. It is worth consulting the original to attain the maximum impact of the contemporary. Himid’s prime targets are the political paramours of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, grouped with sycophantic party-goers who have their foibles writ large, and servants who find liberation and articulation, and inhabit the higher dignities of presence. All this is played out to a spliced soundtrack alternating Zanzibari Taraab music with that of Handel – the contrast is inescapable, the commonality subtle. The near-total immersive theatre reminds you that you are performer and audience whilst in the work, but also after leaving it. Your action can reverse the reaction.
Feast Wagons is a much more recent work (2016) and offers an even more intense drama, though that aspect is obscured at first glance. Superficial cynics may regard it as just a collection of old carts, but look closer. These vehicles are overloaded with poverty in their materials and construction, and nearly all of them contain fantastic beasts, the wonders and terrors of the mind, painted on the platforms within. This requests resonances with the hopeful apprehension of migrants, whose entire family wealth might be caged therein, while the carter trudged on taking also the terror of the other, that she might fear, and that unfamiliar faces might imagine she was bringing. Furthermore, the artist invites you to move the carts around thus forming new equivalences and fresh differences. The most electric experience was in simply gripping and guiding one cart; a communion across acceptance and affluence was instant and soul-shuddering. It affords a fascination with the function of form, invaluable for putting a perspective on the rise and fall of interest rates.
Similarly Bone in the China: Success to the Africa Trade provoked a Prestonian shiver. Originally commissioned by the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent in 1987, it struck uncomfortable chords by making the link between an 18th century punchbowl manufactured in Liverpool, which was, at that time, also a pivotal punch bowl in the transportation of African slaves. It’s a poignant reminder that our fortunes, even today, are derived from coffers amassed by contaminated means. The slave trade was the grease on the axles of the industrial revolution. That was as true in Preston as anywhere. Cotton was the king crowned by a million broken craniums.
Drowned Orchard Secret Boatyard and Meat Mountains each employ simple, yet deeply evocative decoration, to mark production and provoke comparison but it is the horizontal array of thirty-two cheerfully patterned small canvasses Inside the Invisible that adds another tactile strand to the theatricality of this event.
To gain the perspective of each image it is almost invariably necessary to touch the dangling labels. Once again the handling is invited. On one side there is a statement in English, overleaf is the Norwegian translation.
Norway is not the first country one might list if asked to suggest a site of leprosy, but Bergen had a hospital for lepers as late as 1946. Himid draws on her imagined biographies of the inhabitants, attributing statements to the sufferers. There is empty hope in some designs, melancholy too, yet a vibrancy that proclaims life, health, and communal fabric. Once you’ve been touched by the titular sentiment, you have to let go.
It is invidious and pointless to ascribe intention to the artist. All that can be ascertained is the experience of the observer. One person’s equivalent space is another person’s pile of bricks. From this perspective Hard Times lived up to its title. Equivalence was emphasised by the illustration of its absence, similarity signified by suggesting the possible. Walking through the exhibition made time tangible, and it was hard.
In common with Carl Andre’s controversial fire brick forms, the work provokes an awareness of equality via the construct of difference. That may be missed if the theatricality is overlooked, or if the context is obscured. Check out the Holbein before wandering into A Fashionable Marriage, consider the terrors of migration before you reposition the Feast Wagons, contemplate slavery and leprosy before negotiating the Bone in the China and lifting the tags to look Inside the Invisible.
It was strangely satisfying to discover that the artist, who is currently Professor of Contemporary Art at UCLAN, trained in theatre design. All art should incite a reaction and invite interaction, but this exhibition allows and encourages a physical collaboration that most often is prohibited. It is top of the bill at the Harris until 3rd June. Go now; it will stay with you.