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History is Now at Hayward Gallery Searches for British Identity

11/02/2015 10:55 GMT | Updated 12/04/2015 10:59 BST

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Timed perfectly to coincide with the General Election, the Hayward Gallery has opened a new exhibition which covers British cultural history from 1945 to the present day. From the Cold War to Thatcher, from Northern Ireland to Greenham Common, from consumerism to BSE, History is Now challenges itself to consider British national identity - who are we and how did we get here.

Seven artists were invited to curate their own section of this exhibition, choosing particular periods and subjects from post-war British cultural history. Over 250 objects are included in this vast exhibition, with every media possible included - from paintings to photographs, from sculpture to scientific surveys, and everything in-between.

John Akomfrah mined the archives of the 600 films in the Arts Council for his section of the show, picking 17 he felt not just reflected British society but also the development of film itself as an artistic medium.

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Whereas in his section looking at Britain's attempts to rebuild and reform after WW2, Richard Wentworth includes pebbles and stones Henry Moore collected from the British coastline as well as a decommissioned surface to air missile amongst his exhibits.

Hannah Starkey has smothered the walls in her section with magazine adverts - a blinding, overwhelming representation of the false and contrived images we are bombarded with. Highly sexualised images, photo-shopped bodies, passive objectivity... No wonder we all hate ourselves.

Yet her juxtaposition of these with tender photographs and portraits of real lives and real bodies lends a powerful and positive message of defiance to her display.

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That sense of fighting back I also got from Jane and Louise Wilson's section that looked at episodes of social and political unrest. Explicit conflict such as Northern Ireland is represented through paintings from Richard Hamilton, and text and collages from Conrad Atkinson. Whilst Stuart Brisley depicts the social impact of high levels of unemployment in the early 1980s with his profound 1-66,666, where dozens of bloated plastic gloves lie idle in a cage.

Roger Hiorns' section focuses on BSE and it's a dynamic, energetic part of the gallery where sounds of radio broadcasts from the 1990s compete for our attention with unsettling video footage of staggering sick cows and their charred carcasses from the mass cull.

It's a real assault on the senses. Around our feet are Hirst's cattle skulls in formaldehyde whilst on the walls are vintage newspaper headlines, photos of those who died from mad cow disease and extracts from scientific journals on the long-term effects of this contamination of the food chain. One of the documents, from 2013, states that estimates are that 24,000 people have dormant vCJD in them. Who knows whether this disease will develop again from within us?

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This section on BSE moved me so much that on getting home, I promptly threw out the beef mince I had in the freezer. The exhibits made me feel sick, queasy and, given the recent horsemeat scandal, it was a direct challenge to us to question who we trust.

And this heavy weight, this depression about the corruption of our authorities and our society, gives this exhibition its power.

Rodriguez King-Dorset produced a film based on the Broadwater riots, Winston Silcott, where quotes from the falsely accused men are spoken by actors over deeply traumatising images. Their screams of "Water, please! I want the water, please. You promised me water!" over footage of men in pain indicate the torture, the criminality of the police who falsified the evidence against these men.

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And in Simon Fujiwara's section, which reduces us to our culture, there's Sam Taylor-Johnson's video of David Beckham sleeping representing our shallow obsession with celebrities. There's Hirst's dots - the commodification of productivity, erasing our individuality. And a scale model of Anish Kapoor's bewildering Orbit sculpture built for the London 2012 Olympics.

It drags you down this exhibition and confuses you. What have we done? Look at everything we have to deal with. But there is hope.

Alongside Thatcher and Beckham are brooms used to sweep up the debris left over from the 2011 riots - a sign of a community, a society, that the Iron Lady declared dead - tender prints from Melanie Manchot of her naked mother, bold and fearless in all her natural beauty, and photographs of women at Greenham Common breaking down the fences.

So, who are we? I don't know. This exhibition doesn't give us answers but evidence. And what you see will haunt you and motivate you. A powerful exhibition that doesn't pull its punches.

Hayward Gallery, London to April 26, 2015

Image Credits:

1. Jørgen Leth and Ole John 'My Name is Andy Warhol' from 66 Scenes from America (66 scener fra America), 1982 © the artist 1982/2014. Courtesy the artists and Andersen's Contemporary, Copenhagen

2. Richard Hamilton, The State 1993, Tate, London 2014 © The Estate of Richard Hamilton DACS 2014

3. Victor Burgin Possession, 1976 Gift of the artist 1980 © the artist

4. Tony Cragg Britain Seen from the North, 1981 © DACS 2015 Courtesy Tate Images

5. Gilbert and George World of Gilbert and George, 1981 HD Projection, stereo sound 1 min, 8 secs © the artists, 2014