MOSTLY FILM: Obscure Gems Two
MOSTLY FILM: Personal Jesuses

Brain Activity/Joy In People

Try to imagine a combination of David Shrigley's 'I'm Dead' and Jeremy Deller's 'Joy In People' that looks a little like this, but made by someone with access to decent image editing tools and talent.I know there isn't all that much coverage of visual art on this site - here, take a look - but it's interesting to me that this is the first time I've ever reviewed anything at London's Hayward Gallery. I'm in and out of all the other arts venues on the South Bank all the time, but it's rare that something at the Hayward attracts my attention.

So it's nice to be able to report that a conveniently matching pair of exhibitions is occupying the space from now until May 13th, 2012. One single ticket will get you into both: it's a very good deal, for a number of reasons.

If I'm honest, though, the main reason I was at the Hayward Gallery - at least, initially - was for the exhibition David Shrigley: Brain Activity. I've admired Shrigley's comedy stylings from afar for some time now, and always thought of him as a humourist first, and an artist second. This exhibition hasn't really done much to change my mind, other than to demonstrate he's a damn good humourist, and is capable of telling jokes in a variety of media.

Probably the thing Shrigley's best known for are his sketchy, one-gag cartoons. There are plenty of these spread across two rooms: small A4 sized black and white jobs, and a collection of larger works in colour. They can be patchy, but there's a satisfyingly high hit rate, and a wide range of comic approaches, from the subtly sarcastic to the fantastically rude. The closest relatives to these elsewhere in the exhibition are the small number of animated films projected in various locations, although with these the main reason to keep watching to the end is to discover if they have punchlines or not. (Not telling.) It has to be said, the films chosen here are a little too obviously gallery fodder: I would have liked to have seen some more of Shrigley's narrative work here, like Who I Am And What I Want, or the delightful little promo he made a while back for Pringle Of Scotland.

There's also plenty of three-dimensional work in the show as well: after all, its signature image is the stuffed dog carrying a placard proclaiming I'm Dead. It's not the most surprising bit of taxidermy on offer - that one you'll have to stumble across for yourself. But there are also handmade objects of various types: oversized domestic items like boots or cups of tea, a disturbingly large collection of toenail clippings, and a group of several hundred wonkily-shaped insects. It's this last one which proves to be the most persistent gag in the exhibition, as the sign that reads 'this exhibit is alarmed' is carefully positioned on the floor where nobody can see it, thus leading to the alarm being triggered about once every 90 seconds. Shrigley also makes bathetic use of the two outdoor sculpture areas, so be sure not to miss those: it would be very easy to.

So this is all well and good, but once you've got to the end of it you're feeling a little empty - maybe there's something to be said for the argument that Shrigley doesn't really have any substance at his core. Most of the time I'd say that if he makes you laugh, that isn't an issue: but you do feel that you've not quite had the proverbial full meal. But not to worry - he's only on the upper floor of the Hayward. The rest of the building is taken up with Jeremy Deller: Joy In People, although it turns out to be an exhibition with its own flaws. 

I've been less aware of Deller's work than Shrigley's over the years, although I did catch Mike Figgis' film of his piece The Battle Of Orgreave several years ago at the London Film Festival. Orgreave was a large-scale re-enactment of the most notorious clash between police and miners during the 1984 strike, assembled using a huge cast of former miners, former policemen, and members of the Sealed Knot. It's typical of Deller in its social engagement and its desire to create art out of collaboration, but it highlights the two key problems with the exhibition. Firstly, as most of his work is site-specific and performance-based, it doesn't sit well inside a gallery space. Secondly, because Deller spends so much time assembling and curating the contributions of others, it's hard to distinguish his own voice in his work - an accusation you could never aim at, say, David Shrigley.

The closest you get to hearing that voice is in one of the earliest rooms you encounter, Open Bedroom. In 1993, while his parents were on holiday, Deller set up one of his first exhibitions in their house and invited people round to see it. (As is usually the case with him, the story behind the work is as important as the work, even if it does sound like the plot of a sitcom episode.) At the Hayward, we get a recreation of what his bedroom and toilet looked like at the time. The bedroom has plenty of fun things buried in its nooks and crannies, but I feel sorry for the attendant whose job it is to shout at anyone that attempts to flick through Deller's temptingly-racked record collection. Meanwhile, the lav seems to be crying out for an Eno/Duchamp-style intervention, but I didn't have the guts, however you may want to interpret that.

From those humble beginnings, the work gets more diverse, more collaborative, and less focussed as a result. Each major project Deller's embarked on has resulted from particular interests of his, and your engagement with those projects seems to be entirely dependent on how much you share those interests in the first place. When he connects with you, it all works: when he doesn't, he doesn't do enough to convince you that you're missing out. For me, the highlights are the Manchester International Festival work (because that's where I come from), the Orgreave archive (because it shows he did incredibly thorough research for the re-enactment), and a new piece called Exodus (because it's a 3D film of a swarm of bats, and what's not to like about that?).

So again, you come out of Joy In People feeling slightly dissatisfied. But if you take the exhibition as a joint affair with Brain Activity, something rather strange happens. Deller's strengths and weaknesses turn out to complement Shrigley's in a delightful fashion - the politics and humanism of the former dovetailing nicely with the cynicism and wit of the latter. See the two exhibitions back to back, and you'll end up with one composite artist that represents all the good things that new British art is capable of doing. You've got until May 13th: and if you go on the night of Friday May 4th, you'll get the bonus of a musical accompaniment by Shrigley and Deller as they play their favourite records in the Hayward's cafe. It's not like you had anything else planned that night.


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