Love’s ability to sink its intractable teeth into the soul resonated through the Hayward’s new Project Space show What’s Love Got To Do With It. The exhibition is part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love and provides a contemplative counterpoint to the Human Factor show downstairs in the Hayward’s main space. It feels apt that the subject of love has been elevated to this higher level, above the corporeal wrenching of the Human Factor’s often grizzled sculptures.
That show is full of contemporary art megastars like Paul McCarthy and Jeff Koons, but the only real A-lister in What’s Love Got To Do With It is the American multimedia and performance artist Sharon Hayes. Anna Barham, William Cobbing, Joanna Piotrowska and Ilona Sagar make up the rest of the cast in a well-chosen blend of youth and experience.
For an exhibition that attempts to express the inexpressible, What’s Love Got To Do With It does pretty well. William Cobbing’s work in particular has the paradoxical nature of love’s “speakability” at its core. In his 2004 video Kiss a man and woman build vast amorphous masks of clay around each other’s heads. The clay meets in the middle in riposte to an action whose history in art has always been one characterised by gentility (Klimt, Rodin, Brancusi). The elephantine head/s are instead in the psycho-sympathetic tradition of the Surrealists, and seem to ask the question: how could I speak of love when I can’t even breathe?
The visceral materiality of Cobbing’s work acts as a prelude for the young London artist Ilona Sagar’s video I Fell Backwards And You Were There (2014). This polished film blends rural vistas with entwined bodies and shots of urban meanderings. It seems to be ostensibly concerned with the shift between the choral unity of bodies together and the solitude of those lost in love’s cruel game. The metaphor of the city as a place of congregation that can use love as its binding agent is strengthened by the shift in the narrator’s grammatical personhood (we are, you are, I am). But the problem with Sagar’s film is that there seems to be very little love in it. It is too polished and by concentrating on materiality and haptic surfaces it misses the irrationality of love, only approaching the poetic once when the narrator lilts: “behind our bed are all the dead parts of us”.
A dispassionate response is not often a criticism levelled at Sharon Hayes however. Her arrangement of five speakers that fill the room with highly emotional confessions are typical of her folding the personal into the political into the precarious. Ultimately Hayes affirmatively answers her own titular question: Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time For Love? Made in 2007 the work overlaps expressions of love with anxiety ridden musings on the war in Iraq. The problem with this idea however, and it is brought out by the context of this exhibition, is that love does have its redemptive qualities but it is also dangerous; it is a double edged sword and politics is in possession of enough of those already.
This is something the young Polish photographer Joanna Piotrowska clearly appreciates. Three photographs from her FROWST series pay homage to the psychotherapist Bert Hellinger who entreated his patients to re-enact moments from their family lives in order to work through them. Piotrowska is the only artist here to suggest that love is often performative and neighbourly to madness. The uncanny image of two young men lying on a rug manages to balance empathy and affection with a conceptual and psychoanalytic competency that feels effortless.
Anna Barhams’s I Feel Love is the last work in the show. A TV monitor displays the lyrics of the 70s Disco hit I Feel Love as they are printed on screen after being fed through voice recognition software. Her focus on the mediation of love and its attendant emotions points towards the misrecognition of such a ubiquitous but uncommunicable and un-testable idea as love. Barham’s sign off is well judged, it is eloquent, modest and tactful, which is precisely what the exhibition achieves as a whole. A small gift to an unspeakable everything.
What’s Love Got To Do With It at Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love, London until 14 September. www.southbankcentre.co.uk
1. Joanna Piotrowska XXXIII from FROWST, (2013) Silver gelatin hand print 90 x 70 cm © the artist
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