Why a Bloodhound Missile is Aimed at South London in the Name of Art

By Duncan Bell on at

People of south London. You have one hour to acquiesce to our demands or we shall lay waste your "shopping centres" and "family pubs", one by one...

No, okay, this is part of History is Now, the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, on London's South Bank. A pretty portentous name for an exhibition that's classic Hayward: thought-provoking in places, hugely intense in spots, fun in certain areas, and worth the price of admission. It's seven artists whisking us through the last 70 years of not just British art, but British "culture" in a broader sense.

Of all the capital's "prestige" galleries, the Hayward is the only one that delivers again and again, because it does proper, themed shows, rather than 300-room retrospectives of art's Premier League. Whoever does their curation is a genius so the result is like a great mix tape, as opposed to, say, the Tate, which is like sitting through a 20-CD box set of the complete works of some dreadful rock arse.

If the point of the exhibition is to make us realise that the times we live in are the most awful Britain has ever faced – and we're talking here about a country that existed during the Black Death, the Second World War and the 70s and 80s here – History is Now succeeds.

That's because it opens with Simon Fujiwara's bit, which is the most recent art, the most recent reference points. It's so aggressively banal, I'm going to go ahead and assume it's meant to be a commentary on modern things that are banal, as opposed to Simon Fujiwara actually likes this cack.

So you've got Hirst's spot paintings, a balcony from Canary Wharf, Thatcher's suit from the film about Thatcher (as opposed to Thatcher's actual suit), a model of Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit tower from the Olympic park and, most tantalising of all, a big freezer that has no identifying text on it at all, which makes me conclude that it's literally just a big freezer. Maybe every hour, the lid opens and someone leaps out of it screaming. That didn't happen while I was there.

After that, it's pretty much all gold, however. It's all from the Arts Council-funded time of anger, urgency and agitation that we're all supposed to find embarrassingly gauche now but which is actually brilliantly alive and vibrant and furious and funny.

The twins Jane and Louise Wilson offer up macro, wall-sized visions of 80s grim (Greenham Common), then zoom to a micro view of the Northern Ireland conflict with all its race, class and national hatreds, in what is the most intense and brilliant part of the show. They also have some lovely black beach huts.

Then Hannah Starkey gives up a brilliantly laid-out room of witty, punky, feminist-influenced photography from art to journalism to advertising to photos of rude graffiti on advertising.

Roger Hiorns offers a chilling and unusual art-documentary take on the BSE/CJD crisis that is far more forensically bleak than anything you'll ever see at the Science Museum, and which tips the furthest into the area of,"Is this just art because it's in an art gallery?" I don't mean that as a criticism per se.

Upstairs there's a lot of British art video, chosen by John Akomfrah, which I just didn't have time to take in. Random observations: one screen had a bunch of swinging art hippies partying sexually in really ugly pants (early 1970s), another Gilbert and George being austerely funny against a backdrop of unremitting gloom (early 1980s) and a lot of great art, poorly filmed on then-fashionable/cheap media (most British "art" films ever).

And then it's The Bit With The Actual Missile: Richard Wentworth's brisk trot through the boy's-own 1950s, which takes in everything from Francis Bacon sketches to Henry Moore's early models for several of his great works, in a mix of museum, gallery and, I don't know, just great, stream-of-consciousness pissing about. It's a joyous mess that culminates in, yep, a missile pointed at south London.

I once visited the Hayward and walked out on to this same outdoor space to be confronted by a 10-foot-tall, HD video screen showing a 10-foot-tall slow-mo erection. Well, this tops even that.

According to the exhibition notes, the rocket is a Bloodhound surface-to-air missile, designed primarily to shoot down Russian nuclear bombers. Introduced in 1958, it presumably cost billions over its very long service life, which ended when it was stood down in 1991.

In all that time it was fired in anger… never. Not once. So, a brilliant deterrent or a colossal waste of money – either way, an embodiment of its age.

Once again, you can ask, "Is it art?" But in my view, you definitely can't ask, "Is it interesting? Is it awesome? Do I want my photograph next to it?"

History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain runs till April 26.