Every five years, the British Art Show takes the temperature of the contemporary art scene in the UK at a given moment. But this, of course, is no ordinary moment. The ninth iteration of the show, organised by Hayward Gallery Touring since 1979, was scheduled to open in Manchester in September, then Wolverhampton in March, and finally opened its doors in July in the new rooftop exhibition space at Aberdeen Art Gallery.
Curators Irene Aristizabal and Hammad Nasar settled on three themes for the show just before the pandemic took hold. Fifteen months later, they say the ideas are more relevant than ever. 'When the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests happened we certainly had a moment of saying: “Oh god, is all the work that we’ve done even relevant?”' Nasar says. 'But as we looked back at our themes - healing, care and reparative history, tactics for togetherness and imagining new futures - we didn’t change a word. If anything, it felt like this is much more urgent now than it was in 2019.'
The themes came from observing artists’ practice, viewing hundreds of portfolios online and making more than 230 studio visits in 23 cities. Nasar says: 'For us it was really important that we started with what is urgent and current for artists working in Britain today. The show is not a top 40 or a top 50, a list-making exercise, we felt it important that it’s also coherent as a show, that the works talk to each other.'
Aristizabal adds: 'With the list that we ended up with, we feel that these are artists that are working in ways that are reflective of artistic practice today, that speak to the moment, that are proposing new ways of thinking, new ways of understanding the world that we live in.'
A new exhibition will be curated for each of the four venues: Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth. Around half the 47 young and mid-career artists will show new work, but the exhibition will also include key works from the last five years. Partnership funding has enabled a small number of new commissions.
Of the 33 artists in the Aberdeen show, there is a strong representation of those based in Scotland including Alberta Whittle, Jamie Crewe, Hardeep Pandhal, Hanna Tuulikki and Margaret Salmon. Nasar observes that of the four different covers used on the BAS9 catalogue, three are by Scottish-based artists, 'a testament to the strength of the ecosystem here'.
Whittle and Pandhal, both of whom have made new commissions for Aberdeen, speak clearly to the theme of healing, care and reparative history, looking at issues of race and the legacies of slavery and colonial history. Both artists work across a range of media, dealing with difficult themes but also considering ways forward and the possibility of healing.
Another new commission featured in the Aberdeen show is Crude Care by artist Florence Peake. In sculpture, performance and film, Peake looks both at the mining of natural resources in the Aberdeen area and at the importance and potential exploitation of carers in domestic contexts and in the care industry. She made aspects of the work in collaboration with a local care worker.
The Aberdeen show has a particular focus on our relationship with the planet, both its human and non-human aspects, from artist Joey Holder whose immersive installation explores a deepwater lake undiscovered by science, to Grace Ndiritu’s participatory project ‘Plant Theatre For Plant People’ and Glasgow-based Hanna Tuulikki’s work with folk traditions, considering our relationship with the non-human world through composition, performance and drawing.
Turner-prize shortlisted artists Cooking Sections (Daniel Fernandez Pascual and Alon Schwabe) present their ongoing research project Climavore: On Tidal Zones, which has involved more than five years of work on Skye and Raasay on issues of food production and climate change, looking in particular at the environmental impact of the salmon farming industry. The Art Gallery Cafe and several other local restaurants will be adopting Climavore menus for the duration of the show.
Cooking Sections is emblematic of many of the artistic practices featured in the show in their outward-looking focus, engaging with issues in the world at large and often working outside the gallery context. Nasar describes encountering many artists who are 'very actively flexing their collective and individual muscles, to think about new ways of organising, of thinking, of economies, not taking what’s there as a given'.
Aristizabal says: 'In putting the show together, we were also thinking about where things are going, how things are developing going forward. A lot of artists are thinking about other possible futures, how society and the world we live in can be considered in a different way, and proposing new ideas that spark the imagination.'