Since its first iteration in 1979, the touring survey exhibition known as the British Art Show has been the premiere showcase of artistic production coming out of the UK. Held every 5 years and focusing exclusively on artists working in the country (British or foreign), the exhibition is an ever-updating snapshot of the UK’s cultural landscape, functioning like the British equivalent to US’s Whitney Biennial and Greater New York survey exhibition at MoMA PS1.
British Art Show 8, the most recent edition of the show, just finished its 18-month run at the turn of the year. Since October 2015, the touring exhibition had travelled to 4 different institutions in the cities of Leeds, Edinburgh, Norwich, and Southampton, showcasing the works of over 40 UK-based artists. A mix of established figures, including Ryan Gander and John Akomfrah were shown next to the likes of Yuri Pattison and Lawrence Abu Hamdan, heralds of a rising artist generation garnering further acclaim day by day.
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Curating a large group show of artists joined together by their cultural impact and not necessarily the subject matter they are working with is not an easy task. How does one balance the overwhelmingly psychedelic and garish videos of Rachel Maclean with the politically-inflected sculptures of Ahmet Öğüt that act as donation boxes for student loan debt relief?
Beyond a large curatorial team spearheaded by Anna Colin and Lydia Yee, many of the new works commissioned specifically for the exhibition possessed guiding threads amongst one another.
“The curation allowed concepts prevalent in contemporary practice right now to emerge naturally. So of course, the works covered the post-digital era, the resurgence of craft materials, and socially engaged practice—these are inevitable really as that is what is happening in the art world in the UK,” tells Gillian Fox, a curator from Hayward Touring who worked on the exhibition. “The British Art Show is a hybrid really; it is but it also isn’t a survey show, and often the zeitgeist it captures, if any, is only recognizable years into the future.”
The duration of the British Art Show is another element that separates it from your run-of-the-mill survey show. Spanning 18 months, the quinquennial is one of the longest recurring exhibitions in the world. Not only did the world undergo a plethora of changes throughout this timeframe, like the advent of Brexit and Donald Trump’s inauguration, but the artists and works in the show did as well.
“I think the exhibition underwent a natural metamorphosis during its time. Artists who weren’t particularly well known grew in stature and so the name recognition became a lot more pronounced by the end of the tour—Yuri Pattison and Lawrence Abu Hamdan are two notable examples,” Fox reveals. “Others had stand out works in the show that arguably propelled them to the next stages of their career. Running the show over such a long period of time is a very interesting conversation to keep going, as naturally the tone and urgency of particular artists and works ebb and flow as in any durational project.”
Documentation of the British Art Show 8 can be found on the touring exhibition’s website. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until 2020 for the next iteration.