Mounted once every five years, the British Art Show is highly anticipated in the U.K. art world. The seventh edition, "In the Days of the Comet," curated by Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton, is about to open at London’s Hayward Gallery, It’s the second stop in a tour that started in Nottingham and will continue to Glasgow and Plymouth later this year. With each city, the exhibition is not only reshuffled but also transformed by the addition of several new commissions. Le Feuvre and Morton spoke with "Modern Painters" U.K. editor Coline Milliard.
Coline Milliard: You’ve described your being put together to curate the British Art Show as an arranged marriage. How were you selected, and how did you work as a duo?
Lisa Le Feuvre: The British Art Show is run by Hayward Touring, which is part of London’s Southbank Centre. Together with all the venues hosting the exhibition, it set up a panel that invited curators to develop proposals. Tom and I were two of those people. We were then individually invited to curate the show, but each of us knew that it would be with someone else. When I saw that I was doing it with Tom, I thought, "Yes, perfect!"
Tom Morton: Among the first things Lisa and I did was to set up a couple of ground rules. One of them was that we both had to agree 100 percent on all the artists in the show. The other rule was that no one would be in the exhibition for reasons other than their work. Then we had this odd moment when we decided to each quickly write down 10 artists we thought should be in the show and then swap our pieces of paper. Seven or eight of them were a total match.
CM: The show feels very personal, unsurveylike.
LLF: I don’t know if personal is the right word, but what hopefully comes across is that we love all the works in the show. If the two ground rules Tom described were our starting point, this was our logical conclusion. As soon as you take this decision, you cannot claim to make a survey. We also felt that in 2010-11, it was not the time to try and do something that’s definitive, if you ever could do such a thing.
CM: Is the notion of a British Art Show still relevant today?
LLF: Many artists choose to base themselves in Britain. There are amazing project spaces, artist-run spaces, public galleries, an art market, magazines — there’s so much here. The fact that London is a world city and that Britain has such an important place in the realm of art meant that we were not going to be developing something that would become provincial or national only. We intended the British Art Show to have international resonance.
CM: Tom, in your catalogue essay you talk about rediscovering Britain. What have you learned researching the exhibition? Have you been surprised?
TM: People often ask us about our research into the show as though it began the day after we were appointed. But, of course, that’s not the case — our research began the moment we started thinking seriously about art. Between us, that’s decades of experience. I don’t think there is any artist who was entirely new to both Lisa and me. That said, we made each other look again at artists who were perhaps on the periphery of our vision.
LLF: We felt that if you are going to do a serious exhibition of serious artists, the way to start is not to set yourself on some kind of path of discovery. It was about deepening our existing knowledge. It’s not about searching for the new; it’s about studying artists’ work in depth.
TM: We’ve discovered new aspects of certain artists’ practices that we thought were familiar to us.
CM: What shift would you identify from the last British Art Show?
TM: We probably should talk not about a shift but about a set of shifts. A lot of the type of art that dominated the previous edition — relational practices and film and video works that bear a strong resemblance to documentaries — still carry on, but it’s perhaps not where the heat is for Lisa and me. I can’t imagine something like Emily Wardill’s or Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s work being made five years ago. There are certain temperatures that exist now that weren’t there half a decade back.
CM: The title of the show is "In the Days of the Comet." Why the comet?
TM: There is a lovely poem by Philip Larkin called "Days" that asks, "Where can we live but days?" To some degree, the exhibition is about that. The motif of the comet pertains to historical recurrence, to the idea of parallel worlds, and it’s also about change — how we identify it and how we deal with it. The looping comet reminds you that time is ticking and that we do live in days.
LLF: It really identifies and draws out various ideas that are endemic to art being made today.
"In the Days of the Comet" is at London’s Hayward Gallery February 16-April 17. It will be in Glasgow May 28-August 14, and in Plymouth September 17-December 4.
"Portfolio Newsmaker: Lisa Le Feuvre & Tom Morton" originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' February 2011 Table of Contents.