Held every five years, the British Art Show provides an important overview of contemporary art in the UK. Touring four cities— Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth—the work by 47 artists will attempt to give a snapshot of this current period of British history, as the nation confronts its colonial past and reflects upon the politics of identity and nationhood, as well as racial, social and environmental justice.
The first leg of the show opens this weekend at the Aberdeen Art Gallery with 33 of the 47 artists presenting work that explores different forms of knowledge, from the use of spirituality to heal the earth, to the development of non-exploitative ways of living with non-humans. Among the highlights will be an ongoing research project by the Turner Prize-shortlisted Cooking Sections, called CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones (2015-present), which encourages a flexible diet as its central tenet. Collaborating with local people from the Scottish islands of Raasay and Skye, the artists’ work uses architecture and ecology to tackle the devastating environmental effects of industries such as salmon farming.
The exhibition’s curators Irene Aristizábal and Hammad Nasar wanted to challenge the “conventional format of touring exhibitions” by creating a show that is a cumulative experience. Each city will share the common themes but will also exhibit work that is specific to the city’s local histories, collections and conditions.
In Wolverhampton, the “approach foregrounds the contemporary resonance of the Black Lives Matter protests with the historic context of [the Wolverhampton MP] Enoch Powell’s infamous and divisive ‘rivers of blood’ speech”, Nasar says. The Manchester leg will investigate the ongoing struggle to shape a new social contract with fairer conditions for all and engage with the evolving nature of work. In Plymouth the show will be centred on the migration of bodies, peoples, ideas, plants and objects—highlighting how encounters between Britain and other cultures have enriched society. The British Art Show 9 website has been conceived as a fifth site, where artists have been invited to show digital works in addition to installation images of the exhibition.
The Plymouth leg will include a new commission by Alberta Whittle called Hindsight is a luxury you cannot afford (2021), which reflects on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage to the “New World” and explores how the sea can be a place of torture, a crucible for knowledge, a graveyard, and somewhere to form new communities. “As the works of many of the artists in [the British Art Show 9] attest, national histories are not national facts. They are shared cultural narratives produced over hundreds of years”, Nasar says.
The exhibition has been developed at a time when attitudes to varying issues such as rampant capitalism, the Brexit referendum, the Grenfell Tower fire, the Windrush scandal, Black Lives Matter protests, and the Covid-19 pandemic have “laid bare a historical amnesia that has hindered societal fissures from healing”, Aristizábal says.
To make their selection, Aristizábal, Nasar and the Hayward Gallery Touring team reviewed the works of around 500 artists living and/or working in the UK between 2015 and 2020. The curators worked backwards, first studying the artists’ work before then coming up with the three themes for the show: healing, care and reparative history; tactics for togetherness; and imagining new futures. Although these choices were made prior to the pandemic and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests, the themes appear to resonate even more so today. “Our best hope is collective action and common purpose; caring for ourselves, each other and the natural world, and treating this crisis as a catalyst for change,” Aristizábal says.
• British Art Show 9, Aberdeen Art Gallery, 10 July-10 October; Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Wolverhampton School of Art, 22 January-10 April 2022; various venues, Manchester, 13 May-4 September 2022; various venues, Plymouth, 8 October-23 December 2022