There is terrible irony in having an exhibition like Duane Hanson’s in the middle of central London.
There is terrible irony in having an exhibition like Duane Hanson’s in the middle of central London where the white middle class reigns and streets are being covered with anti-homeless spikes. Seeing the audience ooh-ing and aah-ing over this legendary artist’s social commentary and stroking their almost-there beards or fixing their designer glasses is a surreal experience. I walk around and catch bits and bobs of conversation floating in the air of this prestigious gallery. “Yeah, I mean she’s slept with him twice now! I can’t believe why she isn’t just dumping him if she isn’t into him,” I hear a female voice say as I turn around to see my fellow exhibition visitor discussing the sex life of her friend opposite a trashcan that contains Hanson’s earliest piece of work – a hyper realistic baby that has been left there to die.
No, this is not going to be a rant about how “immoral” and “wrong” this is because A) it’s obvious, duh and B) I’d rather not become one of the middleclass university students who’ve only recently discovered the joys of political activism through their university course or through the Milibae phenomenon because “voting is so cool #GE2015”. Instead, I want to talk about the banality of our actions in a space like this, what Duane Hanson’s work is about is how we act around these sculptures.
While their medium suggests that we should be paying attention to the formality of these pieces, it is actually the performance we become part of when walking around the space that we should be paying attention to. “In the turmoil of everyday life, we too seldom become aware of one another," Hanson once said back in the golden 1990s when explaining the means behind his work. When entering the exhibition space, the viewers are transformed into the true objects of gaze. Duane Hanson’s work is brilliant in the way it depicts the real society yet the viewers are the ones to turn it into “working-class porn” through the mating dance of pretentiousness where the goal is to impress everyone around them with their pseudointellectual and sociopolitical banter.
This is the moment I have to take a long look at myself in the mirror and tell myself to piss off because, while I did immerse myself into the activity of people watching which Hanson encourages us to do, I also fell into the trap of becoming one of the perpetrators of this “working-class porn” I have mentioned. Taking a selfie with Hanson’s sculpture “Queenie” is not my proudest moment yet it was the wake-up call I needed in order to become aware of how fucked up our behaviour is when we are not instagramming things like these.
It is truly ironic that we go and immerse ourselves in exhibitions like Hanson’s for the sake of engaging with sociopolitical critique yet we look through these people on the street when they are doing their everyday job. It is the hyperrealism of these sculptures that truly make them seem like fellow human beings and when looking at the selfie on my phone screen, I felt pretty damn disgusted and ashamed of myself. Would I go and disrupt a cleaning lady at work? No. Would I take a photo with a random person like this and degrade them into a spectacle? God no. But it is this kind of guilt that teaches us the lesson of “universality of all people” Hanson’s work preaches about.
The exhibition is open till September the 13th at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.