The photo of Sarah Lucas eating a banana from 1990, above, typifies a certain self-confidence, defiance and brashness about the work of the so-called Young Brit Artists of the age which caught the art world’s imagination and made Britannia cool for a while.
Lucas is one of 25 UK-based artists featured in the Arts Council Collection show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s spacious Longside Gallery at the start of a nationwide tour. It’s entitled In My Shoes – Art and the Self since the 1990s and showcases how the age-old idea of self-portraiture has been developed and adapted in recent years. Many of these artists included themselves in their work not only through portraits in various styles but also in performative ways through film and photography.
“I think it’s about putting yourself literally in the frame, having a playful response to oneself while also touching on quite serious questions,” says the show’s curator Natalie Rudd.
Rudd has divided the exhibition into four sections. In the first, Physical Evidence, Helen Chadwick’s Self-Portrait (1991), for example, features a human brain, not hers I imagine! She’s asking us to reflect on the physicality of our thoughts, feelings and individuality. Emma Hart’s Fork Face is a ceramic satellite dish on which a woman’s body is both prodded and helped up with forks, expressing her feelings of being both pushed and supported in her work and life.
The Artist’s World section looks at how artists refer to their daily lives and surroundings. A series of self-portraits by Sarah Lucas are very much in the moment as she postures and presents herself in a variety of ways. She’s asking herself “Where am I?” and Who am I”?
Bedwyr Williams’s installation Walk a Mile in my Shoes (2006) is in the form of a shoe rack inviting people to think about his life through his collection of size13 footwear and encouraging them to think about things from another perspective. Empathy is very much a theme of this show.
The section introduces performance as we see Gillian Wearing dancing in a shopping centre in Dancing in Peckham (1994). You’d get locked up for it where I live! Jesse Wine’s I Really Care V (2014) is one of a series of pieces representing meals he has made for himself over the years. It’s a pizza sculpture.
Underpinning the playfulness is often a very political and incisive quality to the work. In the third section Self as Other, Jananne Al-Ani places two photographs together, each featuring her mother and sisters. One has them in eastern clothing, the other in western. She’s exploring her ongoing interest in the female body and the differing cultural attitudes towards it.
The section also includes a room-sized installation by Michael Landy entitled Scrapheap Services (1995) in which a fictitious cleaning company eradicates those sections of society deemed to be of no use, thrusting them into a vast shredder. It’s a biting satire as relevant today as it was when it was made.
Just as hard-hitting, though in a less direct way, is Rachel MacLean’s hour-long film Feed Me (2015) in which she plays all the parts in a musical based around a child with ever-so innocent digitally-widened eyes. It takes pot shots at various contemporary themes in a way that is both hilarious and shocking as she switches from innocent to horrific, innocence and corruption, the child and the adult.
Tracey Emin has also a made a film, a lot shorter for the fourth section Past and Present. Her Why I Never Became a Dancer (1995) is an engaging, confessional narration of outgrowing Margate. Jonathan Monk casts himself as a classical statue and Mark Wallinger has made a self-portrait which is merged with the face of Emily Davison, the suffragette who jumped in front of the King’s horse. And there are portraits of Gavin Turk that recall his performance at the preview of the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition of 1999 in which he arrived as a tramp and behaved confrontationally.
The self-reference of In My Shoes at times seems more like self-reverence and self-indulgence. But there’s plenty here to enjoy and ponder. What’s more, it captures the innovation and imagination that has redefined self-portraiture in the modern era and demonstrates how influential the YBAs were to have on the next generation of artists.
In My Shoes – Art and the Self since the 1990s will show at the YSP until 17 June 2018 before moving on to Leicester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Aberystwyth and Welbeck.
All images are used courtesy of the artists, The Arts Council Collection and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.