Every now and then, an exhibition comes along that – like a classic sporting contest – will be remembered for generations. There are obvious examples: the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris; the Armory Show of 1913, which introduced modern art to New York. In Britain, people might think of Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist show of 1910, which attracted 25,000 mostly incredulous visitors, and was later described as an “art-quake”.
This Is Tomorrow, which took place at the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End in 1956, is another contender for the title of “most important 20th-century British exhibition”. Consisting of 12 different displays, each put together by a “co-operative group” of architects and artists including Richard Hamilton, it has long been understood as a precursor of Pop art, which emerged, in full Technicolor, the following decade.
Remaking such an epochal exhibition is therefore a bold, even foolhardy move, a little like inviting England’s footballers to emulate the heroes of ’66.
What, then, does “tomorrow” look like in 2019? The short answer is: a lot bleaker than it did back in the Fifties. Everything you need to know about the West’s current self-perception is implied by the interrogative inflection of the original show’s title: Is This Tomorrow?
Despite the threat of nuclear annihilation, British artists in the Fifties felt a sense of optimism. Rationing had ended. The rubble was being cleared. Thanks to the 1956 Clean Air Act, London’s “pea-soup” yellow fog was about to disappear. America, with its shiny popular culture, seemed like the promised land.
“This Is Tomorrow” was therefore an expression of self-confidence: let’s jettison the hardship of the war years, and look to the future. The only thing to be feared was the straitlaced spectre of “good taste”, which threatened to stymie all the creative possibilities.
“Is This Tomorrow?”, by contrast, is a much meeker, more tentative proposition – a question, not a statement. It even strikes a note of disbelief: have yesterday’s promises really come to this? A persuasive but pessimistic essay by the Whitechapel’s director, Iwona Blazwick, at the start of the catalogue, outlines the problems we face today: climate change, rising homelessness, the sinister menace of digital technology. Postwar optimism has been replaced by contemporary uncertainty.
This doom-mongering is reflected in many of the 10 collaborative projects, created by more than 30 artists and architects from all over the world, that form the new show. Farshid Moussavi and Zineb Sedira, for instance, offer an ominous thicket of nine black turnstiles: a crushing, claustrophobic reminder of state control.
Spirits Roaming the Earth, by Andrés Jaque and Jacolby Satterwhite, consists of an imposing rock-like form, like a chunk of blasted mountainside deposited in the gallery. Inside, screens blare out a delirious mash-up of anarchic footage, touching on a host of on-the-button issues, from designer babies and bacchanalian sex parties to fracking.
Cécile B Evans and Rachel Armstrong, professor of “experimental architecture” at Newcastle university, draw attention to the inhuman fact that the smallest officially sanctioned living space in London is now a minuscule 140 square feet: desirable shoebox studio or battery-farm cage?
Elsewhere, 6a architects and Argentinean artist Amalia Pica present Enclosure, a micro-labyrinth of farming-industry paraphernalia, in which visitors negotiate pens, feeding troughs, and hurdles – another worrying conflation of human and animal realms.
Simon Fujiwara and architect David Kohn, meanwhile, have cooked up a witty, satirical model of a futuristic museum, offering something they call “The Salvator Mundi Experience” – a gallery theme-park devoted to Leonardo’s painting of Christ as Saviour of the World, which sold at auction for $450 million two years ago. Art as commodified spectacle: perhaps their vision isn’t so fantastical, after all.
Even those installations that do not ostensibly castigate the contemporary world turn out, on reflection, to be responding to our times. David Adjaye and Kapwani Kiwanga have built an elegant star-shaped glass pavilion, while Rana Begum and Marina Tabassum’s closed-off, blank white structure reveals, inside, an oculus decorated with delicately spray-painted foil.
Both structures, seemingly, turn their backs upon the world, offering “safe spaces” where people can retreat from the hurly-burly madness of today: in this context, the simple act of looking inwards becomes an indictment of contemporary society. Even the title of the latter work, Phoenix Will Rise, evokes the wider world as an ashen wasteland.
In general, the installations, executed on a modest budget, have a provisional quality. Think of them as three-dimensional sketches and experiments, and don’t expect much in the way of an aesthetic hit: Hardeep Pandhal’s nihilistic, nose-thumbing contribution, for instance, includes a crude mural of a mooning Venus flytrap, baring two very human buttocks. That said, Chinese artist Cao Fei and mono office’s “machine”, a totem-pole-like set of toolkits for the technological age, has the sleek grace of modernist sculpture.
Does this exhibition provide a vision of tomorrow? Hopefully not, in the sense that its prophecies are so glum – although, thankfully, the bright eloquence of this new generation of artists and architects lightens the cheerless mood. For all that, though, I doubt they offer much evidence of a step-change in contemporary art. Sixty years on from the Whitechapel’s This Is Tomorrow, at the Whitechapel, Richard Hamilton, were he still alive, would feel very much at home.
From Feb 14-May 12. Details: 020 7522 7888; whitechapelgallery.org