Richard Hamilton at the ICA

Richard Hamilton at the ICA

To coincide with Tate Modern’s current retrospective, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) is displaying a dissection of two seminal exhibitions undertaken by the late Richard Hamilton. These were previously displayed in the ICA’s exhibition space at Dover Street nearly 60 years ago. The current show Richard Hamilton at the ICA runs until 6 April.

The lower gallery showcases Man, Machine and Motion (1955) and sees thirty open steel frame shells, in which appropriate photographic prints consider four themes: Aquatic, Terrestrial, Aerial and Interplanetary. In the Upper Gallery is the piece An Exhibit (1957); a conceived collaboration with writer-critic Lawrence Alloway and artist Victor Pasmore. Rectangular monochrome sheets of Plexiglas vertically and horizontally dissect the gallery space to give visitors an opportunity ‘to generate their own compositions.’

What is so prevalently remarkable about Hamilton’s exhibition is the subtle interactive element ascertained as one circumnavigates Man, Machine and Motion (1955). Manoeuvring around the works causes a constant realigning of the frames and photographic imagery and a perpetual stream of new and unique compositions is produced in the eye of the viewer. The black and white photographs portray aspects of motion from mechanical to fantastical, yet, what becomes abundantly obvious with the nature of the images is the way they illuminate a sense of unnerving regarding age.

The monochromatic aesthetics and details of, for example, a deep sea diver, motorcycles and racing cars within the photographs, present an archaic and out-dated view of the world, a time when humankind pushed the limits of innovative mechanical power. Now, in the digital age, this seems about as obsolete as a gramophone in comparison to an iPod. Nevertheless, the three-dimensional collaged wonders of the end of the mechanical age provides a serene sense of humility within the work.

An Exhibit (1957), however, seems a far cry from the outdated mentality of Man, Machine and Motion (1955). Humility is replaced by an introspective necessity to question broader formalities within the work. The limited Plexiglas colour pallet (consisting of dark red, dirty gold, black and white) combined with the reflective and transparent properties allude to a pristinely futuristic time – albeit, a slightly sombre one – which goes on to taint the outlook of the exhibition. Subsequently, an eerie silence is bestowed upon the gallery space, furthering the introspective contemplation that confronts one when first entering the space. The opposing horizontal and vertical levels of the work throughout the gallery space instils a surreal sense of quasi-weightlessness in the viewer, who is encouraged to contorts and recomposes in between the Plexiglas and architecture.

At the opposite end of the gallery a smaller alcove reveals documents and regalia from the original exhibition of An Exhibit in 1957. Upon viewing these one is transposed back to the initial show. Details ascertained from the documents and photographs distort the reality of the remade works as they try to capture just what it was like when it was first unveiled to the public. In doing so, it slowly dawns that this exhibition (both An Exhibit and Man, Machine and Motion) is no longer a contemporary exhibition. In fact, with Richard Hamilton’s death in 2011, this is now a historic document; an integral autopsy of the enormous legacy made by one of the defining artists of the 20th century.

William Davie

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1. Image courtesy of ICA.