In the first ever exhibition in an art gallery to investigate bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and its impact, Turner Prize nominee Roger Hiorns curates a section of 'History Is Now: 7 artists take on Britain' at the Hayward Gallery (10 Feb-26 April 2015).
Supported by a People Award from the Wellcome Trust, Hiorns provides an artistic exploration of the disease and its human equivalent, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), looking at how these crises arose and key milestones in their developments, as well as their lasting impact. He has worked with scientists to investigate BSE and vCJD and to curate an exhibition that incorporates biomedicine, agriculture, animal husbandry, food production and consumption.
The exhibition itself is multi-layered, displaying artworks from the time of the crisis, such as Gustav Metzger's 'Mad Cow Slide Talk' (1996) and Damien Hirst's 'Out of Sight. Out of Mind.' (1991), and cultural artefacts - excerpts from a cattle passport, scientific equipment and objects related to BSE research, film and documentary media clips, and official committee reports - alongside newly produced objects, including a 3D-printed model of the infectious prion protein. The exhibition is structured around a timeline charting the history, development and impact of the diseases, in addition to other points that the artist found of interest.
Hiorns pulls together a diverse range of material, forming a collage that tells the remarkable story of the BSE crisis and its lasting effects, noting that the experience marked a change in public attitudes towards governing bodies. He draws parallels between historical and more contemporary prion-related diseases (such as scrapie and chronic wasting disease) and the media or public responses to them, highlighting what these situations reveal about society and its structures.
"I was a student at the time when the press revealed the crisis of BSE and its link to vCJD," says Hiorns. "Being part of an at-risk generation created an unusual and tense social environment where a generation found themselves connected by a collective sense of medical potential and dread.
"Studying the crisis in finer detail over the last year, some 20 years on, has revealed to me the troubling - and pervasively lasting - effect these two brain diseases have had on our past, and on the future of international medical science, politics, culture and the wider society. It feels like the time is right for a reassessment."
The exhibition makes up one section of 'History Is Now: 7 artists take on Britain' (10 Feb-26 April 2015) at the Hayward Gallery, which will offer new perspectives on the nation’s recent past in the lead up to this year's general election. Six other artists are participating as guest curators - John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth, and Jane and Louise Wilson - and the projects will collectively reflect upon pivotal periods in British history from 1945 to the present day. The exhibition is part of Southbank Centre's Changing Britain 1945-2015 festival, running from 30 January to 9 May 2015.
Dr Cliff Lauson, Hayward Gallery Curator, explained: "History is Now will bring together original and unexpected groupings of objects that will shed new light on how we remember and reconsider our recent past. Roger Hiorns has used this opportunity to create a bold and unprecedented examination of a dark episode in recent British history; the story of BSE is a compelling and unsettling narrative that deserves to be told."