Hayward Gallery’s ambitious theme show

    Who should pop into my head as I wandered like a cloud through the Hayward’s foggy exploration of the minds of artists but that billowing French post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard? Yes, really. There was a time, a couple of decades back, when the views of this garrulous Gallic intellectual were popular reading among art critics. Indeed, they were de rigueur. Baudrillard wrote well about everything, but was particularly eloquent on jogging bottoms and tracksuits. Homing in on the shapelessness of modern leisurewear, he proposed the excellent theory that shapeless clothes reflected the shapeless and infantile minds of those who wore them. According to Baudrillard, the tracksuit is an adult version of a baby romper, because it offers no resistance to the wearer. As our society grows more infantile and less able to shape itself in an adult fashion, baggy and stretchy clothing is the kind that fits.

    Watching the audience at Tate Modern the other day, whooping and hollering around the re-created Robert Morris installation in the Turbine Hall, it occurred to me that everyone going in should be given rompers at the point of entry, thereby ensuring they are properly dressed for the Tate’s current standards of civilisation. One-size-fits-all stretchy leisurewear would also be appropriate apparel for the latest Hayward show, Walking in My Mind, which is supposed to be an exploration of the inner workings of the artistic imagination. Ten international artists have been given huge amounts of space in which to “immerse us in their thinking”. You can clamber through Thomas Hirschhorn’s cardboard re-creation of the Lascaux cave system. Or boing up and down in Yayoi Kusama’s giant bouncy castle decorated with polka dots. In both cases, a stretchy pink jumpsuit would be the ideal gallery wear.

    Walking in My Mind is the latest attempt by the Hayward to make itself the home of the ambitious theme show. Other galleries put on retrospectives or historical surveys; the Hayward is keen to prioritise the theme. The problem with themes, however, and the reason they are almost certainly the work of the devil, is that they are so damn stretchy and easy. Anything can be made into a theme. They require no proper study, no adult decision-making, no genuine learning or real conclusions. “My theme is the colour red: so let’s put lots of red things on show!” Themes are another aesthetic equivalent of the tracksuit: baggy, floppy, all-purpose leisurewear for the modern toddler-romper who wishes to avoid a shape.

    To make matters worse, there is a craze abroad right now for art without conclusions: shaggy-dog art. The current Venice Biennale overflows with it. It was also, alas, the subject of Altermodern, the grimly inconclusive Tate Triennial that recently closed. Shaggy-dog art is based on shapeless accumulations: tons and tons of stuff, gathered by the artist and displayed before us with precious little editing and no conclusions. On and on it goes, driven by the vain and hopeless opinion that everything the artist clasps is of some significance.

    There’s a classic example here by the profoundly untalented Jason Rhoades, who hailed from, yes, you guessed it, Los Angeles. Called The Creation Myth, Rhoades’s huge hoard of bric-a-brac is supposed to represent his way of thinking. It consists of a roomful of trestle tables overflowing with junk – electric parts, buckets, old TVs, tubing, piping, lighting – surrounded by an ugly ring of stuck-up hardcore porn. I, too, could go on and on about the contemporary acceptance of porn as a meaningful subject for art, but that is a lament that must wait for another day. What counts here is not the charmlessness of Rhoades’s imagery, but the sheer shapelessness of his installation, its desire to billow into every corner of the room. This is what brings Baud rillard’s romper wear to mind: the shockingly infantile lack of shape, the gimme-gimme gluttony of the desires, the total absence of control and conclusions.

    The second-worst pantsman on view here, Bo Christian Larsson from Sweden, has had his dire contribution stretched all the way up the Hayward’s staircase. Larsson, I read, possesses seven alter egos, all representing “different facets of his mind”. Each has been granted a portion of this installation. The leading alter ego, named Sonuvabitch, is a “constant hunter after inner visions… blinded by his own hair”. He is responsible for the whole thing. Other alter egos include the Poet, who can be found under the stairs reciting from Joyce’s Ulysses, and the Worldhater, “a melancholic, miserable complainer” who has hung thick rope over the balcony and whose views tally with mine. Somebody needs to grab Larsson by the shoulders and scream in his ear: “This is drivel.” He is never going to realise it on his own.

    Fortunately, once Rhoades and Larsson are out of the way, Walking in My Mind almost becomes a convincing event. The show’s opening is actually rather moving. The first artist we encounter, Yoshitomo Nara, presents a small wooden hut, outside which he has hung a sweet sign reading “Place Like Home”. Note the missing No. Inside the hut, the usual accumulation of toys, drawings and posters attempts the usual task of trying to indicate the artist’s inner life by cataloguing the contents of his first bedroom. In this case, though, there’s a tangible sadness to the faded childhood memories, and the weak warble of Leonard Cohen emanating from the little wooden hut completes a convincing resubmergence in Nara’s childhood loneliness.

    The other memorable Japanese exhibitor, Yayoi Kusama, has spent most of her life living in a mental home. When she was a girl, she began having visions of a world covered in polka dots, and her art has recalled them relentlessly ever since. For Kusama, the single polka dot represents her position in the cosmos. The sense she seeks to convey in her work of a seemingly endless sweep of dots, emanating in all directions, covering all surfaces, can therefore be understood as her self-portrait as a single atom. I also admired Pipilotti Rist’s light installation, in which bits of enlarged human anatomy – nipples, penises, mouths – zoom eerily about the cosmos like spaceships. Rist’s installation captures wonder fully the soaring sensation of a dream. Hirsch horn, meanwhile, does an exciting job of envisaging the human mind as a home-made tunnel system filled with strange clearings.

    What these adult contributors to the show achieve, and the others fail to, is a narrative worth following: a shape. Unedited confessional narratives need shaping for the same reason suits need a cut. I do not for a moment doubt that the human mind starts out as a jungle, but surely the process of growing up involves a certain amount of topiary?