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Art Imitating Life: Duane Hanson at the Serpentine

6 July 2015

‘Look, he’s got your t-shirt on Dave.’

‘Oh yeah, look’ Dave grins, turns from the woman I presume is his wife and opens his denim jacket to show me his t-shirt which does indeed have the same Fila logo as the workman in Duane Hanson’s Lunchbreak (1989), part of the current exhibition at the Serpentine’s Sackler Galleries. I moved out of the way so Dave could pose for a photo alongside the life-sized model of a builder leaning on some scaffolding.

(1990/94), Duane Hanson. Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Flea Market Lady (1990/94), Duane Hanson. Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery © Luke Hayes

Hanson’s work does look amazingly lifelike: as I was looking at a sculpture of an elderly couple sitting on a bench, the visitor standing next to me told me she kept expecting them to move. So did I. At a glance their stillness isn’t even a problem. These aren’t renaissance figures engaged in wrestling a snake, they’re ordinary people taking a rest from mundane tasks like mowing their lawn.

With the total lack of barriers between artwork and viewer there’s sometimes little reason to presume certain especially contemplative visitors are not also artworks, or that the lonely baby in a pushchair hasn’t been abandoned by a visitor whose love for art has overwhelmed their parental instincts (it hasn’t, it’s a sculpture). The gallery attendants seemed especially practised in smiling politely when people joke that they also might be artworks – this happened five or six times during my visit.

Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Baby in Stroller (1995) and Children Playing Game (1979) Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery © John Offenbach

‘Hey, he looks like my old mate Gary. Hey Gary!’ I ran into Dave again on my second trip around the small exhibition space. He was waving at a man sitting on a wooden box holding a sign saying ‘Will work for food’ (another artwork, Homeless Person, rather than a member of staff).

Most people, Dave included, seemed to have enjoyed their visit to the gallery. They pose alongside works, talk to them, and post photos on Instagram (‘#duanehanson’). The ‘I could have done that’ factor, which prevents so much contemporary art from being widely accepted and engaged with, doesn’t apply here: Hanson’s skill in creating these sculptures is admirable.

Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery © Luke Hayes

The artist understood the value of his craft and utilised it to make artworks entirely suited to a public gallery in the middle of London’s main park. ‘For me, realism is only a means to an end – a challenge to communicate my ideas and feelings about the world in which we live.’ … ‘Those of mostly ordinary people of the lower-class, working type who face the daily hardships life creates: a sense of alienation, forlornness, fatigue and frustration, which all of us have faced from time to time.’

‘Duane Hanson’ is at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, until 13 September.

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