Big is beautiful

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Michael Clarke looks at the giant-sized work of Claes Oldenburg on show at London's South Bank.

Among the sculptor and graphic artist Claes Oldenburg's projects for monumental commonplace objects - cigarette butts, a three-pin plug, electric fan, split button or pick axe - there are several intended for sites in London.

Had funds and local governments permitted, a pair of giant knees on the Victoria Embankment, a colossal drill-bit in Piccadilly Circus, a couple of mammoth hats blowing down a street or just a few gigantic balls floating on the Thames would have fulfilled the Swedish-born artist's most far reaching ambitions and released some of his irreverent, sexy humour.

Oldenburg's earliest environmental work was "The Street" which recycled city detritus into fragmented images that he called "rips out of reality". "The Store", displayed in a disused shop window in 1962, used wire, muslin, plaster and gaudy paint to raise deliberately crudely-executed, bulgily-formed items of food, clothing and domestic utensils into consumer icons.

After a brief exploration of taut, hard-edged surfaces epitomised in "Bedroom Ensemble", Oldenburg, who became an American citizen in 1953 at the age of 24, began the long series of mostly very soft sculptures - typewriters, sandwiches, light switches, toilets and drum sets - on which his popularity rests. Using video records, this Hayward exhibition chronicles his career to date.

Suspended between the tongue-in-cheek jokiness and near megalomania are several other persistent characteristics. However instantly recognisable, the enlarged objects are always incomplete generalisations that repeatedly use fragmentation, such as "Crusoe Umbrella" cropped by the Hayward's walls and floor; inversion and reversal, each evident in the rigid, up-ended "Collar and Tie". Greatly anthropomorphised both in the generalised bodily way of "Soft Washstand" and the more specifically genital connotations (male and females of "Soft Saxaphone"), the objects often convey a self conscious, art-historical dimension; explicitly in the parody of Picasso's Chicago maquette and implicitly in "Clothespin", surely a burlesque of Brancusi's "The Kiss".

Beyond the investigation and making, or knowledge and understanding aspects of the national curriculum in art, the Hayward's indispensable pack for school visits identifies several other aspects of the curriculum in mathematics, science, English, design and technology. All are integrated into the recently regenerated education programme which extends into the summer holiday.

The giant house ball and costumes used in "The Course of The Knife" by Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen - on show in the Royal Festival Hall foyer - will be the starting point for "Bigmouth" story-telling sessions for under-twelves. It will also be the stimulus for a twice-daily interactive dance work, "Gigantic Tickles", with related workshops.

From June 22, a 12-month touring show of Oldenburg's "The Multiples Store" (each venue with its own education programme) opens in Middlesbrough where the monumental "Bottle of Notes" commemorating Captain Cook's voyages is permanently sited.

Claes Oldenburg: an anthology, Hayward Gallery, London SE1 until August 18. For details of the Hayward education programme telephone 0171 921 0951, for group visits 0171 960 4249. Touring exhibition information is available on 0171 921 0865

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