Nick Hackworth

Give and Take, Serpentine Gallery/Victoria & Albert Museum

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

The most stunning moment in this exhibition comes when the viewer turns the corner into the V&A’s sculpture gallery and is presented, in the foreground, with what is clearly a new and finely carved life-size figure of a female amputee. In the background, Antonio Canova’s Three Graces hug in smug mutual appreciation of their idealised female charms. In the stark whiteness of their new marble and their ambivalent depiction of, for want of a better word, deformity, Marc Quinn’s sculptures gently violate the classical assumptions about beauty which permeate the pieces around them. That, of course, is exactly what this exhibition, a collaboration between the V&A and the Serpentine Gallery, is about; the juxtaposition of the old with the new in order to bring fresh perspective to both.

At the V&A, Lisa Corrin, chief curator at the Serpentine has placed the work of 15 contemporary artists, such as Marc Quinn, in the company of exhibits which both affect and are affected by the contemporary work.

Meanwhile, in the Serpentine, Hans Haacke, a prominent German conceptual artist, has appropriated more than 200 items from the V&A’s collection and rearranged them into an installation that occupies the entire gallery. Inevitably, it is the V&A’s half of the exhibition which is the most powerful, where the contemporary work disturbs the complacency with which we normally view museum exhibits.

Another highlight is the dialogue between the large, glossy photos of Andres Serrano and the exhibits of the Medieval European gallery. His gory subject matter — decomposing corpses and cows’ heads — helps to recreate a flavour of the visceral mentality that largely informed the medieval mindset, a sense that would otherwise be absent from this collection of objects shorn of emotive power within the sterile confines of their neon-lit vitrines. Haacke’s installation at the Serpentine, by contrast, is a little powerless, a random collection, largely of Victoriana, which is simply rendered absurd by lack of context and narrative thread.

Overall, however, the exhibition is a great success.

Ends 1 April.