However one feels about Margaret Thatcher – and regular readers may by now suspect I’m not a fan – the ceremonial funeral seems like a contentious decision at the very least. Add to that the fact that it’s been discussed in the media as following the model of the funerals of Daina, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother and it becomes easy to see Thatcher as receiving the royal status she seemed to award her self when she announced “we have become a grandmother.” Which, to my mind at least, makes this a good day to write about Maggie Regina, Peter Kennard’s 1983 depiction of Margaret Thatcher as Queen Victoria.
Times change, that’s a given. There are several 1980s’ photo-books that make that very clear. Most, like Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, offer a reminder of the nature of the public spaces we inhabited; pictures of home life tell a different, albeit related, story. Nick Waplington’s Living Room, published in 1991, depicts family life on the Nottingham council estate that was also home to his grandparents. Waplington documented the daily lives of two families over a period of several years; the pictures in Living Room are from the late 1980s, roughly a decade in to Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. This is family life in a country where industry has collapsed and society declared non-existent by the Prime Minister.
Martin Parr, Election party aboard the SS Great Britain from The Cost of Living, 1986-9
The Britain of the 1980s wasn’t all about strikes and unemployment of course. There was another side to the story: just as there were the have-nots, so there were the haves. For some, Thatcher’s Britain was a comfortable place. The rich were, after all, getting richer. And with that, for those who belonged, came the social whirl of an entitled class at play. In fairness, it doesn’t look like much fun.
In The Cost of Living, Martin Parr captured the comfortable lives of the well-heeled revealing the degree to which one section of the population was cushioned from the day to day reality of life for the rest and the often grotesque of culture of wealth and upward mobility.
It was hardly the best of times. Thatcher’s Britain, the Britain of the 1980s, was a place where high unemployment met a government that, at best, didn’t care and the result was a sorry existence for the many for whom work was no more than a distant dream. But of course, this is Britain. We have the welfare state to care for us from cradle to grave, or so we thought.
Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, a series of photographs made in dole office waiting areas in 1984-85 – coincidentally, the time of the miners’ strike – makes for depressing viewing. There is a hopelessness that permeates every aspect of every picture: the spaces are grimly dehumanising; the posture of those who occupy them speaks volumes. There is a sense of resignation, of stalled lives.
As the media marks the death of Margaret Thatcher with blanket television coverage looking back at her time in office some familiar images are brought back to mind. But sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the memories: which of the images am I really recalling from the 1980s? In the case of the images of the 1983/4 miners’ strike, the boundaries between news footage and re-enactment are very blurry in my head. I remember the strike very well; I remember the marches and the benefit gigs, I remember throwing money into collection buckets every day on my way to and from work, probably with a ‘coal not dole’ badge on my coat, and I remember the news reports. At least, I think I do. But there’s a distinct possibility that some of that memory is somewhat second hand. The images of Orgreave that are so clear in my mind come not just from the news reports of the time, shocking though they were, but also from Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the event, filmed by Mike Figgis.
Bob Light and John Houston, Gone With The Wind, 1982
Artists and designers reuse existing images all the time; think collage, think appropriation. And there’s a long tradition of photomontage as a way to make a political point with a powerful visual simplicity that I fully expect to write about further in a later post. IN reworking of the poster for Gone With The Wind for the Socialist Worker, Bob Light and John Houston brought together an iconic film poster (Reagan, after all, had a former career in Hollywood, albeit as very much a B movie actor; he was certainly no Clark Gable) with the politics of the 1980s with both humour and a serious intent.
There are some days you think might never come. Frankly, recently, I was beginning to think that the day I got back to regular blogging might be one of them but I started today with a new determination. Then I got distracted and by the time I sat down to write I quite foray onto the interwebs provided me with both further distraction in the form of the the news that Margaret Thatcher is finally dead (for real this time, not just yet another Twitter rumour). To mark the occasion – and after the havoc she wreaked through my late teens and twenties, it does need to be marked (and yes, I’d be dusting off my copy of Spike: the Beloved Entertainer if only I had a record deck that worked) – it seems pertinent to write about Marcus Harvey’s Maggie.
Marcus Harvey is undoubtedly best known for another controversial portrait: Myra, a picture of Myra Hindley made using children’s handprints (well, prints from plaster cast hands), caused untold furore when it was shown at the Royal Academy in the Sensation exhibition. His painting Maggie, made nearly a decade and a half later, is rather less well known but equally striking. In my head at least, they are companion pieces: both large scale, black and white paintings made from images widely reproduced in the press and both – arguably, and here I concede there is a difference – portraits of, well, if not actually evil, then of women whose lives one would wish had followed a different path.
Bob and Roberta Smith knows how to make a point. In the exhibition The Art Party USA Comes to the UK at Hales Gallery at the moment (okay, not for much longer but there’s still a chance to catch the show if you’re quick), he’s in full-on soap box mode – he’s even made his own soap boxes for the occasion – in a bid to entice us to join the Art Party of the USA. The starting point for the Art Party was Bob and Roberta Smith’s May 2011 letter to Michael Gove, which he published to encourage others to write in to emphasise the importance of art in the school curriculum. Not a political party in any traditional sense, according to the website in order to join one simply needs to “make some art and encourage others to do so!”
Though David Černý’s work may at first seem to be all about the visual joke, his sculptures often do make a political point. Given the artist’s reluctance to talk about his work and what his intended meaning for it might be, it can require a bit of knowledge and/or research to get to the heart of the matter. For me a case in point is the sculpture Quo Vadis, a Trabant on legs, that I encountered quite by accident in Prague. (Had I done my research before visiting Prague I might have planned a walk through the city to find more of Černý’s public sculptures; as it is, well, maybe I’ll get back there and follow the Černý sculpture trail at some point.) Anyway, while a bit lost, I ended up looking through a fence into the garden of the German Embassy, intrigued by the sight of a car on legs. That the car in question was a Trabant – a cheaply produced East German car, with a fibreglass body – was a clue.
It’s possible for text to become meaningless shapes when we’re too close to it, especially if it’s written in an unfamiliar script. At first glance, maybe even to those who read Mandarin, the colourful wall of the Haus der Kunst Museum in Munich which faced visitors to Ai Weiwei’s 2009 exhibition So Sorry, might have seemed more like a cheerful pattern rather than the poignant words of a grieving mother. The colour palette of red, yellow, green and blue is more redolent of children’s books than works of art and certainly doesn’t immediately suggest a memorial. Look closer and it’s clear that the building blocks of the banner are brightly coloured backpacks, the sort that children often use as school bags. But this is a work that needs an explanation.