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.
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.
At some point, all children copy adults. Admittedly, this doesn’t usually take the form of restaging a parent talking about their work, but that’s the basis of Hetain Patel’s To Dance Like Your Dad, a simple but effective video work shown at Frieze by Chatterjee and Lal. Shown on two screens, the work consists of Patel’s father showing us round his place of work and explaining what happens. Patel himself appears on the right hand screen, performing his father’s role in sync with the original. The parent and child relationship is seldom simple and while we may be fiercely proud of our parents they also have the capacity to embarrass. Here there is a sense of pride and respect in the act of restaging – and in filming Patel senior at work in the first place – but the notion of potential embarrassment is right there in the title. Dad dancing is generally not a good thing, after all.
Thinking back at work seen over the past few months obviously brings Frieze Art Fair back to mind and thinking about Paul Noble’s work in the Turner Prize 2012 exhibition has made me think about sculpture by someone who I mainly associate with two dimensional work, all of which brings me to Gillian Wearing. I’ve written about Wearing a couple of times on this blog (about her work with the confessions of others and the works for which she becomes other people) but I haven’t mentioned her sculpture, in the main because I find it less interesting, I think. Nonetheless, My Hand, shown at Frieze by Maureen Paley, has stayed in my thoughts for some reason and I now find myself wondering why I find this piece engaging.
Though the degree to which hair can disgust is undoubtedly lessened by being mediated through photography or print, it nonetheless has a certain hold for me at least. I think it’s the connection with fairy tales and a sense that it’s in some way magical. I know nothing of spells at all apart from the opening lines of Macbeth but there’s hair right there, as far as I recall, so my mind makes that connection whether or not it would be borne out by, you know, actually looking stuff up. And of course, hair can stand in for the body. And in this lithograph by Kiki Smith, I think I’d argue that it stands in for both the artist and the process of recording in that the hair becomes a kind of drawing. Indeed, in this image the hair is Smith’s; the print is one of a folio of work in which Smith used imprints and photocopies of parts of her hair, face and neck as the basis for making prints.