I’ve written about Francis Alÿs going for a walk here before (that time in the form of his Pradox of Praxisfor which he pushed a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City until all he had to show for his efforts was a rapidly drying water mark of the pavement) but this week, given the awful news from Gaza, it’s his 2004 work The Green Line: Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic that’s worked it’s way back into my mind.
I can’t pretend to have anything more than the most rudimentary understanding of the politics of the middle east but this is a work that at least helps with some basics by taking us back to the division of Jerusalem after the end of the Arab-Isreali war in 1948: the green line drawn on a map of the city by Moshe Dyan.
Ai Weiwei, Bang, 2013 (installation in the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale)
The first thing that confused me about the German Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale was that it was in France. Well, not France the actual country, but in France’s pavilion: the two countries swapped buildings for the 55th Venice Biennale as a cultural exchange. Walking into the building the first work on show – in a large central space that generally dictates the tone of anything shown there – was Bang, an installation made of an exploding forest of wooden three-legged stools by the not even a bit German artist (and subject of my last couple of posts) Ai Weiwei. What did it all mean?
Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (installation view, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, Venice as part of Disposition organised by Zuecca Projects and the Lisson Gallery)
Walking into a church in Venice and finding six large black crate-like boxes would be a fairly odd regardless but add couple of dozen other art lovers into the equation, wandering around the space and climbing on little black boxes to peer intently into the crates is a distinctly strange and somewhat unsettling experience. Like most churches in Venice, Chiesa di Sant’Antonin, a fourth century building extensively reworked in the Baroque style in the mid seventeenth century, has a rather ornate interior. The austere black boxes that dominate the floor of the space are an incongruous sight; once one gets beyond the immediate visual confusion, the context raises some interesting questions.
When the 54th Venice Biennale opened in June 2011, Ai Weiwei had been under arrest in China for two months, his absence as powerful a presence in the art world as his work. Museums and galleries rallied; petitions were signed, posters hung and badges worn. Banners questioning Ai’s whereabouts or calling for his release hung from the galleries that represented him; his Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads sculpture was on show in London and New York, the Sunflower Seeds had only recently gone from the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. In Venice, Ai was largely absent; he had no work at the Biennale and was scarcely mentioned in any official capacity.
Somewhat confusingly (and, some argued, insultingly), his absence was acknowledged as part of a collateral exhibition by a large sign which read, in four foot tall illuminated letters, ‘Bye bye Ai Weiwei’ positioned prominently on the waterfront on Giudecca island, an, at best, ill-judged work by artist Giuseppe Stampone. Cut forward two years and, though still not allowed to leave China, Ai’s presence was rather more apparent at the 2013 biennale. And this time we got to see his work, some of it in the very building that sign stood outside two years ago, the Zuecca Project Space.
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.