Poetry and Politics: Francis Alÿs’s The Green Line

Francis Alÿs, The Green Line, 2004

Francis Alÿs, The Green Line, 2004

I’ve written about Francis Alÿs going for a walk here before (that time in the form of his Pradox of Praxis for 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.

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An explosion of seating – nowhere to sit

Ai Weiwei, Bang, 2013 (installation in the German Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale)

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?

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Watching them, watching him

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2013 (installation view,  Sant'Antonin Church)

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.

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Straight talking

Ai Weiwei, Straight, 2012 (installed at Zuecca Project Space, Venice, 2013)

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.

Guiseppe Sampone Zuecca Project Space 2011 crop

Guiseppe Stampone, Bye Bye Ai Weiwei, outside Zuecca Project Space, 2011

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.

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Pomp and ceremony

Peter Kennard, Maggie Regina, 1983

Peter Kennard, Maggie Regina, 1983

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.

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Living

Nick Waplington, from the series Living Room

Nick Waplington, from Living Room, published 1991

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.

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Entitled

Martin Parr, Election Party on board the SS Great Britain, 1988

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.

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